‘The Decameron’ and launching the Renaissance

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 - 2:28pm

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NOSELL

I didn’t know the book had a naked woman on it when I asked for it as a Christmas present. I had first heard of it from my world history teacher in high school, in an offhand comment during one of her tangents I had come to know could be as educational as the class material itself. She had been lecturing on the Italian Renaissance that day, about enlightenment and scientific reasoning, when she stopped mid-sentence and asked if we had heard of Giovanni Boccaccio. Met with only blank stares, she launched into a speech about how Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” was an extremely influential work of fiction and above all the very manifestation of fun itself.

I was intrigued by her description of the book but didn’t think much of it until my aunt asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I couldn’t think of anything, until suddenly “The Decameron” came to my mind. I loved reading and was always looking for a good book, so I thought I’d give it a try and see whether or not it was all my teacher claimed it was.

I didn’t realized what I was getting myself into until my aunt called the next day, asking if my mother thought “The Decameron” was an appropriate gift for a fourteen year old. “There’s a naked lady on the cover,” I heard her inform my mother over the phone. My mother assured her it was fine and said I’d heard about it from a respected teacher. “I just wanted to make sure you were aware,” was my aunt’s reply. After my mother had hung up the phone, she asked me what the book was about. I realized I had no idea, so I simply shrugged and said “the Italian Renaissance.”

On Christmas Eve, as my family finished dinner and began watching our traditional holiday movies, our phone rang. No one thought much of it at first. My father excused himself to answer it and when he came back I could tell from the expression on his face that it was “the call.” The one that crossed my mind every time the phone rang, that made my heart speed up and my hands begin to sweat. The one we had been waiting for since the nurses told us my grandmother wasn’t doing well, and that we should visit if we wanted to say goodbye.

My grandmother died that night and I did not know what to do. She was the only grandparent I had known and with one phone call she was gone. It was a delicate dance of balancing our grief and celebrating Christmas. We cried that night but opened presents the next day. It was strange and uncomfortable, a new territory none of us knew how to navigate. My parents spoke to my relatives to plan her funeral and arrange travel itineraries, while I sat in my room, unsure of what exactly I was supposed to be doing.

I started reading “The Decameron” then, party because I didn’t know what else to do and partly because I always read, and reading made things feel more normal in a way. I soon discovered “The Decameron” was about a group of friends who go to the countryside to wait out the Black Death and pass the time by telling each other stories. The work is set up as a frame story, or a series of smaller stories within one larger, overarching story. The main story is that of the friends trying to escape the plague, while the smaller stories are the ones they tell each other. Ten stories are told each day and each day has a certain theme. The themes range from trickster stories to adventures that go wrong but end happily, among others.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, “The Decameron,” which Boccaccio wrote around 1353, was arguably one of the most influential works written during the Renaissance. The majority of writing and published work before “The Decameron” focused on religion or the aristocracy. “The Decameron” marked a shift toward literature about everyday people. It focuses not on lords or wealthy royals, but a group of commoners. It provided average people with the rare chance to read a book in which they were the stars.

After “The Decameron,” there was an increase in work written with a frame-story structure, something that arguably laid the groundwork for the structure of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” “Don Quixote” is considered by many to be the first real “novel” that resembles the novels in modern day society. By extension, it can be said “The Decameron” helped make the novels we have today possible.

Beyond its influence during and after the Renaissance, what struck me the most about the novel was the way it grappled with death and mortality. It was written in the wake of one of the most devastating plagues humans have known, yet the stories themselves are mostly about having fun. It’s a work filled with wit, humor and stories about humans following their desires and simply having a good time. As one of the blurbs on the back of my copy stated, “It’s purely a celebration of being alive.”

Essentially, Boccaccio’s response to such death and destruction was to live. To enjoy life while it’s possible to and pursue happiness and fulfillment without holding back. In the wake of my grandmother’s death, it helped me see that life in a way is more meaningful because it does not last forever, and we must try to make the most of the time we have.