BECK index

Petrarca and Boccaccio

by Sanderson Beck

Petrarca, the Poet Laureate
Petrarca’s Ethical Humanism 1345-53
Petrarca in Italy 1353-74
Boccaccio’s Early Work
Boccaccio’s Decameron
Boccaccio’s Illustrious Men and Famous Women
Salutati's Humanism

This chapter has been published in the book Medieval Europe 1250-1400.
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The rebirth of learning based on the classics developed into humanist education and prepared the way for the European renaissance. This humanism began at Padua in the late 13th century and has been called “prehumanism” because it preceded the more famous Petrarca.

Lovato dei Lovati was born about 1240 and died in 1309. He was a notary in Padua and became a communal judge in 1267. He studied and collected classical manuscripts that he found in the libraries of monasteries. He wrote poetry in Latin influenced by the classical style of Ovid and Horace. He especially liked the Stoic philosopher Seneca and is credited with making his writing popular. In the 1290s he deciphered the meter in Seneca’s tragedies. Petrarca later wrote that Lovato could have been a great poet if he had not wasted his time practicing law.

Albertino Mussato (1261-1329) was the illegitimate son of an aristocrat and raised himself from poverty in Padua to become an important politician in the commune. After his father’s death he supported his younger brother and sister by copying textbooks for students while attending the University of Padua. In 1296 the commune made him a knight. That year he married the daughter of the richest moneylender in Padua and entered politics. Mussato led the emergency commission that won the power struggle over the anziani (elders) and the guilds. In 1302 he was sent as an ambassador to Pope Boniface VIII, and he was part of an embassy to Emperor Heinrich VII in 1311. During a long war Padua had with Vicenza he negotiated with the Emperor, and after being wounded he was captured by Can Grande della Scala of Verona, who gained control over Padua in 1314.

Mussato was influenced by Lovato and the tragedies of Seneca, and his own tragedy Ecerinis was first performed in 1315. Similar to how Seneca treated tyrants, he portrayed the notorious Ezzelino III da Romano, who had ruled Padua 1237-56. He borrowed the line, “At what risks do you seek the heights of treacherous power?” (Ecerinis 118) from Seneca’s Thyestes (line 391). At the end of the play Ezzelino is killed, and the commune is restored. However, during Mussato’s political career the commune gradually declined. He was inspired by the books of Livy, Sallust, and Caesar to write histories. In 1315 Mussato was crowned with laurel before the Senate and the University of Padua for Ecerinis and his Historia augusta, which chronicled Emperor Heinrich VII’s expedition to Italy from 1310 to 1313.

In 1317 Mussato described his life in his Latin poem “On Whether His Birthday Should be Celebrated Or Not.” Saints were celebrated on the day of their death, and he was one of the first to celebrate a birthday. He blamed himself for wanting money and power and realized he was a failure. Mussato wrote eighteen letters in verse. His most famous letter answered the accusation by the monk Mantova Giovannino that theology was superior to the sciences and poetry. Mussato argued that classical authors taught through literature and that their lives were moral examples. Shortly before Mussato was driven into exile in 1325, he wrote an epic poem that affirmed republican government while describing Can Grande della Scala’s besieging the walls of Padua in 1320. Mussato also wrote a history of Italian politics from 1313 to 1321. Marsilio da Carrara, the lord of Padua, sent him into exile in 1325. Mussato wrote a book on Ludwig of Bavaria, and his passionate account of how Padua was betrayed to Can Grande ended in 1329, the year of Mussato’s death. In his last years he discussed the process of history in a dialog between Nature and Fortune. These impersonal forces and God’s will seemed to dominate human lives. Yet he interpreted Can Grande’s aggression as punishing Padua’s pride and corruption. Near death he affirmed his Christian faith by writing Soliloquia, a series of poems on the trinity, the Holy Spirit, Mary, Paul, the cross, the passion of Jesus, and the Bible.

The Paduan humanism spread to Vicenza, Verona, and Venice. Marsilius of Padua studied medicine at the University of Padua under the physician and astrologer Pietro d’Abano. Marsilius corresponded with Mussato on the merits of medicine and law, and he asked Mussato to write a dialog in Senecan meter. When the Carrara family took over Padua in 1318, Marsilius went into exile and wrote his famous Defender of Peace.

Petrarca, the Poet Laureate

Petrarca’s father Ser Petracco rose from a notary to become chancellor of the Commission for Reforms in Florence, and he went on an embassy to Pisa in 1301. He was a friend of Dante, and the next year he too was persecuted by the Blacks for being a more moderate White Guelf. Petracco was banished and had his property confiscated. His son Francesco was born at Arezzo on July 20, 1304, the “day on which the exiles were beaten back from the walls of Florence.” The following February his mother Eletta took him to live for the next seven years at Incisa on the estate of Petracco’s father. Petracco was able to visit there secretly, and his second son Gherardo was born in 1307. The family moved to Pisa in 1311, and Petracco met the visiting Emperor Heinrich in 1312. After Heinrich’s death in 1313 they took up residence at Carpentras, fifteen miles from Avignon, the current papal center in Provence.

Francesco studied Latin grammar and rhetoric with the schoolmaster Convenevole da Prato and quickly moved on from Aesop to Cicero. His tutor pawned Francesco’s copy of Cicero’s De Gloria, a text that was never found again. In 1316 his father sent him to Montpellier to study law, but, like Boccaccio, Francesco preferred literature. When his father caught the 15-year-old reading literature instead of law books, he burned all his books except one by Virgil and Cicero’s Rhetoric. Petrarca’s mother died in 1318 or 1319, and his earliest surviving poem is an elegy to her in Latin.

In 1320 Francesco went with his brother Gherardo and his friend Guido Sette to the prestigious university at Bologna. His tutor was the celebrated canon lawyer, Giovanni Andrea. Francesco later complained that scholars at the university prostituted philosophy by quibbling on the meaning of words while neglecting truth and sound practice. He became friends with the poet Tommaso Caloria of Messina. In 1321 a student riot led to the execution of a student leader and a protest in which the faculty and students left Bologna for more than a year.

After their father died, Francesco and Gherardo left Bologna in April 1326 and went back to Avignon, a city Francesco hated for its usurping the rights of Rome. He adopted his father’s name but later changed it to Petrarca (known to English readers as Petrarch). He began an ecclesiastical career by gaining minor offices in 1326.

On April 6, 1327 Petrarca saw Laura for the first time in a church and fell in love with her. She was married and eventually had eleven children; but he rhapsodized in his love for her as if she were not married in many sonnets and a few songs for the rest of his life. They were written in Italian and collected as Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. Later this collection of 366 poems became known as his Canzoniere or Rime in vita e morta di Madonna Laura. His love for her was physically unrequited, and the poetry became focused on her virtuous qualities and was transmuted into a spiritual love. Many of the poems were written after her death on April 6, 1348 during the plague. They describe how she appeared to him in dreams and visions. His suffering turned into despair and was eventually purged by repentance. He realized that her virtue, which caused her to reject him, was actually good for him. He hoped to join her after death in heaven, and after contrition he placed his faith in God and prayed to the Virgin Mary.

The young Petrarca gave up law for poetry. He was supported by ecclesiastical benefices and patrons and read books in the papal library. He was influenced by Augustine more than by any other Christian writer, and he had bought a copy of his City of God in 1325. When Petrarca traveled, he went to monasteries looking for rare classical manuscripts that he could copy. In the 1320s he did scholarly research on the manuscripts of Livy’s History of Rome, and eventually he organized the extant texts. This became the main source for his historical writings.

Petrarca traveled with Bishop Giacomo Colonna. In the fall of 1330 Giacomo’s older brother, Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, appointed him his household chaplain, and for the next seven years Petrarca lived with friends in his house. In 1333 he traveled to Paris, Ghent, Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), Liege, Cologne, and Lyon. In Paris he met Roberto de’ Bardi, the chancellor of the university, and the Augustinian monk Dionisi of Borgo San Sepolcro gave him a copy of Augustine's Confessions, which he always carried with him. In January 1335 Pope Benedict XII conferred upon Petrarca a canonry at Lombez cathedral which gave him an income without having to reside there. He was under a vow of celibacy since 1330, but he strayed and fathered two children. He wrote two letters to Pope Benedict urging him to return the papacy to Rome. On June 1, 1335 he wrote on a classical manuscript a prayer that included the following:

To Thy care, my God,
I commit my thoughts and my actions,
my silence and my speech,
my goings and comings and my rest,
my days and my nights, my sleep and my waking,
my laughter and my tears, my hopes and my desires,
the span of my life and the hour of my death.1

Petrarca became a friend of the despotic Azzo da Correggio, who gained control over Parma, and Petrarca legally defended his interest in Parma in 1335. On April 26, 1336 Petrarca climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux. There he opened Augustine's Confessions at random and read in the tenth book, “And men go about to wonder at the heights of mountains,… but themselves they consider not.”2

In the summer of 1337 Petrarca moved to Vaucluse, where he began writing his De viris illustribus (On Famous Men) and his epic poem Africa about the victory of Scipio over the Carthaginians which he never finished. Petrarca became a close friend of his neighbor, Bishop Philip de Cabassoles, who knew King Robert of Naples. When his son Giovanni was born in 1337, Petrarca was not married to the mother, who is unknown. He did not call the boy his son, but he gained letters of legitimacy for him and provided him with tutors. On April 17, 1338 he obtained a beautiful manuscript of Virgil on which he later wrote the death dates of his son Giovanni, Laura, Ludwig van Kempen (Socrates), and other friends. As early as 1339 Petrarca wrote to a Milanese official hoping that his lord Luchino Visconti would bring unity to Italy.

Petrarca was ambitious to be crowned with laurel for his poetry, but this had not been done at Rome since Emperor Domitian crowned the poet Statius in the first century CE. The poet Albertino Mussato had been crowned with laurel at the University of Padua in 1315, and Dante declined to be crowned with laurel in Bologna. On September 1, 1340 Petrarca received letters from both the Chancellor of the University of Paris and from the Roman Senate offering to crown him poet laureate. He agreed with the recommendation of Cardinal Colonna to accept the crown in Rome. King Robert in Naples questioned the poet on various branches of learning for two and a half days and declared him worthy of the laureate, giving him a purple robe. On top of the  Capitoline Hill on Easter morning, April 8, 1341 Senator Orso crowned Petrarca with laurel for being a master, accrediting him as a professor of poetry and history, and making him a citizen of Rome. Petrarca recited a sonnet to the heroes of ancient Rome, and Stefano Colonna eulogized the young poet.

In his oration before the crowning, Petrarca discussed the art of poetry as depending on an inner, divine energy. Poets often suffer from misfortunes, and they are no longer honored as they were in ancient Rome. The victorious spirit of poetry comes from “first, the honor of the Republic; second, the charm of personal glory; and third, the stimulation of other men to a like endeavor.”3 He lamented that the honor given Statius by Domitian was discontinued for more than twelve centuries. The Caesars strove for glory by way of the body, but poets strive for glory by way of the spirit.

Petrarca left Rome and was captured by bandits in the Campagna. After being released he traveled with an escort to Pisa. He accompanied the Correggio brothers, who on May 22, 1341 were greeted as liberators in Parma. Clement VI became pope in May 1342, and on October 6 he appointed Petrarca canon of St. Nicolas of Miliarino in Pisa. He wrote Clement a metrical letter urging him to go to Rome and to designate 1350 a jubilee year. Petrarca used his influence to get his friend Barlaam appointed bishop of Geraci in Calabria, and Barlaam taught him some Greek. In April 1343 his brother Gherardo entered a Carthusian monastery for the rest of his life. Petrarca had added biographies of 23 great Romans to his Famous Men, and he began working on his Books of Memorable Matters (Rerum memorandarum libri) drawn from classical history, illustrating prudence, memory, ingenuity, the present, and foresight of the future by oracles, prophecies, and dreams. After he got to the section on temperance, he stopped writing this book in 1345. Also in the spring of 1343 his daughter Francesca was born, perhaps to the same unknown woman.

After King Robert died, Petrarca went to Naples in October 1343 with Stefano Colonna the Younger; but they were unable to persuade the council to free the prisoners, who were friends of the Colonna family, even though Philip de Cabassoles was head of the regency council. Petrarca reached Parma at the end of 1343; he bought a house he had previously visited and stayed there more than a year. He brought his son Giovanni to Parma to be tutored by Moggio dei Moggi, whom Azzo da Correggio had hired for his sons. Azzo had taken over Parma, but in the fall of 1344 he sold it to Marquis Obizzo d’Este of Ferrara, breaking his agreement that he would turn it over to Visconti in 1345. Milan and Mantua formed a league and besieged Parma in November, and on February 24, 1345 Petrarca and some companions escaped unarmed at night from the city. He injured his arm when his horse threw him.

Petrarca went to Verona where he discovered many letters that Cicero had written to his friends Attica and Brutus and his brother Quintus. He copied them and wrote his first letter to Cicero. In his voluminous letters Petrarca often referred to the humanistic writings of Cicero and other classical philosophers and poets. He left his son Giovanni in Verona to be tutored by Rinaldo Cavalchini and returned to Vaucluse by the end of 1345. Petrarca wrote a metrical letter to Philip de Cabassoles in Naples. Pope Clement VI conferred the canonry at Parma on Petrarca in October 1346, and two years later he was made archdeacon there.

Petrarca’s Ethical Humanism 1345-53

Petrarca continued to live at Vaucluse, and in 1346 he began writing his Solitary Life and Bucolicum Carmen. He contrasted solitude to urban living and gave examples of famous men and women who preferred solitude. Petrarca also valued friendship and wrote that he would rather be deprived of solitude than a friend. He did not impose his values on others, and the independence of thought he claimed for himself he did not deny to others. The first four eclogues of the Bucolicum Carmen discuss how his brother Gherardo’s life differs from his, the death of King Robert of Naples, his love for Laura and coronation, and his poetic work. The fifth eclogue is about Cola di Rienzo, and the sixth and seventh denounce the corruption of the papal court at Avignon. The eighth justifies his leaving Cardinal Colonna to return to Italy. He also wrote three sonnets on the “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy. Yet Pope Clement VI offered to make Petrarca his secretary or a bishop, but the poet declined to sacrifice his freedom to study and write.

Petrarca visited his brother Gherardo at the Montrieux monastery in 1347 and was inspired to write On Monastic Freedom (De otio religioso) on the Biblical injunction in the 46th Psalm, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The treatise discusses how to be liberated from the devil, the world, and the flesh. It is dedicated to the monks of Montrieux; but Petrarca admitted that he wrote it more for his own benefit than theirs.

Petrarca had begun writing his Secretum (My Secret Book) in 1342, and he completed it about 1347. In the introduction he explained that he did not write it for others and glory, but only so that he could remember the conversation. No copy of the book was made during his lifetime. Thinking about his death, he thought he saw a woman, and talking with her, he identified her as Truth. As she entered his inmost solitude, he noticed the priestly Augustine.

After this introduction the book consists of three dialogs between Francesco and Augustine. In the first Augustine asks him if he has forgotten that he is mortal, and he recommends being conscious of our own unhappiness and meditating constantly on death. Augustine argues that anyone who recognizes one’s unhappiness and wants to be happy can be so. However, the foolish try to gain happiness with the chains of earthly pleasures. He should study and work for his own improvement, not to impress others. No one can be made unhappy except by one’s own fault.

Francesco is concerned that he will not be able to free himself from his own faults. Augustine warns him that people esteem themselves more highly than others and thus deceive themselves. Francesco realizes that the root of his unhappiness is in his will. Augustine reflects that he did not change himself until deep meditation helped him see his unhappiness. He advises the poet to consult his conscience to interpret virtue and judge deeds and thoughts in order to strengthen his faith. The desire for virtue is a large portion of virtue. This desire can only function fully when all other desires are ended. By being conscious of mortality one can despise transient things and aspire to a life of reason. When the soul leaves its body, it is presented for judgment on every deed and word in one’s life. If one truly desires to be better, one may be confident that God will rescue you. Francesco asks his mentor what is holding him back. Augustine quotes Virgil that conflicts arise and produce fear, desire, grief, and joy. Cicero advises, “The superior intellect moves away from the senses and abstracts its thoughts from everyday matters.”4 Augustine tells Petrarca that his mind is distracted by various obsessions.

In the second dialog of Secretum Augustine warns Francesco that despair is the worst evil. He observes that Francesco is proud of his intellect, the books he has read, his eloquence, and the beauty of his body which will die. When Francesco asks what leads him astray, the saint replies that it is his desire for worldly things. Augustine encourages him to endure poverty and recommends the middle way between wealth and poverty. He refers to the proverb that the covetous person is always in need. He should limit his desires. When he overcomes his passions and is wholly under the sway of virtue, then he will be free. Francesco admits that he suffers from depression, and Augustine asks him what is its cause. Petrarca sees many causes, especially his contempt for the human condition. He contrasts the sight of miserable beggars to the absurdities of the voluptuous rich. Augustine warns him that anger is the worst mental disturbance but advises him that it can be controlled by reason. He must learn to calm the tumult in his own heart to obtain a peaceful mind.

In the third dialog Augustine describes Petrarca’s greatest problems as his passionate love for Laura and his desire for worldly glory. She has distracted him from the love of God to a creature. Francesco realizes that his deviation from the right path began when he met Laura in 1327. Again Augustine counsels him that the love of earthly things causes one to neglect the love of God. He recommends that he live in Italy but avoid solitude until he is cured of his illness. Cicero advised that satiety, shame, and reflection can help one take one’s mind off love. The saint advises him to put away childish things and the desires of youth. In regard to glory the desire for vain immortality may block his way to true immortality. Augustine believes he is wasting his life writing his Africa and other poetry when death may snatch him before he completes them. Instead of striving for glory, he should be working to be worthy. By making the true end of life one’s goal and by aiming at worth, true glory will follow. Worldly ambitions are not worth the name of glory. The whole life of a philosopher should be meditating on death. Finally Francesco expresses gratitude for the understanding he has gained, and he thanks Truth for helping them to see. Francesco asks Augustine not to desert him. The two voices in this dialog represent two sides of the author Petrarca. Augustine may be considered his higher, spiritual self while Francesco represents his conscious self making decisions in the world.

In his “Letter to Posterity” Petrarca described his life up to about 1351. In this letter he also mentioned that he disliked the dishonesty in the legal profession and so could not practice it. He admitted that he was deluded as a young man and went astray as an adult before his experience convinced him of the truth and helped him to correct his life. He did not strive for riches because he did not want the worries and effort that is involved in achieving and maintaining wealth. He always felt contempt for wealth and hated the anxiety it demanded; so he practiced plain living and ordinary fare. At the age of forty he renounced carnal relationships with women, thanking God for the liberation while he was still strong and healthy. He admitted that he has known and been honored by great princes who gave him advantages. He believed he had a well balanced intellect rather than a sharp one and that he was most inclined to moral philosophy and the art of poetry. He concentrated mostly on the knowledge of antiquity and disliked his own age, except for the affection of his friends.

Petrarca had become friends with the flamboyant Cola di Rienzo in 1343 when Cola spent several months in Avignon on a diplomatic mission. When the demagogic Cola di Rienzo became tribune of Rome in 1347, he expelled aristocratic families and declared a Roman republic with himself as ruler. Petrarca wrote Cola several letters urging him to unite Italy, return the papacy to Rome, and bring peace to the region; but Cola’s attack with militia that killed Stefano Colonna the Younger and his son alienated Petrarca from Cardinal Colonna. On November 29 he wrote to Cola, complaining that he favored the basest faction and pleading that he not destroy his own work. After Cola was arrested, Petrarca wrote a letter to the Roman people urging them to intervene; he complained that the magistrates denied Cola legal counsel, though this was the common practice of the Inquisition. Concern over German mercenaries and the hired soldiers called condottieri and the violent calamities in Italy stimulated Petrarca to write a canzoni called “My Italy,” which he concluded as follows:

My song, be humble, for you are addressed to haughty folk,
ever hostile to the truth.
Speak then to those few high hearts that love virtue.
Say to them: “Who gives me strength to speak,
as I go crying: ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’”5

Conditions were so violent in Italy that when Petrarca first visited Rome, his friends provided an escort of a hundred horsemen to protect him from the Orsini family.

In 1348 Petrarca survived a major earthquake and the Black Death which took his beloved Laura. He became a friend of Padua’s ruler Jacopo II da Carrara and visited him in 1349. Jacopo procured a canonry for Petrarca in Padua. From this time on Petrarca always hired at least one copyist to make transcripts of valuable manuscripts. He became archdeacon in Padua on June 20, 1350 and immediately left to visit Mantua. In October of that year Petrarca visited Boccaccio for the first time in Florence as he made the pilgrimage to Rome during the Jubilee. He also met the eminent scholar and lawyer, Lapo da Castiglionchio, who sent him many manuscripts by Cicero including the Philippics. Lapo was given a manuscript of the last thirteen books of Petrarca’s Familiar Letters which survived with his notes. Petrarca visited his birthplace at Arezzo in December, and Lapo sent him a copy of the newly discovered Institutions by Quintilian. Petrarca was so impressed that he wrote a letter of appreciation to the dead author.

In April 1351 Boccaccio came to Padua and gave Petrarca a letter from the priors of Florence revoking the banishment of his father’s family and restoring the confiscated property. They invited him to teach in Florence, but after the death of Jacopo da Carrara, Petrarca returned to Vaucluse in the summer of 1351. In November he wrote a letter to a commission of four cardinals appointed to resolve problems in Rome in which he recommended that the rival Colonna and Orsini families both be excluded from the city government and that the Roman Senate be limited to Roman citizens. However, the commission was ineffective.

Petrarca spent much of his life studying and writing at his retreat in Vaucluse near Avignon, and even this place was once plundered and burned. Starting in 1350, Petrarca began writing letters to persuade Holy Roman Emperor Karl IV of Bohemia to come to Rome to be crowned, and Karl finally did so in 1354; but he soon left. Like Dante, Petrarca hoped that one head could establish peace and order in Italy. Prior to the war between Genoa and Venice, in March 1351 Petrarca had sent exhortations for peace to the doges of both cities, explaining to himself, “I thought myself blameworthy if, in the midst of warlike preparations, I should not have recourse to my one weapon, the pen.”6

Petrarca in Italy 1353-74

Petrarca went to Milan in 1353 soon after Milan had signed a peace treaty with Florence. The powerful Archbishop Giovanni Visconti invited him to live there without any obligation. Boccaccio wrote him an indignant letter in July complaining that the Archbishop was a tyrant. Petrarca lived on the western edge of Milan in a house by a church, which allowed him to plant things in their garden. In 1354 Petrarca went as Milan’s peace envoy to Venice, and he gave an oration before the ducal council warning that the desire to attain anything beyond a just peace is dangerous. He also met privately with Doge Andrea Dandolo and other officials. On May 28 Petrarca wrote a long letter to Dandolo urging him to make peace with Genoa. He condemned the tragic folly of using mercenaries and warned that war is contagious and could spread to other cities.

About 1354 Petrarca began writing his longest work, De remedis utriusque fortunae (Remedies Against Fortune). He exhorted his readers to avoid the extremes of exultation over favorable fortune and depression from misfortune. In the first book Joy and Hope, the children of Prosperity, debate Reason in more than a hundred chapters about many things they consider beneficial. In the second book Reason debates Sorrow and Fear, the children of Adversity about many misfortunes. The first book shows how material things are illusory because the only real values are ethical and spiritual. In Chapter 99 Joy brags about having war machines that can destroy things; but Reason replies that it is more decent and proper for a human to build things and shelter friends or the poor. The second book provides consolation for the ills of adverse fortune.

Petrarca was also writing his poem of the Triumphs in Italian. In the Triumph of Love he meets Laura, and Love is symbolized by Cupid with wings leading a long line of captives. In the Triumph of Chastity the god of Love is overcome by Laura and her virtues of Honor, Modesty, Prudence, and their sisters. Death is the third triumph and is represented by a dark woman. In the Triumph of Fame over Death a long line of famous heroes from antiquity is presented and includes women. In his later years Petrarca wrote the Triumph of Time to show that eventually even Fame fades away and is obliterated. The last triumph is by Eternity and was written during Petrarca’s last year. All the other triumphs took place in the physical world, but this one is set in Heaven. He concluded the poem with his hope of seeing Laura again.

If he was blest who saw her here on earth,
What will it be to see her again in heaven!10

By the 1350s Petrarca was collecting his best letters as Epistolae Familiares, but he decided to leave out controversial letters, which he put in his Book Without a Name (Liber sine nomine). These 19 letters were only to be shown to close friends until after his death, and the names of contemporary people were left out or disguised. Thus the large collection of Familiares was safe from censorship and hostility. In 1357 he admitted in a letter to the archbishop of Prague that although “fear never forces a brave man to lie, it sometimes compels him to keep quiet.”7

In his preface to Book Without a Name he realized that these letters would be hateful to evil men but attractive to good men, and so he explained why he divided his letters into two collections.

I have assembled them in a single collection
so that they would not, being scattered as they were,
sully the whole body of my correspondence
and make it hateful to the enemies of truth;
and so that whoever wants to read them
may know where to find them,
and whoever doesn’t may know what to avoid.
Then, too, if anyone decides that
they should be obliterated or suppressed,
he can the more easily destroy them as a unit
without wrecking the entire collection.8

He concealed the names to protect those individuals, and he endeavored to keep these letters from falling into the wrong hands during his lifetime. He quoted the satirist Juvenal, who wrote, “If it is safe for the living to talk about the dead, surely it is much safer for the dead to talk about the living.”9 The first letter criticized a dying pope, who was either Benedict XII or Clement VI. Two of the letters were sent to Cola di Rienzo; a third was written to the people of Rome in the fall of 1352 when Cola was imprisoned at Avignon. Several of the letters are critical of the corrupt papacy at Avignon, which Petrarca called the “newest Babylon.” The twelfth letter is Petrarca’s reaction to the election of Pope Innocent VI, who had accepted the accusation that Petrarca was a necromancer because he read Virgil.

Petrarca warned Pope Clement VI against having too many physicians who could do him harm. Angry letters were exchanged with papal physicians, and in 1355 Petrarca published four Invectives against a Physician. Also that year he wrote the Invective against a Man of High Rank with No Knowledge or Virtue which was aimed at Cardinal Jean de Caraman. After Emperor Karl IV retreated from Italy in 1355, Petrarca wrote him a reproachful letter, concluding that he was no more than the king of Bohemia. The next year Galeazzo and Bernabo Visconti sent Petrarca to Basel and Prague as Milan’s envoy to Karl. The Emperor appointed him Count Palatine and a councilor. Petrarca also met with his court apothecary, Angelo of Florence, who kept the first botanical garden in Germany. When the Visconti and their enemies signed a peace treaty at Milan in June 1358 in the presence of an imperial representative, Petrarca gave an oration in the cathedral. At the end of 1360 Galeazzo Visconti sent Petrarca on a mission to Paris, where he apologized for speaking in Latin because he did not know French. In France he observed the devastation caused by the English invasion.

In June 1361 Petrarca moved to a house in Padua, and that summer he learned of the death of his son Giovanni and two close friends. He had one of the finest privately owned libraries in Europe and hired several copyists. He offered to bequeath his library to Venice if the city would provide him with a house. They agreed, and he hoped they would found a public library after his death. He moved to Venice in the summer of 1362. In the next few years he often visited Pavia near Milan. During his last years rumors often spread that he was dead, and this caused him to lose some benefices. In 1366 he wrote to Pope Urban V, urging him to return to Rome, and the following spring Urban did go to Italy. In his second letter to Urban in 1368 Petrarca criticized the French cardinals and called for reform of the Sacred College. He compared Italy’s intellectual achievements to the lack of them in France. That spring Emperor Karl IV visited Italy, and Francesco da Carrara took Petrarca to see him at Udine. Galeazzo Visconti wrote to Petrarca, asking him to come to Pavia to help negotiate a peace, and the Emperor gave him permission to go. During the summer there Petrarca received a letter from Pope Urban V with an invitation.

After Petrarca returned to Padua in 1368, Boccaccio visited him and copied some of his manuscripts. Petrarca became seriously ill with a fever that affected him intermittently during his last years. He disobeyed the orders of doctors that might have killed him sooner. He set out to visit Pope Urban; but he became so ill that he was in a coma for more than thirty hours. The rumor of his death spread, and he returned to Padua by boat. He took a physician’s advice to stop eating salted meat, salted fish, and raw vegetables, but he refused to stop fasting, eating fruit, and drinking water instead of wine. He received a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron and made a Latin translation of the story of Griselda. Boccaccio advised him to stop writing, but Petrarca replied that writing was easy for him.

When four prominent friends of his complained about his criticism of Aristotelian philosophers, Petrarca wrote the autobiographical On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others in 1367 and revised it over the next two years. He recognized the value of Aristotle’s writings, but personally he found Cicero his greatest classical source for developing humanism. Petrarca argued that he would rather be judged by a good man rather than a wise one because morality and love are superior to wisdom and truth. He preferred the humanistic ethics of Cicero and Seneca to the rational ethics of Aristotle. In 1371-72 instead of writing the thirteen biographies he had planned for his De Viris Illustribus, he wrote a long biography of Julius Caesar based on his war commentaries. In 1373 Petrarca took on the French again in his Invective against a Detractor of Italy.

In November 1373 Petrarca wrote a long letter to Francesco da Carrara, who had been ruling Padua since his father had been assassinated in 1350. A new code of laws had been promulgated in 1362. In striving to become independent of Venice, Padua fought several wars against this powerful neighbor, followed by increased taxes to pay for them. Petrarca praised Francesco da Carrara for ending the border war with Venice in 1373 to bring peace to northern Italy.

Petrarca wrote Carrara that the first quality of a good leader should be friendship to the good citizens, though one must terrify the evil ones to be a friend of justice. Petrarca believed that nothing was worse for the state than to use fear and cruelty to maintain power. Roman history has shown that fear is opposed to longevity and security while goodwill favors both. He quoted Cicero that love is the best influence, and fear is the worst. A knight once told Julius Caesar that a man who is feared by many must fear many, and Cicero wrote that those who wish to be feared must be afraid of those they intimidate. Petrarca believed that public love is like private love. As Seneca wrote, “If you want to be loved, love.”10 Petrarca advised the ruler to love the subjects like one’s own children. In one of his orations Cicero had pointed out that the prince should be surrounded, not with arms, but with the love and goodwill of the citizens.

Next Petrarca emphasized justice so that each person gets what is due, and no one is punished without a good reason. He recommended gaining the citizens’ affection through generosity and suggested building walls around the city, repairing the roads, and draining swamps. Superfluous expenditures should be avoided, and taxes should be only for public need. It is better when riches are not held by one person, and it is more useful for private citizens to earn money by their own work. Justice must be accompanied by mercy as well as generosity because nothing arouses hatred as much as cruelty and greed.

Just as the love of the people is gained more easily
by mercy and generosity than by any other quality,
so, conversely, nothing is more guaranteed
to provoke a people’s hatred than cruelty and greed.11

Cruelty is harsher, but greed affects more people. Petrarca warned Carrara against letting any of his courtiers control the state. True friends are needed; but one must never ask a friend to do anything dishonorable nor should one ever do something dishonorable for a friend; for there can be no true friendship without virtue and wisdom. He should give to the needy, not only from his own resources but also passing along donations from the rich to the poor. The good ruler is magnanimous while facing one’s enemies in adversity, but at home the prince should be humble. He complained about pigs in the streets and excessive mourning in public. Petrarca advised the ruler to give the first place in governing to those with ability who are learned. Love and devotion to justice should accompany knowledge of the law.

Petrarca died at Arqua on July 19, 1374, one day before his 70th birthday.

Italy and Humanism

Boccaccio’s Early Work

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in June or July, 1313, probably in Certaldo or Florence. His father was a successful banker, and Giovanni implied in his writing that his mother was French; but he probably never knew her. Legitimized, he was raised by his father and stepmother in Florence. He learned to read and write by the time he was six. He was taught by the father of the scholar Zanobi da Strada and was especially influenced by the writing of Ovid. By the time he learned arithmetic well, his father apprenticed Giovanni in accounting and business. His father worked for the Bardi bank, and in 1327 he was transferred to Naples, where they lived for the next thirteen years. Giovanni came into contact with the Angevin court and the Neapolitan aristocrats. In 1331 he began studying canon law at the university under Cino da Pistoia, and he transcribed Dante’s letter to Cino. He also used the excellent library of King Robert. Young Boccaccio did not like law any better than business as he was drawn to literature. He was easy-going and was called “Giovanni the Tranquil.”

One of Boccaccio’s earliest works is the long Filocolo (Labor of Love) about the beautiful Fiammetta which was written in the late 1330s. Considered a rather clumsy prototype of the modern novel, it was nonetheless popular. In this autobiographical novel about an affair Boccaccio claimed to have with King Robert’s daughter Maria d’Aquino, which she terminated, the poet Panfilo has an affair with Fiammetta and leaves her. She is married and first exchanges glances with the poet in church. She finds herself thinking about the young man and hopes to see him again. Her nurse warns against passion outside of marriage; but Fiammetta has a dream in which Venus urges her to give in to love. Panfilo becomes a friend of her husband so that he can talk with her. He is not discouraged by her refusals, and they become lovers, spending many nights together. Sadly Panfilo tells her that he has to leave Naples for four months to visit his ill father. She tries to persuade him to stay with her, and when he leaves, she faints in sorrow. For four months she remembers their love and wonders about him. Then she learns from a merchant that he has married. She prays to Venus that he will return to her. Her husband notices her lack of passion and tries to cure her with a vacation to islands; but she still thinks of Panfilo. A servant tells her that Panfilo is not married but is in love with a gentlewoman who loves him. Fiammetta tries to commit suicide but is stopped by her nurse. Finally she realizes that she has lost Panfilo, and she tells her story to warn other amorous gentlewomen.

Scholars differ as to whether Boccaccio wrote Il filostrato (Love’s Victim) in about 1335 or 1340. In this poem he tells the story of the romance between Troilo and Criseida during the Trojan War, but it is based on the 12th-century French novel by Benoit de Saint-Maure that was translated into Latin by Guido delle Colonne. Criseida is the daughter of the Trojan prophet Calcas, who has defected to the Greeks. The Trojan prince Troilo falls in love with the young widow and persuades his friend Pandaro to act as their go-between. After Calcas persuades the Greeks to exchange the hostage Antenor for Criseida during a truce, they meet. Troilo urges her to elope with him. She warns him against betraying his honor to Troy, but she agrees to meet him in ten days. During the truce exchange the Greek hero Diomedes perceives their love, falls in love with Criseida, and seduces her. Troilo dreams of a boar and realizes what happened but continues to send her letters. His brother Deifobo shows him proof of her love for Diomedes, and Troilo goes into battle to kill Diomedes. He kills many Greeks; but neither he nor Diomedes are able to kill each other, and finally Troilo is killed by Achilles.

In 1339 and 1340 Boccaccio composed in twelve books the epic poem Theseid of the Nuptials of Emilia. Dedicated to Fiammetta, he picks up the legend of Theseus after he has become duke of Athens when he goes to war against the Amazon women in Scythia. The courageous Theseus wins the battle and marries their queen Hippolyta. King Creon of Thebes has refused religious burial of his son killed in the civil war and so has alienated the women of Thebes. Theseus kills Creon, gives his body a proper funeral, and hands Thebes over to the women. He also has wounded and captured the relatives and friends, Arcites and Palaemon. He takes them to Athens, where they both fall in love with beautiful Emilia, sister of Hippolyta. Peirithous is a friend of Arcites as well as of Theseus, and he gets Arcites freed from prison; but he must leave Athens or face death. Arcites leaves Emilia in sorrow and changes his name to Pentheus. After traveling in Greece he returns disguised as a squire and becomes a servant of  Theseus. He tries to get near Emilia and is discovered by Pamphilus, a servant of Palaemon, who becomes jealous of his rival with Emilia.

Boccaccio is portraying a conflict between friendship (philia) and sensual love (eros). Palaemon manages to get out of prison and quarrels with his friend. Emilia appeals to Theseus to resolve the conflict. While they feast, an extraordinary collection of Greek heroes congregates there to participate in a battle over Emilia; but Theseus forbids the use of harmful lances. During the ferocious contest Emilia is sorrowful, and Theseus encourages Arcites, who wins. Venus sends a Fury to frighten the horse of Arcites, and it falls on him, crushing his chest. The captured Palaemon is given to Emilia, who liberates him and weds the dying Arcites, who advises her to marry his friend Palaemon after his death. Palaemon has a temple built for the ashes of Arcites. After Theseus changes the mood with a speech, the poem concludes with the joyful celebration of the nuptials of Emilia and Palaemon.

In late 1340 or early 1341 Boccaccio moved from Naples back to Florence. In the next two years he wrote the Commedia della Ninfe (Comedy of the Florentine Nymphs) and the Amorosa Visione on the power of love. In the former the rustic shepherd Ameto is transformed into a noble lover by the virtue of Lia and her six companions, who tell the stories of their loves. In The Amorous Vision the poet dreams he sees the triumph of wisdom, earthly glory, wealth, love, and fortune. Boccaccio uses famous exemplars to show that nobility does not come from birth but from one’s character and virtuous actions. The poem catalogs briefly the deeds of 62 philosophers and writers, 152 successful leaders and warriors, eighteen men who became rich, and 53 love affairs. The verses on Fortune are more of an anti-triumph as fifty individuals experience the vicissitudes of earthly fortune. Five cantos praise the eternal feminine, and the last six cantos praise love as the fulfillment of all virtues.

Boccaccio’s Decameron

Boccaccio wrote the Decameron between 1348 and 1352. He begins his preface by asserting that compassion for the suffering is a quality all humans should have, especially those who have been helped by others. Boccaccio admits he has needed it, and he appreciates it because from his youth he has been enflamed and exalted by noble love. Because of his overwhelming passion and unrestrained desires he has suffered more than was necessary. He was consoled and relieved by a friend many times, and gradually over time his torment over love diminished; but he still remembers the favors and burdens he experienced. He feels that gratitude is a most worthy quality and its opposite most reproachable. He hopes that his writing will assist others, and he believes that charming ladies are more in need of comfort than men. He intends that the tales will provide both pleasure and useful advice. If their melancholy is ended, he suggests that they thank Love for freeing them.

In the introduction to the Decameron Boccaccio describes the Black Death that devastated Florence in 1348. Men and women suffer swelling in the groin and arm-pits the size of an egg or larger. The symptoms change to black spots on the arms and legs and then all over the body. Almost everyone infected dies within three days without a fever or other side effects. The epidemic is extremely contagious, and people can catch it even by touching the clothes of the infected. Thus most people completely avoid the sick and their possessions. So many people die that many houses are abandoned and become common property. Most ministers and police are either sick or dead or overworked. Many people abandon Florence, and most of the sick are left to die without care. The corpses are removed by neighbors piled on biers or planks and are buried quickly with little ceremony. According to Boccaccio more than a hundred thousand people lost their lives in Florence that year.

One day seven young ladies meet in a church, and Boccaccio gives them literary names so as not to insult their dignity. Pampinea suggests that they leave the city. While they are discussing this, three men older than twenty-five come into the church, and the women invite them to join them. They agree to go to a place in the country, and Pampinea suggests that each of them be a leader for one day. She is chosen queen for the first day, and she appoints servants to provide the services they need. They decide to meet at three in the afternoon each day under the shade of a tree, and each person will tell a little story to amuse themselves. On the first day the Queen says they may choose any topic, and she asks Panfilo to begin.

He tells of the fraudulent notary Ciappelletto who is sent to collect debts in Burgundy. He has become skilled at giving false testimony and has led a dissolute life. While sick and dying he confesses to a priest with such effective lies that he is given a church burial and is even considered a saint. This story satirizes how social authorities can be fooled by words that have no relation to reality. Neifile tells how a rich Jew named Abraham goes to Rome to see if the Christian leaders are worthy of his being converted. He observes that they are very corrupt but concludes that if the Christian religion can grow and prosper despite such poor leadership, he would become a Christian also. In the third story Filomena has Melchisedech tell the Sultan Saladin a story in which a father has a valuable ring and makes two indistinguishable counterfeits so that each of his three sons will not know if their ring is the best. This story answers the Sultan’s question as to which of three religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is the true one because only God knows.

Dioneo tells of a monk who has sexual relations with a woman in his cell but entices the abbot to do the same in order to avoid punishment. The women are embarrassed but amused by this story and gently reprimand Dioneo. Fiammetta tells of a beautiful Marchioness who cleverly manages to dissuade King Philippe II from sleeping with her by a remark at the dinner table about how the women there are very much like others. Then Emilia satirizes a corrupt inquisitor when a layman makes fun of the amount of soup he donates to the poor. Then Filostrato tells a story within a story that satirizes a miserly abbot. Lauretta follows this with an anecdote that gets an avaricious man to realize he needs to be generous. Elissa tells how a similar remark made the king of Cyprus realize that he has been too tolerant and passive. Finally Queen Pampinea tells the tenth story of the first day in which an older doctor persuades a noble lady to consider the love of a wiser man.

Filomena is chosen queen for the second day, and she suggests the next day’s stories be about many misfortunes that lead to sudden happiness. Dioneo asks to be excused from following the topic each day and says he will speak last. The others agree to this exception. In the first story Martellino pretends to be cured by the corpse of a saint, and he barely escapes being hanged. Filostrato tells of the rich merchant Rinaldo who prays to Saint Julian. Robbers on the highway predict they will do better than he and rob him. He is rescued from freezing in the snow by a mistress of the king who gives him pleasure and her late husband’s clothes. The robbers are caught and hanged, and Rinaldo gets his money back.

In the third story the nephew of three spendthrifts meets and marries the princess of England, and the uncles regain what they lost. The merchant Landolfo has bad luck and turns to piracy. He is captured in a shipwreck but survives by hanging on to a chest that contains jewels which make him a rich man. The second day includes some adventurous stories with many tribulations and happy endings.

Queen Filomena tells the ninth story to illustrate the proverb “that the deceiver is at the mercy of the one he deceives,”12 and by doing so she hopes they will learn how to avoid deceivers. Bernabo is so proud of his wife Zinevra’s chastity that he bets 5,000 gold florins that Ambruogiuolo cannot seduce her. Ambruogiuolo has her maid take him into her bedroom in a chest so that at night he can see her naked while she is asleep. After hearing this evidence of their intimacy, Bernabo pays the bet and orders his servant to kill his wife; but Zinevra persuades the servant to take her clothes and let her go, telling Bernabo she was eaten by wolves. She dresses as the man Sicurano and eventually gets Ambruogiuolo to give her the things he stole from her bedroom. She asks him how he got them, and he claims he slept with her to win a wager. As Sicurano she asks Bernabo what he did to his lady. She explains what happened to the Sultan in Alexandria, and he orders Ambruogiuolo to be tied to a stake while covered in honey for a miserable death. Bernabo is forgiven and reunited with Zinevra. Dioneo criticizes Bernabo’s stupidity and tells how the wife of an older man, who provides very little sex for her, is taken by an amorous pirate and chooses to stay with him.

Neifile becomes queen for the third day, and she suggests they take Friday and Saturday off and move to a new place on Sunday and tell stories about people who have gained things by ingenuity or recovered something they lost. Masetto pretends to be a deaf-mute and becomes the sexual object for all the nuns at a small convent. When a groom of horses replaces the king one night with his wife, the king wisely keeps it secret and warns him never to try it again. In the third story a wife uses her confessions to a priest to communicate to a man with whom she wants to have an affair without the priest realizing that is her motive. Dom Felice instructs Friar Puccio how he can do penance at night so that Felice can enjoy sleeping with Puccio’s wife each night. Zima gives Messer Vergellesi a horse and is allowed to speak to his wife alone. Although she says nothing, Zima persuades her that he loves her, and they have an affair. Ricciardo is in love with Catella, the jealous wife of Filippello. Ricciardo persuades her that her husband is going to meet Ricciardo’s wife at a bath and suggests that in the dark she pretend to be that woman; but Ricciardo goes himself in order to enjoy her and convinces her that he loves her.

In the seventh story on the third day friars are criticized for desiring women and wealth and for telling people that they can purge their sins by contributing alms for masses. The friars tell people to do as they say but not as they do. Lauretta’s story is about an abbot who gives jealous Ferondo a medicine that causes him to appear to be dead. He has his monks take him to a cave and tells him that he is in purgatory. They whip him twice a day for having been jealous and give him food while the abbot enjoys himself with Ferondo’s wife. When she becomes pregnant, they give Ferondo the medicine again and bring him back to life so that the child will appear to be his. Because of his experience in “purgatory” he stops being so jealous.

Dioneo’s story on the third day is one of the two most censored stories in the Decameron. He explains how the Devil can be put back into Hell. Young Alibech in Tunisia is not a Christian, but she asks them how she can serve God and goes to the hermits in Egypt. Most do not want to be tempted, but Rustico accepts the challenge and lets her stay with him. He is overcome by her beauty and promises her that she could serve God best by putting the Devil back into Hell. He instructs her to do what he does and strips naked. They kneel and pray, and she asks what he has that is sticking up in front of him that she does not have. He says that it is the Devil giving him pain. He explains that she has a Hell that by the grace of God can relieve his pain by allowing him to put the Devil back into Hell. As she is a virgin, the first time is somewhat painful; but he assures her that after that there will only be pleasure. Over time she is wearing him out. So when she inherits an estate, he takes her to be married. She tells her friends that in the desert she learned how to put the Devil back into Hell, and the story spreads.

The sorrowful Filostrato is appointed king of the fourth day, and he orders romantic stories with unhappy endings. In the introduction Boccaccio justifies the value of his erotic stories to some of his critics by telling part of a story which illustrates that sexual desire is natural and not taught. The following stories are less popular, and some die of broken hearts. However, in the second story Pampinea entertains them by telling how Brother Alberto persuades a naïve lady that the angel Gabriel is using his body to make love to her. Eventually he flees from her relatives, is caught, and returned to the monastery, where he is confined as a madman.

Fiammetta is queen for the fifth day, and she requests stories about lovers who suffer misfortunes before attaining happiness. These stories are filled with challenging adventures and traditional happy endings. Filomena’s story aims to show that cruelty is punished by divine justice; but the cruelty in this case is that of a woman denying love to a love-sick man. Queen Fiammetta’s story tells how a lover has given away his wealth and finally sacrifices his prized falcon for his beloved. She then realizes the depth of his love, accepts him, and shares her wealth with him.

Elissa becomes queen on the sixth day, and she asks for stories about witty remarks that defend people or help them to escape danger, loss, or ridicule. In the third story the Bishop of Florence pays a man in counterfeit coins in order to spend one night with his wife. When the Bishop asks Monna Nonna de’ Pulci if she could win over a marshal, she gets back at both of them by saying, “Sir, in the unlikely event that he should win me over, I should wish to be paid in real money.”13 A cook turns his master’s anger into laughter with a witty remark. Filostrato tells how Madonna Filippa, after her husband discovers her with her lover, explains to the judge that she is able to keep her husband satisfied but has love left over. She protests that no woman had a say in making that law, and as a result the law is modified to apply only to women who are unfaithful to their husbands for money. Cesca is so conceited and critical of other women that her uncle Fresco advises her not to look at herself in the mirror if she wants to be happy.

Dioneo is made king of the seventh day, and he requests stories about wives who have played tricks on their husbands. These tricks enable the women to enjoy easier access to their lovers. Lauretta becomes queen on the eighth day and broadens the same topic to include tricks that men play as well. In two stories the painters Bruno and Buffalmacco make a fool of the simpleton Calandrino. A scholar who suffers a night waiting out in the snow to see a woman, who is with her lover, gets an equal revenge by causing her to be naked for many hours in the sun on a tower. Two close friends end up sleeping with each other’s wives and form a double marriage. Bruno and Buffalmacco also appeal to the lust of a doctor to be in an elite club, and they enjoy the dinners he buys them. When a Sicilian woman borrows five hundred florins from a merchant and does not pay it back, he manages to fool her into paying it back and loaning him even more money for collateral that is phony.

Emilia is queen on the ninth day. She does not restrict the topic at all so that they can tell any story they want. A woman devises a macabre way of discouraging two suitors. An abbess, who goes to discipline a nun for having a lover, is caught herself and becomes tolerant. Calandrino is persuaded he is pregnant and is milked for dinners and money. In another story he falls in love with a young woman, but Bruno causes him to be discovered by his wife. Two young men stay in the same bedroom with a couple and their daughter; but during the night they get the beds mixed up. The ancient King Solomon advises one man to be loving if he wants to be loved and another to consider using a stick on his disobedient wife.

Panfilo is king of the last day and asks for uplifting stories about those who have acted generously or with magnanimity. In the first story the king of Spain offers a generous reward to a worthy knight. After Ghino di Tacco treats the abbot of Cligni for a stomach ache, the abbot helps him to become a Hospitaller. In Cathay the wise Nathan disarms a man who wanted to murder him by treating him as a friend. Gentil de’ Carisendi revives a pregnant woman who was thought dead and is able to restore her and her baby to her husband. Charles of Anjou falls in love with a young girl, but without taking advantage of her he arranges for her and her sister to be married. In a similar story Lisa has fallen in love with King Pedro of Aragon, and his affection cures her; he marries her to a nobleman and becomes her knight.

In the eighth story of the tenth day Gisippus weds Sophronia, but his friend Titus is so in love with her that he allows him to marry her secretly, and even she does not realize who she married at first. Later Titus offers himself to a judge to be punished for murder instead of his friend Gisippus. In this story Boccaccio praises friendship as holy and worthy of special reverence. He describes friendship as

the most discreet mother of generosity and good conduct,
the sister of gratitude and of charity,
the enemy of hatred and avarice,
always prepared, without waiting to be begged,
to do virtuously for others
that which it would have done for itself.14

This is similar to stories from ancient Greece, and they lament how little friendship is esteemed in their time.

In the ninth story the famous Saladin uses magic to repay the hospitality of the Pavian knight Torello so that he can return from the third crusade to his wife before she remarries. In the final story Dioneo does not recommend how the Marquis of Sanluzzo treats his peasant wife Griselda, who demonstrates the perfect virtue of an obedient wife despite her husband’s excessive arrogance in testing her.

After the ten days of storytelling the seven women and three men return to Florence during the plague. Boccaccio concludes by defending his stories as suitable to virtuous ladies who would like to hear them. He wrote that he did not invent them, and he is not ashamed that they are not all good, realizing that many of them arouse lust in people or show examples of vices. He hoped that they provide pleasure if not edification. The Decameron was circulated by manuscripts at first mostly among wealthy merchants. Unlike his other writings, Boccaccio did not have literary pretensions in these stories that were intended for the middle class. His biographer Vittore Branca believed that The Decameron complements Dante’s Divine Comedy by presenting a different aspect of Italian medieval society.

Boccaccio’s Illustrious Men and Famous Women

Boccaccio welcomed Francesco Petrarca’s visit to Florence in October 1350. In the next few years Boccaccio was active in Florentine politics as a bursar and ambassador. At the end of 1351 he was sent to Ludwig V of Bavaria in regard to his intervention against the Archbishop of Milan. Then he went with Dante’s friend Petraccolo to tell Petrarca that Florence had revoked the condemnation of his father and the confiscation of his property, and they offered him a chair in the university (Studio). However, Petrarca had already decided to go to Clement V at Avignon. Boccaccio discussed the purpose of poetry and the texts of Cicero, Seneca, and Livy with the eminent humanist. Later Boccaccio sent Petrarca a fine copy of the Divina Commedia. Petrarca helped his disciple evaluate his literary projects which became more humanistic for the rest of his life.

In the spring of 1354 Boccaccio was sent to meet with Pope Innocent VI at Avignon, and in July he successfully completed a diplomatic mission to Certaldo that resulted in the death of the unscrupulous Fra Moriale and the defeat of his mercenaries. He met with Emperor Karl IV during his tour of Italy in 1355. Petrarca helped to reconcile the political differences Boccaccio had with his friends Niccolo Acciaiuoli and Zanobi da Stradi.

Boccaccio catalogued classical myths in his Genealogia Deorum Gentilium that he began before 1350 and completed by 1360. In 1354 he wrote “Corbaccio,” a bitter invective against women. Inspired by Petrarch’s De Viris Illustribus, Boccaccio began writing his De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (The Fates of Illustrious Men) about 1355 and finished it about five years later. In 1359 Boccaccio promoted new translations of Homer and arranged for Leontius (Leonzio Pilato) to teach Greek in the Florentine Studio, the first chair of Greek in western Europe. Leontius taught there until the fall of 1362, translating and lecturing on Euripides and Aristotle as well as Homer. Boccaccio was one of the first to emphasize the humanitas of the Greeks. On November 2, 1360 Pope Innocent VI honored Boccaccio with an ecclesiastical benefice. In 1361 the Guelf party in Florence excluded suspected Ghibellines from public office. In December a plot was discovered, and some friends of Boccaccio were punished with hanging or banishment. Boccaccio withdrew from politics to Certaldo and devoted himself to writing his Famous Women.

In his Fates of Illustrious Men Boccaccio described how powerful men and a few women often oppressed others and usually fell from fortune. He hoped that his readers would recognize how fickle Fortune is and how the judgment of God works. The book begins with Adam and Eve but quickly moves to legends of ancient Greece and Rome. He wrote about those who appeared before him in a panorama of myths and history. He recounts the tragedies of the houses of Cadmus and Atreus. In regard to Theseus he warns readers against being too credulous, and he describes the fall of Priam and Hecuba.

Boccaccio, who had to earn his living copying manuscripts (his and others), praises voluntary poverty and rejects wealth. He writes of some Hebrew leaders such as Samson, Saul, Rehoboam, Athaliah, and Zedekiah. He tells the story of Queen Dido and Sardanapalus of Assyria. He includes Astyages, Croesus, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes of Persia. Boccaccio writes about many Roman leaders, but he also includes Alcibiades, Hannibal, Dionysius of Syracuse, Polycrates, Callisthenes, and Alexander. The Roman rulers include Tarquinius, Appius Claudius, Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, the self-sacrificing Marcus Atilius Regulus, Gaius Marius, and Pompey. He praises Cicero and the value of rhetoric, and he recounts the tragic story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Boccaccio tells how Messalina defended her profligacy against the emperors Tiberius and Caligula, and he narrates the degeneracy of Nero and the problems of Vitellius Caesar who followed his reign.

In the eighth book the author praised Francesco Petrarca. He described Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, Odoacer the Ruthenian who became king of Italy, and the difficulties faced by King Arthur of Britain and Brunhilde, queen of the Franks. When Dante appears before Boccaccio, he asks him instead to tell of Walter de Brienne, who tried to rule Florence in the 1340s. Boccaccio concluded his lessons in mythology and history with the following advice:

From the fates of others realize how perilous your fate is.
Avoid avarice, lust, wrath, boasting, and ambition,
and be moderate in your pleasures.
When your mind is filled with joy and something disturbs you,
remember that you have risen by the same law as others,
and that you too will fall into insignificance
and be punished for your offenses, if it so pleases Fortune.15

Finally he reminded his readers to remember God with veneration and honor. Boccaccio encouraged us to follow wisdom and virtues, honor the worthy, serve friends with loyalty, take advice from the wise, show kindness to others, and overflow with mercy and justice.

Boccaccio was introducing many people in his era to the classical myths and historical figures. He made an even greater contribution with his book Famous Women because usually the histories are dominated by the male rulers. He dedicated this book to Andrea Acciaiuoli, feeling he was too humble to offer it to Queen Giovanna of Naples. His sexism shows through in the preface when he praised women who “take on a manly spirit, show remarkable intelligence and bravery, and dare to execute deeds that would be extremely difficult even for men.”16 He explained that he did not choose to write about Hebrew and Christian women because they have already been described in other works. Instead, Boccaccio chose mostly pagan women who demonstrated their merits through their strong characters. His final text included 106 short biographies of women. In the first he criticized Eve for foolishly believing she could rise high and for flattering her husband into agreeing with her. After King Ninus died, his queen Semiramis pretended to be her son in order to rule Assyrians on her own.

Boccaccio described the classical goddesses using their Roman names, including Opis (Rhea), Juno, Ceres, Minerva, and Venus. He also praised Isis of Egypt and Europa of Crete. He described the Amazon queens. He told the tragic story of the Babylonian Thisbe’s love for Pyramus, and he criticized the misdeeds of Medea. Boccaccio often added his moral judgments of the women’s actions. After telling how the Minyan wives liberated their husbands from prison, he noted how in the ancient bond of marriage is found the most deadly hatred or the greatest love. He described the Trojans Hecuba and Cassandra and narrated what happened to Clytemnestra of Mycenae and her sister Helen. Penelope remains loyal to Ulysses, and once again he recounted the story of Carthage’s Queen Dido.

Boccaccio commended the poetry of Sappho and the courage of Lucretia and others who preferred death to the humiliation of rape or slavery. Queen Tamyris of Scythia became famous because she defeated and killed the great Cyrus of Persia. Athaliah of Jerusalem is condemned for her extreme violence. The author praised Veturia for having persuaded her son Coriolanus to stop fighting the Romans. She won so much respect that the Senate decreed that men should stand up and give way when women pass by, an ancient practice that is still respected in western culture. Artemisia was responsible for having the first “mausoleum” built for her husband Mausolus and for defeating an invasion by Rhodians. Boccaccio was more concerned about what a woman did rather than what she was, and he even praised prostitutes who performed noble deeds. Yet he commended many women such as Marcia for retaining their virginity and widows such as Sulpicia who refused to remarry. Boccaccio considered frugality a proper virtue for wives because it

facilitates in a notable way
the gradual accumulation of wealth,
safeguards the domestic patrimony,
testifies to one’s integrity,
is the comfort of one’s work,
and forms a solid foundation for an illustrious posterity.17

Boccaccio praised Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar, and Portia, the daughter of Marcus Cato and wife of Brutus. The Hebrew princess Mariamme suffered in her marriage to the insane King Herod. The ambitious Cleopatra tried to get Antony to give her much of the Roman empire, but instead she lost Egypt to Octavian Caesar. Antony’s daughter Antonia by Octavia married Drusus, who was killed in Germany; but she lived as a chaste widow in an amoral court. Agrippina, the sister of Caligula, married the emperor Claudius but was murdered by her cruel son Nero. Faustina, the wife of Marcus Aurelius, had many lovers but was the first to be called Augusta. Zenobia governed the Eastern Roman empire for a while. Boccaccio passed on the legend of Joan who was believed to have headed the Church as Pope John VIII in the ninth century. More historical is Irene, who governed the Byzantine empire 797-802. Constance ruled Sicily and was succeeded by her famous son Friedrich II. The last biography in the book is of Giovanna, who was queen of Naples 1353-82. Boccaccio apologized for not including more contemporary women but complained that there were few outstanding women in his time.

In 1365 Boccaccio traveled on behalf of Florence again to see Pope Urban V at Avignon, and then he visited Petrarca in Venice. When Urban returned the papacy to Rome in 1367, Boccaccio was sent to congratulate him. Boccaccio began writing his “Life of Dante” in about 1365, and he spent his last years lecturing on the Divine Comedy. Boccaccio suffered illnesses related to obesity and died in Certaldo on December 21, 1375.

Salutati's Humanism

Salutati Coluccio was born on February 16, 1331 in Stignano near Florence. His family was exiled at Bologna, and the humanist Pietro da Moglio was his teacher. Salutati studied law, and after his father’s death he became a notary. In 1350 the Pepoli fell in Bologna, and Salutati’s family returned to Buggiano, which was under the Guelf rule of Florence. He married in 1366, and the next year he became chancellor of the commune of Todi near Rome. He wrote five letters to Petrarca but received only one response. In his last letter he criticized Petrarca for not visiting Pope Urban V in Rome while accepting the hospitality of tyrants such as the Visconti. Salutati lived in Rome in 1369 and began emphasizing humanistic education for Christians. His wife died in 1371, the year he became chancellor at Lucca. He married again in 1374 and altogether fathered at least eleven children. From 1375 until his death in 1406 Salutati was the chancellor of Florence for which he wrote numerous official letters in Latin and Italian. In July 1375 he wrote to Pope Gregory XI claiming liberty as a hereditary right for Tuscans. He launched a propaganda campaign accusing Church leaders of being tyrants and using soldiers to oppress Italians. The next year he began calling Florence the daughter of Rome, and he justified its defending its freedom. The Duke of Milan commented that one letter by Salutati was equal to a troop of horsemen.

In 1381 Salutati wrote a defense of monastic life in his De seculo et religione, urging a correspondent to strengthen his resolve. However, by 1393 he was writing letters warning against the limitations of seclusion. The contemplative life is more spiritual because the active life is concerned with worldly needs. However, the contemplative life benefits only the person, but the active life is concerned with virtue and helping others. In a letter trying to persuade a monk not to abandon his vocation to be married, Salutati wrote that the human soul cannot not love. The soul is perpetually growing, thinking, and loving. One must choose between carnal love and spiritual love, but he recommended a path between the two extremes. In the early 1390s he helped Florence defend its liberty against attacks by Milan’s Gian Galeazzo by calling upon every citizen and good man to defend the commonwealth against subversion and tyranny.

When his second wife died in 1396, Salutati wrote De fato et fortuna. Influenced by Dante, he interpreted human events as part of the grand design of God. He now saw the vicissitudes of fortune as part of divine providence. The divine will influences the human will which is responsible for its actions. He considered the will more important than the intellect because it exercises freedom and seeks the good through love. He described how the historical events of Rome fit into the divine plan. Salutati helped Florence acquire an extensive collection of manuscripts, and he hoped to start a public library. In 1396 he authorized a chair of Greek in the Florentine studio (university). He supported the republican theory that Florence was founded by Sulla rather than by Julius Caesar.

In 1399 Salutati wrote De nobilitate legum et medicine recommending an active life of helping others. The physician studies the body and seeks to benefit individuals; but the profession of law is superior because by conscience it strives for moral governance and serves the entire community. The intellect can never have perfect knowledge of infinite God, but the human will can be completely devoted to good and experience beatitude. In 1400 Salutati wrote De tyranno which, like Dante, criticized the assassins of Julius Caesar for murdering a lawful monarch. He argued that monarchy by a wise and good leader is the best form of government because democracy is too divisive and chaotic. In 1403 his Invective against Antonio Loschi justified Florence’s recent wars. His last literary work used the labors of Hercules to symbolize how people can improve the world. In 1406, his last year, Salutati argued with the Dominican theologian Giovanni Dominici, who believed that only well established minds should read the ancient poets and philosophers.

Italy and Humanism


1. Quoted in Life of Petrarch by Ernest Hatch Wilkins, p. 11.
2. “To Dionisio da Borgo san Sepolcro” in Fam. IV, I, and Petrarch by James Harvey Robinson, p. 317.
3. “Petrarch’s Coronation Oration” in Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch by Ernest Hatch Wilkins, p. 304.
4. My Secret Book by Francis Petrarch, tr. J. G. Nichols, p. 24.
5. Canzoni 128 by Francesco Petrarch, tr. Morris Bishop in Petrarch and His World, p. 234.
6. Petrarch and His World by Morris Bishop, p. 286.
7. Familiares XXI, 1, Rossi IV, 51.
8. Petrarch’s Book Without a Name, tr. Norman P. Zacour, p. 27-28.
9. Juvenal, Satires I, 162.
10. Seneca, Epistulae 9:6 quoted in “How a Ruler Ought to Govern His State” by Petrarch, tr. Benjamin G. Kohl in The Earthly Republic, p. 45.
11. “How a Ruler Ought to Govern His State” by Petrarch, tr. Benjamin G. Kohl in The Earthly Republic, p. 60.
12. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio tr. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, Second Day, Ninth Story, p. 141.
13. Ibid., p. 389.
14. Ibid., p. 654.
15. The Fates of Illustrious Men by Giovanni Boccaccio tr. Louis Brewer Hall, p. 242.
16. Famous Women by Giovanni Boccaccio tr. Virginia Brown, p. 9.
17. Ibid., p. 333.

Copyright © 2009 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book Medieval Europe 1250-1400.
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Crusaders and Byzantine Decline 1250-1400
Eastern Europe 1250-1400
Catholic Ethics 1250-1350
German Empire 1250-1400
Scandinavia 1250-1400
Castile, Aragon, Granada, and Portugal 1250-1400
Italian City States 1250-1400
Dante and Marsilius
Petrarca and Boccaccio
Low Countries and Burgundy 1250-1400
France and National War 1250-1400
England, Scotland, and Ireland 1250-1400
Mystics, Wyclif, Gower, and Chaucer
Summary and Evaluation


World Chronology 750-1300
World Chronology 1300-1400
Chronology of Europe to 1400

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