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  • Scienze della cittadeRhetoric and Politics in the Sixth Day of the Decameron
  • Ronald Martinez

Boccaccio’s Day 6 is a “mercurial” day, not only in its display of effective use of the spoken word, as befits Mercury’s status as messenger and speaker, so often reiterated in the Genealogie deorum gentilium,1 but also in the influence of the mercurial horoscope on human ingenuity:2 from mechanical skills such as cookery, three times represented in the day (Cisti, Chichibìo, and La Nuta), to the arts of grammar (Forese’s abicì), the art of preaching (Fra Cipolla), and the art of storytelling (Madonna Oretta), to activities reliant on the trivium such as law (Forese, the trial of Monna Filippa), and a newly prestigious artisanal occupation, painting (Giotto).3 Even illicit “arts” such as the counterfeiting by gilding of the silver coins (popolini d’ariento) by Diego della Ratta to pay for the seduction of a Florentine wife in the third tale of the day might be fitted under this rubric.4 A traditional account of the arts such as Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon subordinates even the mechanical arts (of which there are seven, like the arts of the trivium and quadrivium) to eloquence, “for every human activity is servant to eloquence wed to wisdom.”5 Hugh’s insistence on the close interrelation of eloquence and commerce likely impressed Boccaccio, who enumerated Mercury’s skills as a negotiator in the Genealogie, and whose Decameron was branded a “merchant epic” by Vittore Branca.6

From Boccaccio’s design of deploying with some completeness a range of human activities in the sixth day stimulated by Mercurial ingegno, this essay will underline as especially fundamental to Boccaccio’s conception two arts viewed in the Trecento as closely related: rhetoric and the art of governance, or, more broadly, politics. For, as Virginia Cox and Stephen Milner have emphasized, one of the epochal shifts in the use of rhetoric in the late Middle Ages is [End Page 57] the application of Cicero’s rhetorical training to the deliberations of the Italian city republics.7 Cicero’s De Inventione, probably the most influential rhetorical manual of the late Middle Ages, begins by affirming that orators established the first cooperative human communities (1.1–4), and takes as its premise that the arts of discourse are a major part of the art of government. Thus, for Brunetto Latini in the Rettorica, Brunetto’s partial translation of the De Inventione, rhetoric is one of the “sciences of the city” (scienze delle cittadi; Rett. 17, 28). In Brunetto’s Tresor, where rhetoric is placed in relation to politics in light of the Aristotelian division of the sciences, the connection is asserted still more forcefully: “et sachiés que rectorique est desoz la science de cité governer, selonc ce q’Aristotles dist en son livre [And know that rhetoric concerns the science of governing the city, as Aristotle says in his book]” (Tresor 3.1.1).8 Even Horace’s Ars poetica, which deeply informed the other chief tradition of rhetorical instruction of the late Middle Ages, represented for example by the Poetria nova of Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Ars versificatoria of Matthew of Vendôme, cites the singers Orpheus and Amphion (Ars 391–400) as founders of civilization; Brunetto accordingly recalls Amphion as founder of Thebes at the beginning of the rhetorical sections of the Tresor (3.1.8).9

The link between eloquence and the founding of the city is, of course, deeply rooted in Boccaccio’s literary and cultural traditions. Mercury was not only mercatorum kyrios, the lord of merchants, as Hugh of St. Victor describes him, and as Boccaccio recalls frequently in his Genealogie,10 but also the messenger who reminded Aeneas of his obligation to abandon Dido and fulfill his fate as the founder of Rome, the city by antonomasia. Boccaccio understands the episode from Virgil’s Aeneid allegorically, with Mercury’s intervention understood to be remorse of conscience or timely verbal suasion by an eloquent friend.11 Boccaccio’s language as he allegorizes Mercury’s intervention in the Latin compendium is consistent with the ethical and civic function of mercurial eloquence in...


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