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  • Illuminating BoccaccioVisual Translation in Early Fifteenth-Century France
  • Anne D. Hedeman

In late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century Paris, interaction between members of the chancellery, the university community, and the royal family generated a rich intellectual climate in which visual and textual translation flourished and were inextricably intertwined in books made for royalty and members of the nobility.1 Contact with Italian literature at the papal court in Avignon at the turn of the fifteenth century sparked interest in translating Boccaccio’s work for the French courtly elite. Because of the popularity of illuminated manuscripts among the elite, translators drawn from the French chancellery sought to shape the reception of translations of Boccaccio through the interaction between translated text and visual imagery.2

Petrarch had translated one story from the Decameron—that of Griselda—into Latin circa 1373 and in doing so both emphasized its value as a source of moral philosophy and began to shape Boccaccio’s reception.3 Around 1384, Philippe de Mezières translated Petrarch’s Griselda into French and incorporated it in Le Miroir des dames mariées.4 Beginning in the 1400s, Boccaccio’s Latin De casibus virorum illustrium was known in Paris and mined as a source of exempla for, among others, Nicolas de Gonesse’s completion in 1401 of the translation into French of Valerius Maximus’s Les faits et paroles memorables.5 As interest in Boccaccio expanded, distinct individual voices emerged. One of them was Laurent de Premierfait, who had made his name as a humanist and a gifted Latin poet at the papal court in Avignon before coming to Paris in 1398.6 Laurent played a significant role in the textual and visual translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s work from 1400–1414.

By the early fifteenth century, complete copies of some of Boccaccio’s writings were translated into French and quickly [End Page 111] illustrated with dense visual cycles. Laurent de Premierfait, who must have become aware of Boccaccio when he worked in Avignon, made his translation of Boccaccio’s De casibus for Jean de Chanteprime, a counselor to King Charles VI, in 1400.7 In 1401, an anonymous translator rendered the De mulieribus claris into French as Des cleres femmes, and in January 1403, the Italian merchant Jacques Raponde presented what may have been the first manuscript of it (Paris, BnF MS fr. 12420), decorated with 109 illuminations, as a gift to Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy, the king’s uncle.8 Shortly thereafter, the Des cleres femmes was copied with few changes in a manuscript (Paris, BnF MS fr. 598), illuminated with 107 miniatures, that was presented to the king’s brother, Duke John of Berry, by his treasurer, Jean de la Barre, in February 1404. Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cité des Dames, itself a response to De cleres femmes, showed her knowledge of that French translation circa 1404–07, and also revealed that texts by Boccaccio in languages other than French were available to her in Paris; she incorporated translations of three stories from Boccaccio’s Italian Decameron and references drawn from Boccaccio’s De genealogia deorum.9 Laurent returned to the De cas des nobles hommes et femmes in 1409–10, revising and expanding his previous translation for presentation to Duke John of Berry at the request of Martin Gouge, a financial officer and counselor to the duke. This presentation manuscript (Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève MS fr. 190 I/II, henceforth Geneva 190-I/II) was densely illuminated with 147 illustrations, and was copied almost simultaneously with a slight expansion of imagery into a manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, MS 5193, henceforth MS 5193) with 153 illustrations for Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy.10 This version of Laurent’s translation became wildly popular, cementing Boccaccio’s reputation in France. Not only did it create an audience eager for more of Boccaccio’s narrative texts, but it also established a horizon of expectations that shaped reception of Boccaccio’s writings, whether originating in Latin or in Italian, as history or moral philosophy.11

Almost immediately after the Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes was completed, Laurent began...


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