Printer Friendly

Generating feminine discourse in Boccaccio's Decameron: the "Valle delle donne" as Julia Kristeva's chora.

AT the end of Day VI, the seven ladies of the brigata depart for the uniquely feminine "Valle delle donne," which is perhaps the most beautiful and harmonious locus amoenus in all of the Decameron. The "Valle delle donne," however, is more than a mere ornamental space, and more than solely a locus amoenus. (1) It is, I sustain, a pre-symbolic space that generates and empowers the feminine discourse that defines Day VII. The "Valle delle donne" lends Day VII a certain symbolic topology inside of which "si ragiona delle beffe, le quali o per amore o per salvamento di loro le donne hanno gia fatte a' suoi mariti, senza essersene avveduti o si" (VII). In an effort to expose this locus amoenus as a presymbolic space, this paper explores the "Valle delle donne" through the lens offered by Julia Kristeva's notion of the chora--an approach that has not yet been applied to a reading of Boccaccio's "Valle delle donne." The "Valle delle donne," I believe, resembles Kristeva's concept because both are pre-symbolic spaces in which energy and meaning are generated. Just as the semiotic chora is linked to the world of the symbolic, the "Valle delle donne" is likewise linked to the ten novellas that make up Day VII. That is, although the valley is not present in any of the stories of Day VII, it serves, however, to frame and determine the nature of the symbolic space in which the stories are told. In each of the ten novellas of Day VII, therefore, is recognizable the presence of an empowered feminine discourse--akin to the day's theme--conceived in the Kristevan chora that is the "Valle delle donne."

What exactly is the chora? In the section entitled "The Semiotic Chora Ordering the Drives" of Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), a profound meditation as to how poetic language is constituted in speaking subjects, Julia Kristeva proposes an answer to this question. To begin, Kristeva borrows the term chora from Plato's Timaeus. In this work Plato likens the chora to the figure of a mother--one who nourishes and cares for another living being. As commentator Miglena Nikolchina stresses, however, Kristeva's use of the concept "is a matter not of a simple transfer from Plato, but of a radical translation" (164). In this light, Kristeva's "radical translation" is built around two points of agreement with Plato: 1) the chora is generative; and 2) it is an indeterminable and mutable space. Building upon this, Kristeva defines the chora as a space that "precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality, and temporality" (26). Moreover, she claims that the chora is "a nonexpressive totality formed by the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated" (25). As such, "one can situate the chora and, if necessary, lend it a topology, but one can never give it axiomatic form" (26). (2) Kristeva thereby claims that although one must use signifiers to express the notion of the chora, it is of great importance to note that the chora precedes the very linguistic sign that it determines and shapes. This is achieved because the chora is, as Kristeva elaborates, the "kinetic functional stage of the semiotic" (27; her emph.). The semiotic chora transmits to the symbolic sphere its own "semiotic articulations" through "biological code or physiological 'memory'" (29). One must keep in mind that although the symbolic sphere and its antecedent chora are distinct, once a speaking subject has been constituted, the two establish a mutual dependency. This dependency is formed because "[o]ur discourse--all discourse--moves with and against the chora in the sense that it simultaneously depends upon and refuses it" (26). The chora works to program the symbolic sphere in which are found the "constraints of biological (including sexual) differences and concrete, historical family structures" (29). All systems of signification, therefore, exhibit the imposing rhythms and currents of the chora.

Now that I have provided an elucidation of the chora, I draw my attention to Boccaccio's "Valle delle donne." If, as I argue, the valley described at the end of Day VI of the Decameron does in fact function in a manner similar to the semiotic chora in relation to the stories of Day VII, then it follows that there must be a semiotic/symbolic link between the "Valle delle donne" and Day VII. Most studies of the valley, however, have not drawn any form of link between the locus amoenus described at the end of Day VI and the storytelling of Day VII. Edith Kern, for example, focused her study on the presence of classical mythology in the "Valle delle donne." (3) In another study, Thomas Stillinger studied the valley and its position at the narrative center of Boccaccio's text. (4) But I have found none that adequately link the valley to the stories of Day VII. Georges Guntert recognizes that the "Valle delle donne" serves to prepare the women for Day VII. Guntert defines the ladies' disrobing and bathing in the valley as a "rituale esorcistico-propiziatorio"--an act that resultantly enables the transgressive natures of the women characters in Day VII (31). I believe an even more coherent linkage is achieved by examining the valley's physical and metaphorical constitution--its topology--thereby highlighting similarities between it and the chora.

Boccaccio provides us with a physical description of the valley. One arrives in the "Valle delle donne" by means of a single, natural pathway. In the center of the valley is a lake, fed by a "chiarissimo fiumicello" that makes "un romore a udire assai dilettevole" (VI.Conc.25). The valley, the existence of which is at first only known to Elissa, has the form of a perfect circle, as if designed by a compass: "ritondo come a se a sesta" (VI.Conc.20). It is nestled in the harmonic security of six perfect hills, each lined with olive and fig trees and wrapped in vines. Upon the hills are situated six villas. The hills themselves descend harmoniously, as if lined with seats in a theater, upon the metaphoric stage that is the valley's center. It is in this pure "Valle delle donne" that the ladies of the brigata feel comfortable to undress and swim in the lake. Unlike the other gardens present in the Decameron, there is no fountain in the "Valle delle donne," a few tables are set, but are quickly removed, and no villa, nor man-made construction, is at the valley's center. (5)

Boccaccio's physical description of the valley suggests a metaphoric interpretation that resembles the chora. Besides a few delectable objects brought there by the brigata (musical instruments, rugs, drapes), all that is found in the valley is nature in its most perfect form. The idyllic scene is therefore contrasted only by the slight hint of civilization kept at a distance by the presence of the six villas on the hills. That is, the uncorrupt "Valle delle donne" precedes all forms and hints of civility by calling upon a sense of return to a place of primordial purity. The valley is, I uphold, a metaphoric space that echoes Eden. It is in essence a natural, guarded, generative and evolving space; one that calls to mind the metaphor of the womb. That is to say, the valley is womb-like in both its preceding of civilization and its maternalistic nurturing of what will eventually become a speaking subject operating in the sphere of the symbolic--in this case, the ten stories of women tricking men in Day VII. (6)

The "Valle delle donne," I believe, functions in a manner similar to the semiotic chora because: 1) its physical constitution, as shown above, suggests a metaphorical interpretation akin to Kristeva's explication of the concept; 2) its narrative position in the Decameron at the end of Day VI highlights it as Day VII's invariable point of departure; 3) its distinctively feminine nature is intensified by the fact that Day VII's stories--unlike any other day in the Decameron--are only about women tricking men; and 4) as is requisite for the chora, the "Valle delle donne," too, has no axiomatic form in the stories of Day VII, but by lending it a topology, however, it is both present and simultaneously absent in the storytelling of Day VII. That is, as a narrative frame it encapsulates the day's storytelling. At the same time, however, no reference to it can be found in the stories themselves. This presence/absence (both spatial and temporal) focuses the reader's attention on the primordial aspects of the valley. The reader, therefore, accepts the "Valle delle donne" as both the narrative frame inside of which the day's stories are recounted, and the space in which the stories take on their distinctively feminine character.

Now I wish to take a look at how the language of Day VII is empowered by the "Valle delle donne." As cited earlier, Day VII is defined as a day in which, "si ragiona delle beffe, le quali o per amore o per salvamento di loro le donne hanno gia fatte a' suoi mariti, senza essersene avveduti o si" (VII). As such, each of the ten stories presents situations wherein women perform tricks on men, therefore emphasizing the women's superiority. As Cesare Segre affirms, the language of Day VII reveals the intellectual superiority of the woman: "Nella beffa non c'e solo l'autodifesa, ma anche l'umiliazione del marito, vinto dall'intelligenza o dalla furbizia della donna" (119). A specific example is found in the language of the first character of Day VII: Tessa. Her incantation serves as the ultimate episode of trickery. Tessa's words bear out her superiority over the men of the tale. Her language possesses the spellbinding power of poetics. Not only calculated and balanced, the words also serve to empower the female by effectively distorting the male listener's perception of reality.
 Fantasima, fantasima che di notte vai, a coda ritta ci venisti, a
 coda ritta te n'andrai: va nell'orto, a pie del pesco grosso
 troverai unto bisunto e cento cacherelli della gallina mia: pon
 bocca al fiasco e vatti via, e non far mal ne a me ne a Gianni mio.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that Tessa's poetic language, as framed in the Decameron, is not an act of recitation, but rather an improvisational poetics spawned out of memory. Artistic improvisation, however, must always call upon a memory that was at one point learned or acquired. As such, Tessa's improvisational poetics leads us to a primordial depository of semiotic memory where before the advent of the linguistic sign existed only the drives and their stases. I therefore propose that Tessa's improvisational poetics is ordered by intrinsic rhythms set in motion by her semiotic memory found in her chora, which is represented metaphorically by Boccaccio as the "Valle delle donne." Tessa's poetics is an example of how, using the words of Kristeva, "certain semiotic articulations are transmitted through the biological code or physiological 'memory' and thus form the inborn bases of the symbolic function" (29). It is without coincidence, therefore, that Tessa's incantation mirrors the naturally composed song that the valley, "insieme con essoloro," sang in chorus with the birds and the brigata at the day's commencement--both Tessa's improvised poetics and valley's song recall the animating rhythms of nature herself (VII.Intro.6).

Another example of how the language of Day VII is linked to the "Valle delle donne" is found in the feminine personage of Lidia who manages to fool her husband, Nicostrato, into believing he is having hallucinations solely by means of her language. In the following example is demonstrated how the power of Lidia's words successfully alter her husband's perception of reality: "a Nicostrato fa credere che non sia vero quello che ha veduto" (VII.9.1). The adulteress Lidia makes love to her secret lover, Pirro, directly under a pear tree in which her husband is found climbing. Lidia's husband looks down and sees them making love, and asks, "Eh messere, che e cio che voi fate? e voi, madonna, come non vi vergognate di sofferirlo in mia presenza? credete voi che io sia cieco?" (VII.9.59). She replies to her husband, Nicostrato: "Sia con la mala ventura, se tu m'hai per si poco sentita, che, se io volessi attendere a queste tristezze che tu di' che vedevi, io le venissi a fare dinanzi agli occhi tuoi" (VII.9.74-75). Lidia's witty response actually causes her husband to believe he has hallucinated the whole spectacular event. In the end, Lidia's trick causes Nicostrato to beg for her forgiveness. It is through linguistic trickery that she disguises her actions and manages not only to fool her husband, but also to demonstrate an effortless, and what appears limitless, command of him. Most important, however, is that Lidia's language reverses what one might understand as the seemingly inherent superiority of the senses over words. Lidia defies sensory reality. To suggest that language could somehow alter the world of the senses is to suggest a world in which the symbolic is almighty. In the case of Lidia, Boccaccio calls attention to the valley's ability to engender discursive power by centering the entire narrative around language and its power to trick. As such, it may be seen that Boccaccio's choice to frame the stories inside a distinctly feminine valley was taken in order to both generate an intratextual discursive power bound only to women, a central component to the day's stories, and to enhance the reader's and/or listener's extratextual perception of that very power.

While it is certainly possible to go through numerous other examples, exhausting each of the ten stories that make up the day, I leave the discussion open to further commentators. It is of greatest importance to this note to recognize, however, that had Boccaccio not framed the language of Day VII's tricks in the "Valle delle donne," the tricks themselves would not have had their same discursive force. The "Valle delle donne," however, does not only prepare the narratives of Day VII. It also serves to prepare the readers: they, too, pass through the semiotic space that is the "Valle delle donne." I believe Boccaccio's intention was clear when he decided to frame the stories of Day VII in the "Valle delle donne." He did not seek to provide a solely delectable garden, a place in which the members of the brigata merely toyed with the delights of nature, but rather sought to establish the framework--the chora--for a symbolic space that would be both empowered and defined by it.

In conclusion, at the end of Day VII one listens to Filomena's ballata. At this point, the members of the brigata have packed up their things and departed from the "Valle delle donne," never to return there in the course of the Decameron. In keeping with tradition, one of the members is called upon to sing a song to the group. Filomena begins with a song of sorrowful yearning in which she expresses her desire to return to a place where she once lived in utter happiness.
 Deh lassa la mia vita!
 Sara giammai ch'io possa ritornare
 donde mi tolsa noiosa partita?

 Certo io non so, tanto e 'l disio focoso,
 che io porto nel petto,
 di ritrovarmi ov'io, lassa, gia fui. (VII.Conc.10-11)

In this passage I believe that Filomena is lamenting the group's departure from its poetic Eden: the "Valle delle donne" as the chora. In all appearance, Filomena's verse is a further expression of this paper's argument. Filomena's poetic yearning reveals how the departure from the "Valle delle donne" constituted the dissolution of a world in which the semiotic chora and the world of the symbolic had lived most harmoniously in the entire course of the Decameron. For both Filomena and the other ladies of the brigata, such a departure would certainly bring about sorrow. (7)


Boccaccio, Giovanni. Decameron. Ed. Vittore Branca. 2 vols. Milano: Mondadori, 1985.

Brown, Marshall. "In the Valley of the Ladies." Italian Quarterly 72 (1975): 33-52.

Cerisola, Pier Luigi. "La questione della cornice del Decameron," Aevum 49 (1975): 137-56.

Guntert, Georges. Tre premesse e una dichiarazione d'amore. Vademecum per il lettore del Decameron. Modena: Mucchi Editore, 1997.

Kern, Edith. "The Garden in Decameron Cornice." PMLA 66 (1951): 505-23.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Nikolchina, Miglena. "The Lost Territory: Parables of Exile in Julia Kristeva." The Kristeva Critical Reader. Ed. John Lechte and Mary Zournazi. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2003. 158-72.

Plato. Timaeus. Ed. and trans. H. D. P. Lee. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965.

Raja, Maria Elisa. Le muse in giardino. Il paesaggio ameno nelle opere di Giovanni Boccaccio. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2003.

Segre, Cesare. "Funzioni, opposizioni e simmetrie nella giornata VII del 'Decameron'." Le strutture e il tempo. Torino: Einaudi, 1974. 117-43.

Stillinger, Thomas. "The language of Gardens: Boccaccio's 'Valle delle donne.'" Traditio 39 (1983): 301-21.

(1) For a detailed analysis of the "Valle delle donne" as a model of the tradition of the locus amoenus, see Raja. For a discussion on the valley as an ornamental space, see Cerisola.

(2) It is important to note Kristeva's use of the term topology instead of topography. The term topology is often used in mathematics and geometry as an abstract term that refers to the study of figures and solid bodies. The use of it by Kristeva, therefore, allows her to speak more coherently about the abstract chora: i.e., the shape of the shapeless, the form of the formless. Topography, conversely, does not present this same freedom of abstraction, referring instead most commonly to actual places, whether geographic or spatial. Topology is less bound to the physical realm, and closer to the logical.

(3) See pp. 518-19.

(4) See p. 303.

(5) It is of interest to note that the repetitive movement away from Florence toward more idyllic landscapes and peaceful loci amoeni in the Decameron reveals not a desire to escape the horrors of Florence, but rather a desire to rediscover those ideal qualities of Florentine civilization that were no longer present in Florentine society due to the presence of the plague. The "Valle delle donne" is therefore highly distinctive in that it appears to be the furthest removed from Florence, and it is arguably the most perfect of all the loci amoeni presented in the work. Marshall Brown notes that the "Valle delle donne" is "even further removed from the temptations and evils of the city-further removed, as we have seen, not in the direction of the countryside and pastoral existence, but in the direction of ideal civility" (36).

(6) Stillinger concurs and extends this metaphor. He posits: "If the Valley resembles a divine omphalos, it also resembles-with its wooded slopes, its single entrance, its penetrable center-a vagina" (317).

(7) I wish to thank Dr. Dino Cervigni, Franck Dalmas, Elsa Filosa and Aurelie Brunie for their help at different stages in preparing this note.


COPYRIGHT 2006 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Romance Languages
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McTighe, Neal
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Sep 22, 2006
Previous Article:Rubem Fonseca's cold case: the ephemeral and the historical in Agosto.
Next Article:El yo-intimo de Dulce Maria Loynaz en tres poemas desubicados.

Related Articles
Visualizing Boccaccio: Studies on Illustrations of The Decameron from Giotto to Pasolini.
Eugenio Giusti. Dall'amore cortese alla comprensione. Il viaggio ideologico di Giovanni Boccaccio dalla Caccia di Diana al Decameron.
Livio XXV, 26 e l'"Introduzione" alla Prima giornata. Di una possibile tessera classica per il "cominciamento" del Decameron.
Maurizio Vitale e Vittore Branca. Il capolavoro del Boccaccio e due diverse redazioni.
Decameron and the Philosophy of Storytelling: Author as Midwife and Pimp.
Pasolini, Chaucer and Boccaccio; two medieval texts and their translation to film.
Simone Villani. Il Decameron allo specchio. Il film di Pasolini come saggio sull'opera di Boccaccio.
Thomas C. Stillinger and F. Regina Psaki, eds. Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters