Monday, October 20, 2014

Thomas G. Bergin's "Boccaccio": Book Review

Avuncular in tone, accessible yet scholarly, this survey from the late Yale professor and translator of Dante and Petrarch introduces the third great Italian humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio. Appearing in 1981, this provided readers with a general overview of the life (and in an dense but useful opening chapter, the times) of the writer known in the fourteenth century for his chivalric stories of love, lives of ancient heroes, and edifying if often tedious (to us) or didactic moral tales. Drawn often from ancient sources, mixed with stories closer to the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance, the author, in Thomas G. Bergin's judicious, thorough yet graceful narrative, seems often at a loss for the brio and energy evident in the Decameron

He starts with an eloquent evocation of medieval mentality (26 ff.) which while brief, is insightful. Bergin reminds us how the medieval traveler resembled a reader, who wanted not to rush to a destination, but to enjoy the journey, as in the long tale of knightly romance, the Filostrato. (99) Lots of what Boccaccio wrote, for modern audiences, wears less well. However, typical of his eye for the telling or humorous detail, Bergin finds a bit of welcome wit buried in the largely anti-feminist sallies of the Corbaccio: "to one who kisses two mouths, one must stink." (201)

In the "pungent and sometimes spicy package" of the hundred famous tales which secured for Boccaccio his place in the triumvirate of his time, Bergin stresses their secular, anti-eternal quality. This distinguishes the Decameron from its predecessors, written by his peers or himself, and Boccaccio's own succeeding texts. (290) Like our era, here Boccaccio's very human, cunning, and resourceful characters sought to advance themselves. "It is a rational world, a commonsense world, compassionate at least if not altruistic." (336) This remains a fine resource for any Boccaccio reader.
(Amazon US 9-20-14)

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