Some critical questions about the Corbaccio

The meaning of the title

The exact significance of the title by which this work has come to be known remains a mystery. The word 'corbaccio' does not occur anywhere in the text; and thus editors and scholars have been free to surmise about Boccaccio's intentions. For a long time the work was also known by other names: the first printed edition rejoices in the splendid expository title Inuectiua di Messer Giouanni Boccaccio cōtra una maluagia dōna. Decto laberinto damore et altrimente il Corbaccio, per B. di Francesco [Bartolommeo di Libri], Firenze, 1487. [British Library, C. 6. a. 11. (2).] The title 'Labyrinth of love' is derived from a passage in the text, where the Guide describes their location:
'Questo luogo è da varii variamente chiamato; e ciascuno il chiamo bene: alcuni il chiamano "il labirinto d'amore", e assai "il porcile di Venere", e molti "la valle de' sospiri e della miseria"' (§57).
'This place is given different names by different people, and each one is correct. Some call it the "Labyrinth of Love," and others the "Enchanted Valley," and a good number the "Pigsty of Venus," and many the "Valley of Sighs and Woe" (Cassell's translation).

Many derivations have been suggested for the word corbaccio: the Latin word corbis (Italian corba, meaning 'trap'); Italian corbo or corvo (a crow); and the Spanish corbacho (whip, scourge). The pejorative suffix -accio would thus serve to reinforce the negative aspects of any of these words. It is not clear to whom the title refers: depending on which derivation is preferred, it may allude to carnal love, the trick played by the widow on the narrator; the figure of the widow herself; or the antifeminist invective. It has even been suggested that corbaccio is a near-anagram of Boccaccio, and thus may refer to the author. The question of the title is exhaustively explored by practically everyone who writes on the Corbaccio, and there is an extensive bibliography on the subject.
[relevant bibliography here]

The question of autobiography

Another recurring discussion is the question of how far the Corbaccio should be read as an autobiographical text. Bizarre as this may seem in the current critical climate, this view was the principle interpretative viewpoint for a long time, and is still held by some scholars. The spectrum of interpretative opinion which has been applied to the Corbaccio can perhaps best be visualized as a line which runs from a reported autobiographical account at one end, through an imagined realistic experience in the middle, and a self-aware manipulation of literary forms at the other end. During the past century, the pointer has swung from positivistic, autobiographical, interpretations to structuralist or post-modern interpretations of the text; no doubt the critical consensus will swing back in the future. There are very few certainties with regard to the motivations of this text; however, one is that the pseudo-autobiographical pose is a constant in Boccaccio from his first fiction (the Caccia di Diana) onwards, and thus there is no particular reason to see the Corbaccio as a personal memoir inspired by a real-life romantic rejection. To summarize the main critical standpoints, Italian scholars tend to favour theories of autobiographical motivation (see, for example, Marti, Padoan, Bruni); while American and British scholars have focussed more on situating the Corbaccio within various literary genres, and have considered the instability of the text as evidence of its non-realistic nature (see Barricelli, Hollander, Psaki, Armstrong).
[relevant bibliography here]

The date of composition

The question of the date of composition is closely related to that of the supposed autobiografismo of the text. Some critics are convinced of a dating in the 1350s and others of the 1360s. The situation is complex because of the absolute lack of any material evidence which might establish even an approximate dating. Until the twentieth century, the consensus for the date of composition leant towards the mid-1350s, based on the passage in the text when the Guide refers to the age of the Narrator:
'Primieramente la tua età: la quale, se le tempie giĆ  bianche e la canuta barba non mi ingannano, tu dovresti avere li costumi del mondo, fuor delle fascie già sono degli anni quaranta, e già venticinque cominciatili a conoscere (§119).
'And first your age: if your temples already white and your grizzled beard do not deceive me, you, now some forty years out of swaddling clothes, should know the ways of the world - it is now twenty-five years since you began to learn them' (Cassell's translation).

This dating is based on a simple calculation: the forty years mentioned by the Guide are added to Boccaccio's supposed birthdate in 1313, making the dating 1353. Other scholars have modified slightly this dating, with ingenious theories based on such factors as the length of time a child spent in swaddling clothes in the Trecento; the date of Boccaccio's departure for Naples; or the start of the Florentine New Year. The major problem with these efforts at dating the work is the identification of the author with the Narrator of the texts, and the further implied assumption of a chronological connection between the time-scale of the book and the events of Boccaccio's life. Boccaccio is certainly presenting his personaggio as a man of around forty years of age, but it does not necessarily follow that the work was written when he was that age. It is as implausible as deducing that the Commedia was written in 1300 because Dante (born in 1265) refers to 'il mezzo del cammin di nostra vita'.

Padoan's later dating of the mid-1360s is based on a system of textual references within the Corbaccio, in relation to historical events and to Boccaccio's other works. He believes that the Corbaccio is much more akin in tone and moral outlook to Boccaccio's later, non-fiction works (such as the Genealogia, the De casibus, the De mulieribus, and the Esposizioni), and therefore should be dated near these works in the 1360s, or even 1370s. Boccaccio scholars have largely accepted Padoan's dating of the mid-1360s, although it has not been universally acknowledged. For example, Hollander devotes much space to a discussion of the question of dating (and Padoan's theories) in Boccaccio's Last Fiction, and settles for a dating in the early to mid-1350s. We do not offer a suggestion for the dating on our site, but merely observe that it was Boccaccio's practice to work and rework his texts again and again during his life. It is thus not inconceivable that a work composed originally in the 1350s might acquire additional features characteristic of his later work.
[relevant bibliography here]

Sources for the Corbaccio

In the Corbaccio, Boccaccio demonstrates his familiarity with the canon of classical and medieval antifeminist texts, and succeeds in creating what is practically an encyclopaedia of the genre. It would be impossible here to give anything but a brief overview of this infamous literary tradition; interested readers are directed to Alcuin Blamires' excellent anthology Woman Defamed and Woman Defended (Oxford: OUP, 1992), for more information and bibliography. The following notes are based on his introduction to the texts.

It seems almost as though antifeminist writing has been around as long as writing itself. Elements of what would become its key contentions can be found in ancient Judaic law, Greek poetry, and the concepts of Greek physiology. Aristotle, for example, formulated the enduring dichotomy between man and woman as soul versus body, or form versus matter. The inferred inherent superiority of male over female was reinforced by medical treatises which justified woman's inferiority through physiological theories which considered woman a 'defective' male, unable to reach male standards of perfection due to menstruation. These highly influential texts would permeate every aspect of written culture, in matters medical, legal, and most importantly in the medieval period, theological. Women's supposed inferiority was thus institutionalized in society, and the Christian Church was by far the most important element in this.

However, the misogynist texts to which Boccaccio alludes in the Corbaccio are by no means all religious. Ovid predates the Christian era, and Juvenal, (the main source for some of the most scurrilous parts of the antifeminist invective), was not writing in that tradition. Boccaccio also shows awareness of the writings of the Church Fathers such as St Jerome, and medieval misogynists such as Walter Map and Jean de Meun. Of course, since this is Boccaccio, he blends his canonical sources with other writers to create his peculiarly original and entertaining treatise. The Corbaccio shows elements of several vernacular genres, such as the prophetic dream-vision; the romance narrative; and the Dantean journey into the afterlife. Links have been provided to online texts of some of the major sources where available.
[relevant bibliography here]


Other Pages in Introduction to the Corbaccio