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  • Boccaccio’s Neapolitan Letter and Multilingualism in Angevin Naples
  • Charmaine Lee

In Decameron 3.6.4, Boccaccio describes Naples as a “città antichissima e forse così dilettevole, o più, come ne sia alcuna altra in Italia [ancient city… which is perhaps as delectable a city as any to be found in Italy],” thus expressing his admiration for the city he lived in as a young man.1 His years in Naples (1327–1340/41) were to influence most of his work from the Caccia di Diana (1334–37) to De casi­ bus virorum illustrium, which was dedicated to Mainardo Cavalcanti, military commander of the Duchy of Amalfi, and, on his final visit to Naples in 1370–71, he gave a copy of the Genealogie deorum gen­ tilium, a work in part based on texts he had consulted in Robert’s library, to his Neapolitan friend Pietro Piccolo da Monteforte, who read it and made suggestions that were included in the following version.2 Moreover, for much of his life after his return to Florence in 1340/41, Boccaccio attempted to obtain a position at the court in Naples, though when he was finally offered that of court poet by Joanna I and her third husband, James of Majorca, in 1370, he turned it down.

So, Boccaccio’s works show that he had assimilated Neapolitan culture, but none more so than his so-called Neapolitan letter (Epistola napoletana), sometimes given the title La Machinta in the manuscripts.3 Written around 1339 and addressed to Francesco de’ Bardi, who is said to have been living in Gaeta at the time, the letter celebrates the birth of a baby to a woman called Machinti, the father of whom is purported to be Bardi himself. It is made up of two parts, a first “letter of presentation”4 in a formal style in Tuscan, and a second “che noi per diporto di noi medesimi ti scriviamo [which we are writing to you for our own amusement]” (437), written in the Neapolitan vernacular.

The letter is transmitted by thirty-nine manuscripts. On the whole, it has been studied by scholars of the history of Italian, [End Page 7] especially scholars from southern Italy, because it stands as an exceptional example of Neapolitan dialect for the time and, moreover, of apparently spoken Neapolitan—at least this has been the common opinion since Sabatini’s study in 1983.5 However, contrary to this view, I believe it would be wiser to consider it a stylized oral text, for it is now accepted that Boccaccio wrote at least two redactions, so it cannot technically be defined as an example of spontaneous speech. Indeed, the letter has also been described as a first example of literature in dialect, a category that only really came into being after the sixteenth century once a literary standard Italian had been formed and recourse to dialect in literary texts became a conscious stylistic choice.6

In many ways, the letter anticipates the Decameron in that it is a comic tale imitating spoken language with recourse to dialect forms, framed by a text in Tuscan prose (the letter of presentation) in the Latinate style that characterizes much of Boccaccio’s writing. As in the Decameron, the protagonists of the tale are contemporaries, here living and working in Naples: the Bardi family of Florentine bankers, Martucello Borcano (the Vulcano were an aristocratic family), Pietro dellu Canaiano (Pietro Canigiano from Florence), and judice Barillo (Giovanni Barrili, a member of the Neapolitan nobility who held important positions at court and was a friend both of Boccaccio and Petrarch). Whether the other people mentioned are historical or not has still to be ascertained. Boccaccio himself features in the letter in two guises reflecting two different personae, two ideal images of himself. He is the author of the letter, Jannetta de Parisse (Giovanni from Paris), fueling the myth of his being born in France, but he is also the intellectual, abbate Ja’ Boccaccio, who “nìn juorno, nì notte perzì, fa schitto ca scribere,” spends all his time studying. The latter would be the Giovanni who frequented Robert’s library, rather than the one from Paris who enjoyed life...


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