Friday, February 15, 2013

14th Century Italian Literature: The Inferno vs The Decameron

My final seminar, the course I need to finish my degree, is on Italian Literature, and English language authors in Italy. It's an interesting syllabus full of titles and authors I'm not previously familiar with (which is always a little bit exciting). We read 20 of the 100 tales of The Decameron and now we are reading all of The Inferno, part one of Dante's Divine Comedy. I'm about to go full literature nerd. You've been warned.

In many ways, Boccaccio wrote The Decameron as a secular counter point to Dante. Where Dante wrote a divine comedy, Boccaccio was writing an earthy, human comedy. He uses a similar religious conceit in the structure of the story. Dante's Divine Comedy has 100 cantos (1 prologue canto, 33 within the Inferno, 33 in Purgatorio, and 33 in Paridiso). The Decameron consists of 100 tales told over ten days by ten tellers.
The Decameron as a whole has a subversive feel to it. It shows authority figures to be corrupt and those with the quickest wit, not the best morals, prosper. Boccaccio also subtitled his work, "of Prince Galehaut." This is a reference to the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and Guinevere's illicit love. Galehaut arranged the tryst between the two lovers. In this way, Boccaccio is signalling his audience that his tales will be of this bawdy nature.
Lancelot and Guinevere are referenced in The Inferno. In circle II, The Circle of the Lustful, Dante encounters a couple called Francesca and Paolo. Francesca tells him how she was deceived into marrying Paolo's brother. She and Paolo would meet to read together. They read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere which moved them to, in a moment of passion, share a kiss. Francesca's husband catches them and kills them both.
Basically, by subtitling his work with a reference to the that tale, Boccaccio is saying that he is writing immoral stories. He's writing the kind of stories that can land you in Dante's hell.

This seems as good a segue as any to let you know that I'm spending the first week of March in Italy with others from the class. We have plenty of literary stops planned.
I've just started a new travel blog, so most of my photos and whatnot will be recorded there. I'd love it if you guys would check it out!

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