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Boccaccio's Hellenism and the Foundations of Modernity

From: Mediaevalia
Volume 33, 2012
pp. 101-167 | 10.1353/mdi.2012.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Boccaccio's Hellenism and the Foundations of Modernity

The first sentence of the final book of Giovanni Boccaccio's Genealogie Deorum Gentilium defines the way we should conceive of the importance of the previous thirteen books on Greco-Roman myth and the defense of poetry in Book Fourteen:

Fundavi, serenissime rex, quibus potui armamentis hinc inde naviculam, ne estu procellosi maris aut ventorum adverso impetu pelleretur in litus, et illisa ruptis compagibus solveretur.

[I have now secured (fundavi) my little bark (navicula), O most clement King, by such means as I could, for fear she should be driven ashore by the wash of a stormy sea or the counterforce of the wind, with joints sprung and timbers crushed.]1

The first word of this sentence, fundavi, from fundare, "to found, establish, or secure," expresses precisely what Boccaccio has done in his treatise and what he completes in the fifteenth book: he has founded and secured a fully articulated cultural project. The imagery of this final proem is the same as that of the earlier books: his study is presented metaphorically as a navicula, or "bark," and Boccaccio himself as a traveler, as he crosses the sea of time and space that separates him from antiquity. Following the letter of his metaphor, Boccaccio has just anchored his ship, securing it against the waves and winds of fortune and envy. Looking more closely, though, it is clear that he thinks to have founded something new with his study, even if only on the instability of the sea. In the self-defense that makes up Book Fifteen, Boccaccio will go on to set the terms for his own version of the recovery of ancient culture, which is founded on the privileging of Greek sources and on the coexistence of Greek, Latin, and the vernacular in a cosmopolitan cultural network,2 whose openness is its richest virtue. [End Page 101]

The self-defense has been consistently read as a historical defense against the attacks Boccaccio might have suffered as author of a text on pagan gods,3 but Vittorio Zaccaria, among many others, has noticed that the insertion of Greek poetry into the Genealogie was Boccaccio's most important innovation, a self-conscious act of novelty, which he defends in Chapter Seven of Book Fifteen.4 It was not a mere novelty for novelty's sake, but rather the foundational event that underlies Boccaccio's cosmopolitan vision for the recovery of ancient culture in the Genealogie. By giving precedence to Hellenic culture, Boccaccio sees the Latinity of ancient Rome and its rebirth in fourteenth-century Italy as developments of a much older tradition that descends from primitive myths. Although Boccaccio tried to learn Greek late in life in order to read Homer, since his actual knowledge of the Greek language remained extremely limited, he engaged with Greek culture primarily through modern Greek scholars such as Leontius Pilatus, who provided him with an interlinear Latin translation of Homer's two poems, and Barlaam of Seminara, whom he held as an expert on the Hellenic world, and through other philhellenic Latins, such as Paolo da Perugia and Theodontius.5 Boccaccio's Hellenism, derived both from direct and indirect knowledge of the Greek language and culture, was not only the foundation of his perspective on the past, but also the basis for his defense of novitas, or modernity, tout court, from Greek and Arab science to vernacular poetry.6 In this sense, then, Boccaccio's openness to Greek culture, both scientific and poetic, along with the commentary tradition through which it was known in Latin Europe, starkly contrasts with Petrarch's direct and exclusive engagement with the Roman world.7

The project of cultural renewal at the heart of the Genealogie has generally been read, however, as the result of a turn in Boccaccio's career toward Petrarchan Latinity.8 In order to appreciate Boccaccio's foundational defense of the work and its novelty, we must consider the Genealogie in the light of Petrarch's project of renewing Roman culture. Both Petrarch and Boccaccio are interested in the recovery of the ancient past for the purposes of the present and future, but they are separated...