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Giovanni Boccaccio: 'Decameron.'

This short study presents a lucid introduction to a large complex of narratives, the overall direction of which still gives critics much scope for debate. Wisely, Professor Wallace introduces the text rather than the critical perspectives. His own approach might loosely be called |new historicist'; the first of his three chapters is an admirable precis of Boccaccio's life and times, set in the context of Florentine, and Italian, history and politics.

The second, and largest, chapter is a vivid account of the hundred narratives, Day by Day, through the brigata's novelle. Narratives are well paraphrased, with excellent historical background. Although we have a necessary quota of wars, battles and deposed monarchs, it is not all a Boy's Own history; there are sensitive readings of well chosen novelle, with the feminist perspective well to the fore. His suggestion of reading VIII, 7's tale of the scholar and the widow |as one of many medieval variations of the age-old debate in which the masculine figure of philosophy strips away the pretensions and disguises of the lady rhetoric' (p. 90) I found particuarly felicitous, even if that |debate' actually reveals the female figures of Dialectic and Logic in opposition to Rhetoric.

In general, the historical background is used to present the drama of the individual as he or she struggles with or against the various strains in society. From the yearning of sexual desire to the yearning for spiritual salvation, we learn how larger forces weigh on the individual, and Branca's themes of amore, fortuna and ingegno appear to be a critical guide.

Indeed it was the very vibrancy of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy that led to its strife, as individuals and cities competed for trade, patronage or preference. In this maelstrom, manners were, of course, at a premium. This was not the age of bel canto, but of il bel parlare and parlare bene. A favourite theme of Boccaccio critics has been to show how the individual gets out of difficulty by |speaking well', a theme which Boccaccio himself introduces specifically in Day VI, which could almost be seen as a primer or courtesy book. However, it is this possible definition that Wallace applies to the following Day's narratives about the tricks women play on men (p. 81). If this is instructive material, then it has a dangerous double edge to it, and several narrators do actually warn their audience against risking what their characters do. Boccaccio was well aware that his work was a manual of dodges, if taken to be so - and that his narratives could be used for good or ill (see Conclusione d'autore, 13-14).

The exemplary status of much mediaeval literature poses problems about the response expected of the Decameron, then as now. Again, it was something Boccaccio (and Chaucer after him) anticipated in the response given by the narrator of the Griselda story, who prods us into asking: do we read the tale as exemplary allegory or realistic fiction? Given the context of Day X, I find the proposed reading of this tale as a political allegory of despotism (with Gualtieri an |obscene parody' of magnificenza) unconvincing: the purpose of a narrative of barely credible superhuman generosity is to show interpretative play in all its difficulty, and to act as a warning against exemplaristic readings.

If he does not discuss the variety of maps set out by previous and present commentators, Wallace shows persuasively that the Decameron is territory worth exploring and in a brief third chapter he discusses the influence of this landmark of European literature.
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Author:Thompson, N.S.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Previous Article:'Diana's Hunt,' 'Caccia di Diana': Boccaccio's First Fiction.
Next Article:'Carmina Burana': Texte und Ubersetzungen, Mit den Miniaturen aus der Handschrift.

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