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  • The Apocryphal Boccaccio
  • Victoria Kirkham

All worthy poets are magnets that attract orphaned writings in search of an author. As lodestones, they also draw legendary accretions to their life stories. With the passing of time, poets puff up, pulling into their personal space apocryphal works, specious biographical anecdotes, and fanciful portraits. Who was more deserving than Homer to have thrust upon him a third epic, the Batrachomyomachia (batrachos + mus + machia = frog-mouse war)? Actually, an epic parody of the Iliad, this amusing battle of small creatures first appeared, attributed to Homer, printed at Brescia (1474?), then at Venice in 1486.1 Virgil for centuries, up into the twentieth, enjoyed a surplus of verse in the Appendix vergiliana. Short poems he is said to have written at age twenty-six are filed as interpolations into the fourth-century version of his Vita by Donatus, who augmented the second-century archetype by Suetonius. Virgil’s Loeb Library translator dismisses them as spurious, but includes them as “minor poems” in his edition, first issued nearly a hundred years ago, following, as is proper for an Appendix, the trio of canonical works—Eclogues, Georgics, and the Aeneid.2 This suggests that major editions of an author will have what is usually an appended category at the end with suppositious writings. The apocrypha themselves cluster into canons, as we shall see for Boccaccio.

Thus by attracting apocrypha do those who are already great become even greater—provided, generally speaking, that they are men. Female poets can fare rather differently. Women are subject to an opposite process of reduction. What they have written may mysteriously migrate into the orbits of their male contemporaries, as would have happened to the sixteenth-century poet Laura Battiferra degli Ammannati, if the opinion of her eighteenth-century reader Anton Maria Biscioni had prevailed. Biscioni, learned librarian of the Biblioteca Laurenziana, rightly penned in the manuscript of her poetry, Il primo libro dell’opere toscane, that it served the printer for the first edition of 1560. Biscioni then mistakenly continues: “I think [End Page 169] this text was proofed (rivisto), corrected, and put into order, and perhaps also actually written by Benedetto Varchi.”3 To be fair about it, Battiferra did look to Varchi for mentorship, as we know from surviving letters they exchanged, and Biscioni did not realize that the book he had in hand was her autograph. This case of male magnetism can recall Battiferra’s older contemporary, Tullia d’Aragona, another of Varchi’s protégées. Was she actually the author of the chivalric romance Meschino altramente detto il Guerrino (Meschino, Otherwise Known as Guerrino), attributed to her in the posthumous Venetian editio princeps of 1560? Some scholars in the nineteenth century were as convinced that it was not hers as twentieth-century feminists maintain that it is.4

Not only can a woman’s legitimate, indisputable writing be called into question, but ladies themselves may be abolished from literary history. My favorite stories of females who became apocryphal are in the elegant and witty article by Paolo Cherchi, “The Troubled Existence of Three Women Poets,” all from the Duecento: Gaia da Camino, mentioned in Dante’s Purgatorio (16.139–41); la Nina Siciliana, who sprang to life in the celebrated 1527 Giuntine edition of Rime antiche as Dante da Maiano’s lady; and the most vexed of the trio, La Compiuta Donzella Fiorentina—whose two sonnets, variants on the theme of the mal mariée, may be the creation of a male writer speaking in a first-person female voice and using a senhal or poetic “code” name.5 For the Compiuta Donzella, there just is not enough information to know.

What—or who—properly belongs under the rubric “apocryphal?” Etymologically, the word is composed of two Greek roots: apo (away from) and kriptein (to hide), so apocryphos meant “hidden,” “obscure,” and by extension, of uncertain authorship. For many of us, the first association with the word apocryphal is biblical, referring to fourteen books of the Septuagint, eleven of which are accepted by Roman Catholics but rejected by Protestants6—among them the Book of Wisdom, Judith, and Maccabees. Luther gave them an intertestamental position, while...


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