- Boccaccio, Ariosto, and the European Novel
One of the major achievements of recent criticism about the Decameron has been to highlight the connection between the frame story—the cornice—and the novelle. This interplay fosters the inner voyage of education of the brigata. As a consequence, the Decameron goes beyond the simple collection of tales. Ariosto understood such a structural interaction, interweaving his main story with fourteen interspersed novellas, equally distributed between the two parts of his Orlando Furioso. The various aspects of Ariosto’s novellas—adventurous, comic, erotic, tragic—are played in opposition (of characters, tones, and genres) to what happens in the main plot, adding to the similar opposition obtained through the intertwining of the knights’ stories. The knights’ adventures are continuously interrupted to change tonality and to create multiple plots and multiple points of view, and such a counterpoint provides the education of the main characters (and of the readers). These structural elements, creatively used by Boccaccio and Ariosto, and alive and well in Don Quixote, will be reused by Walter Scott, thus creating the basic pattern of the modern novel. This article will argue that the Decameron is not merely the great model for the European short story, but also a starting point for the novel: fundamental structural devices such as the counterpoint of different tones and styles, the confrontation between novel and romance, and the multiple points of view are indebted to Boccaccio’s masterpiece.
As is well known, the first part of the title of the Decameron (“Here begins the book called Decameron, otherwise known as Prince Galahalt,” 45)1 hints parodically at religious treatises, such as the Exameron by Saint Ambrose on the creation of the universe, as if it were the creation of a different, nonreligious world; and the subtitle [End Page 155] “Prince Galahalt” refers to the knight who acts as a go-between in the story that Dante’s Francesca liked. Aiming at his female readers, Boccaccio relies evidently on the courtly romances loved by Francesca, and by those who share her culture and social status, such as the seven women and three men of the Decameron frame. However, what the ten young Florentines decide to recount to each other are not those courtly romances, but novelle, a genre that is bound to explore various aspects of society, including, but not exclusively, ladies and knights. How will the well-bred group react to the less refined aspects of the genre they have chosen? What does such a mixing of stories entail?
In the introduction to the first Day of the Decameron, Boccaccio worries about the disappearance of the great Florentine families. He fears that their culture and manners might be endangered by those of the merchants and of the lower classes, reinforced by the immigrants from the countryside, as many stories, such as those about Friar Puccio (3.4), Ferondo (3.8), Gianni Lotteringhi (7.1), Arriguccio (7.8), or Calandrino (8.3 and 6, 9.3 and 5), demonstrate. There is a need for a guiding narrative to provide an identity for the new mixed society that is emerging from the disaster. If Boccaccio aspires to this role—the role of a new Dante—he has to devise something that can illustrate those various aspects of the population of Florence and at the same time offer a point of view for organizing them. The Decameron is the right answer: the tales, will give voice to everybody, men and women of any condition (this is their recognized task as a genre). At the same time, the cornice will offer an overall interpretation, that is, a thread connecting and controlling this multifarious world, otherwise bound to be torn by the tensions among the different social groups with their different cultures. This will be the task of the ten Florentines. They constitute the refined core of a new society that must receive their imprint: a very complex operation.
In the Decameron, the novelle enjoy the freedom provided by an author who has chosen to divide himself into ten storytellers. Their reactions to the tales undergo a change from the beginning to the end of the book; also, in the...