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Reviewed by:
  • Stratigrafie Decameroniane
  • Tobias Foster Gittes
Simone Marchesi . Stratigrafie Decameroniane. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2004. xxii + 154 pp. + 2 b/w pls. index. tbls. €19. ISBN: 88-222-5403-1.

It is a measure of Boccaccio's technical brilliance that many readers, dazzled by his vigorous prose and seductive plots, are entirely oblivious to the rigor of his method: art, in the Decameron, truly hides art. Readers more familiar with Boccaccio's literary sources have described him as a literary mosaicist, a poet who works the structural or thematic tesserae of his source texts into a new composition through a sort of arte combinatoria.

In his absorbing new study, Simone Marchesi goes one step further in disclosing the art hidden by Boccaccio's art: like an ultraviolet light playing over a palimpsest, Marchesi's scrupulous analysis sets out to reveal the mosaics beneath the mosaic. Behind the relatively accessible patterns of allusion in many passages of the Decameron, Marchesi distinguishes delicate webs of more subtle allusions: coherent systems of textual references directed, he maintains, to distinct strata of the reading public. Each of the five chapters in Marchesi's book traces the contours and explores the implications of these hidden strata of the Decameron: allusions to Livy's Ab urbe condita are discovered in the plague description of the Decameron's introduction; a passage from Aristotle's Rhetoric clarifies Boccaccio's enigmatic classification of his novelle; strains of Horace's Satire 1.4 are discerned in the poetic apologia of the introduction to day 4; the lovelorn Lisabetta of 4.5 is anatomized to reveal a fascinating array of Didos (historical and poetical); beneath Calandrino's frivolous antics is disclosed a serious debate about procreation and abstention from sex rooted in the texts of Ovid, Augustine, Jerome, and Ecclesiastes.

Only too aware that verbal constructions tend to self-replicate, often creating the illusion of influence where none is likely (or even possible), Marchesi is careful [End Page 133] to base his arguments on those passages where a sustained pattern of structural coincidence is further reinforced by an ideological consistency. Still, he is of necessity building his arguments on a foundation of purely circumstantial evidence, and even the philological sophistication of his interpretations cannot cancel the lingering suspicion that some of his arguments are a bit tendentious or strained. On the whole, however, initial skepticism quickly cedes to curiosity and even conviction as the scattered fragments drawn from various texts are brought, in quick succession, before the reader's eyes. Each chapter is an exciting foray into the uncharted space between texts: the subtlest verbal echo can become the Ariadne's thread leading to another textual source and another stratum of signification. Importantly, Marchesi's quest does not end, but only begins, with the identification of a source; his main concern is to explore how this newly discovered source enhances our understanding of Boccaccio's text.

The identification of Aristotle's Rhetoric as an intertext for Boccaccio's Decameron proem generates the vital insight that Boccaccio's exemplary method is not modeled on medieval homiletic with its neat ethical prescriptions, but on the more open-ended exemplum of the classical tradition, one that assigns moral choice and accountability to the subject. Similarly, the discovery that Boccaccio's apologia in the introduction to day 4 may owe something to Horace's Satire 1.4 is not simply a curious footnote, but allows Marchesi to conclude that the apologia is a variety of pedagogical manifesto, a demonstration of the failure of education by precept and a testament to the didactic power of empirical exempla (Marchesi's thesis is tantalizing for another reason: if Satire 1.4 were indeed a literary model for the apologia, this would go a long way in settling, once and for all, the vexed question of whether the defense is preemptive or post factum, rhetorical or real.)

The conjecture that Boccaccio's Lisabetta represents a synthesis of Virgil's and Jerome's Didos evolves into a fascinating discussion of the centuries-long controversy regarding the relative merits of the historical and poetic versions of Dido — a debate with social and moral implications that extend well beyond the insular...


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pp. 133-135
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Archived 2009
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