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  • Pyrrhus’ Rules: Playing with Power from Boccaccio to Machiavelli
  • Albert Russell Ascoli

In the frame-tale of the Decameron, Boccaccio elaborates a utopian political, and ethical, order, which seems to realize in ideal form the mixed egalitarian and hierarchical tendencies of Florentine communal politics: the group of seven young women and three young men embraces the need for a monarchical rule from above, but then establishes the principle that each will occupy that office for a single day. 1 The egalitarian tendency extends into the dimension of gender roles as well. The community is founded and dominated by women, and its laws are provided by Pampinea, the Moses or Numa of the lieta brigata, although female empowerment is qualified, at least verbally, by explicit recognition of the traditional Pauline notion that man is the head of woman [I.intro., par. 74–76]. On the other hand, the normative hierarchies that separate upper from lower class, masters from servants, remain unmodified in the little world Pampinea founds: the brigata’s life of ease is underwritten by the presence of a number of male and female servants, who, with one important exception on which I will comment later, remain in the background, performing their appointed tasks. The successes of this ideal political [End Page 14] order are obvious: the system installed by Pampinea functions undisturbed throughout the fourteen day duration of the community; moreover, this social configuration apparently sustains an unexceptionable moral order. In particular, despite obvious temptations of circumstance (and continuous narrative incitements), the women and men alike remain sexually chaste, leading lives of temperance and balance, as even Dioneo, the spokesperson of venereal excess in the book, testifies: “. . . la nostra brigata, dal primo dì infino a questa ora [the evening of Day VI] stata onestissima, per cosa che detta ci si sia non mi pare che in atto alcuno si sia maculata né si maculerà con l’aiuto di Dio” [VI. concl., par. 11]. 2

This situation persists, as all readers of the Decameron know, despite pressures from all sides toward the inversion and even the collapse of political structures and moral values. Externally and historically, of course, is the plague, which breaks down all forms of hierarchy (servants and masters, men and women) and encourages the most flagrant violations of normative moral codes. Internally, on the other hand, are many of the stories told by the members of the community, which more often than not subvert or invert political authorities, social hierarchies, and/or moral strictures (with the further implication that in the telling of these stories the tellers are betraying a profound inward resistance to the order they outwardly embrace: the resistance of imagination). Dioneo points to the conjunction of internal and external pressures on the group in the same passage where he asserts the brigata’s “honesty”: “. . . il tempo è tale che, guardandosi e gli uomini e le donne di operare disonestamente, ogni ragionare è conceduto. Or non sapete voi che, per la perversità di questa stagione [of the plague], li giudici hanno lasciati i tribunali)? le leggi, cosí le divine come le umane, tacciono? e ampia licenzia per conservar la vita è conceduta a ciascuno?” [par. 8–9]. 3

Nonetheless, even as Dioneo swears to the moral integrity of the group, and defines the threats which surround it, he is assuming kingship over it, and proposing to import the moral and political disorder from the historical and fictional worlds which bracket their experience into the heart of the community itself, as, after all, he has done from the beginning of their stay. Dioneo, of course, has a [End Page 15] standing exemption to the rule that one should tell stories that conform to a general topic set by the Queen or King [I.concl., par. 12–14], and the stories he tells usually are those that strike hardest at the normative moral and spiritual order. On the other hand, as has often been remarked, Dioneo’s claims to be a kind of “lord of misrule,” are tempered by the fact that his privilege is granted and sustained by the community, and that his verbal hedonism never seems to spill over into the realm of deeds. He, in the end...

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pp. 14-57
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