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MLN 119.1 Supplement (2004) S120-S141

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The Myth of Prometheus in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron

Susanna Barsella
The Johns Hopkins University

In his article "La Dignitas hominis e la letteratura Patristica"—a "too often neglected article," as Charles Trinkaus holds in In Our Image and Likeness—Eugenio Garin showed that humanist spirituality took new inspiration from Early Church Fathers such as Nemesius of Emesa, Arnobius, and Lactantius. Before Garin, Renaissance scholars had stressed the spiritual character of Humanism and its focus on the philosophy of man. 1 The humanists' predominant interest in moral philosophy and theological anthropology led them to recover the Patristic tradition, for in this tradition the questioning about the nature of man and his function in the cosmos had been pivotal. The Fathers had cast the Christian idea of the Incarnated God in the Judaic theological anthropology, which was based on the biblical narration of the Creation of man in God's image (Gen. 1.27). Their vision, as Garin argues, combined conceit for the frailty of human [End Page S120] nature and exaltation for the divine imprint man bears in his soul. 2 Like the early Fathers, the humanists were a product of a civic culture, committed to the social and political lives of their cities and, like them, seeking to reconcile Christian ideals and secular world. In this ideal of Christian civilization, the poet's intellectual and educative role was determinant for the construction of a just and pious society. The humanists' recovery of both Patristics and classical antiquity, including the encyclopedic compilations of mythological repertoires such as Boccaccio's Genealogie deorum gentilium, should be considered against this backdrop, where the poet was conceived of as a moral philosopher.

In reaction to the late Scholastics' separation of reason and Revelation, "Aristotle and the Bible"—to use Garin's words—the early Florentine humanists saw in the synthesis of the Fathers' spirituality with a mysticism of Neo-Platonic origins, a way to reconcile classical and Christian traditions. These humanists, says Garin, elaborated on Patristic themes by using religious rather than classical motives, so that Adam and not Prometheus symbolized their idea of Man-God. 3 Only later in the Renaissance the heirs of Giannozzo Manetti, Bartolomeo Facio, Lorenzo Valla, and Giovanni Pico reintroduced and reappropriated classical materials and used the image of [End Page S121] Prometheus to "break the religious circle in which Cusano and the Florentine Academy had tried to confine the concept of humanity." 4

This article makes two points: first, that the research for a unity of what Garin called docta religio (the spiritual religion) and pia philosophia (the philosophy of man) was already present in an early-humanist author, the most famous of Petrarch's friends, Giovanni Boccaccio. 5 Second, that Boccaccio, before the humanists of the '400, and influencing them, had already tried to reconcile Christian and classical thoughts through the recovery of Patristic theology. Unlike them, however, he did elaborate on classical motives, combining both pagan and Christian materials in a renovated spiritual union of religion and poetry. In Boccaccio, the poets' educative function consisted in encasing the worldly commitment to the construction of a just society within a Christian superstructure. 6 His innovative views eminently emerge in his conception of the poet-philosopher, which appears in all his challenging originality in Boccaccio's reinterpretation of the myth of Prometheus as a myth of civilization. In the Titan who presented men with the divine gift of fire to save them from extinction, the author of the Decameron realized a sort of christening of classical mythology. This was, after all, the goal of one of his most compelling works, the Genealogie deorum gentilium, where the myth is expounded. 7 This version of the myth, centered on the humanizing power of knowledge, permeates the Decameron.

The discovery of an intratextual dialogue between these two major Boccaccio's works is not surprising if we take into account that [End Page S122] Boccaccio worked on both in parallel for several years, and continued to revise both of them until the end...