Stefania Ciocia looks at Decameron

Of Fortune, Falls and Falcons: Stefania Ciocia has Fun with Boccaccio’s Decameron

For the longest of time I have been a social media refusenik. I have never been particularly good at keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances other than ‘in real life’. I much prefer not hearing from somebody for ages – it depends on the somebody too – and then having a proper non-digital catch-up. It takes me back to the intensity with which it’s possible to cultivate relationships in our younger days, say, if we’re lucky, in our student years, or over summer holidays: the leisure of chatting sessions lasting long into the evening, impromptu visits, rustled up meals, the indulgence of sharing a whole tub of ice-cream with your best mate while nattering away about everything and nothing. Besides, with a name like mine, I don’t need to harness the power of online networks: if anybody’s trying to track me down, a simple internet search will suffice. I have enough of a digital footprint as it is, I used to think.

Last July, I finally took the plunge and got myself a Twitter account, fashionably behind the curve. The medium’s addictive, informative, and entertaining. I had promised myself that I would use it judiciously, and go easy on the personal information and the oversharing but, really, my first attempts at knitting had to be documented photographically for posterity. Still, je ne regrette rien. What gave me the final nudge to enter the fray – and, yes, I’m inching my way towards the literary topic of this blog – was landing on my perfect Twitter name: “Gained in Translation”. How do you convey what you are about in a strapline? Of the many facets of my identity, being an immigrant, and straddling two cultures defines who I am – who I fiercely want to be – more than I can say.

As with a lot of other ideas (or texts) that I am passionate about, I can recall my first encounter with the notion that displacement is not always, or not only, a loss. It came during my Erasmus year in Hull while reading this passage from Salman Rushdie’s ‘Imaginary Homelands’: “The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin word for ‘bearing across’. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained”. That last line is an article of faith to me. And I was pleased as Pulcinella when I saw the ‘Gained in Translation’ headline to Tom Griffith’s excellent blog post on what is entailed in making texts accessible across linguistic borders.

I have never done much literary translation. I am sure I would have found it easier when I was still learning English than I would now. These days I either think and speak in one language or the other, barring the occasional interferences, which I am learning to embrace without beating myself up over their happenstance. Sometimes they land on my lap like gifts from the linguistic gods, felicitous accidents that end up expanding my family lexicon here in the U.K.. It took my English-speaking partner overhearing my Dad saying “sono distrutto” to put two and two together and realise why I have taken to complaining that “I’m destroyed” when I am exhausted. It hadn’t occurred to me that the expression had become part of my domestic linguistic repertoire.

The occasional porousness between my two languages can bother me too, especially if the right word eludes me in a professional context. It’s the pressure of being your best, your most put-together self, in front of your students. Maybe I feel it with particular intensity because, as an immigrant (time to reclaim this term!), I teach Anglophone literature to a majority of native speakers of English. In fairness, this has always been more of an issue for me than for them. And, while I don’t exactly cover my Italian tracks in class, I gave myself permission to flaunt them, for a change, and invite my students to follow me to the Belpaese, if only via the pages of a book.

The opportunity came about because a bunch of brilliant students meet weekly in a local pub for their own Bookclub. Sometimes they allow one of us, lecturers, to take a guest spot in choosing the topic and chairing the discussion. On previous invitations, my mind had immediately gone to texts I love but haven’t quite managed to squeeze in the syllabus of one of my courses. This time I let myself be guided by another principle: revisit an Italian text from my own student days. I decided to pick something chronologically as far away from my area of expertise as possible, thinking that the distance would make it hard for me to fall back into teacher mode. (Easier said than done.) Also, the reading would have to be fun, and good to stimulate conversation. Cue lightbulb moment.

Andreuccio da Perugia’ and ‘Federigo degli Alberighi’ popped into my mind straight away, clamouring to have a turn in the Bookclub limelight: they are, respectively, the fifth tale of the second day and the ninth tale of the fifth day in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a foundational prose work at the time – the 14th century – when Italian was beginning to take itself seriously as a literary language. Boccaccio coined his title from the Greek to mean “ten days”, in reference to the time span of the frame story: in 1348, with the Black Death raging through Europe, seven young women and three young men leave Florence to seek shelter from the contagion in a secluded villa in the countryside. To entertain themselves, they agree to tell each other stories: each day one of them will be the “Queen” or “King” in charge of the theme, and all ten of them in turn will tell a suitable tale. A bit like Bookclub, only more concentrated in time and with the added fear of pestilence.

‘Andreuccio’ and ‘Federigo’ are amongst the most famous individual narratives in the one-hundred-strong collection. They are told by Fiammetta – a guarantee of quality since that is the name of Boccaccio’s muse – and they both have a happy ending, as demanded by the rules of the storytelling game. The theme of day two is adventures with a positive conclusion, while day five is all about lovers getting together after a series of extraordinary events and trials. The idea that the two tales end well perhaps ought to be qualified. I was counting on the Bookclub gang being too busy enjoying the scatological humour in Andreuccio, and admiring the nobility of heart of Federigo, to raise any moral objections over the collateral damage left in the wake of the pursuit of happiness. My cunning plan worked up to a point.

Andreuccio da Perugia’ is a proper romp – a “shaggy dog story”, one of my students called it, referring (not unfavourably) to its high jinks and improbability. Apart from its earthy, bodily, almost Rabelaisian comedy, what I love about this story is how for all its reckless silliness and, conversely, the careful artifice of its tripartite narrative structure, it is grounded in realism. We see it in the precision of its setting, a thinly sketched yet clearly recognizable Naples. One could draw a map of the proceedings: we begin in Piazza del Mercato (market square), take a disastrous detour in the neighbourhood of Malpertugio near the Marina (harbour), bumble along Ruga Catalana, and finally venture, on very dodgy business, to the Duomo (the cathedral).

Malpertugio, literally “Evil Hole”, was a seedy part of the city, not far from the Banco dei Bardi, where Boccaccio had worked as an apprentice in his youth. Its ominous reputation is inscribed in the name and thus obvious to everybody (except Andreuccio), while readers well-versed with Neapolitan topography can appreciate the punctilious accuracy of “going the wrong way up Catalan Street”, as our befuddled protagonist heads not towards the seaside, and his hotel, as he wishes, but inland, towards the upper part of the city. The young hero is looking for water to wash himself, for he stinks to high heaven, having fallen into an open-air sewer in what – I kid you not – has turned out to be the lesser of two evils.

Let’s rewind a bit: Andreuccio travels all the way from Perugia to Naples, the capital of the Angevin Kingdom and a metropolis compared to his hometown, in order to purchase some horses. Still wet behind his ears, as the diminutive form of his name suggests, Andreuccio flashes the cash to show that he means business. This ill-advised move attracts the attention of a beautiful young Sicilian woman who, as luck would have it, is in the company of an older lady when the latter also spots Andreuccio and greets him as a dear former acquaintance. The “giovane ciciliana bellissima” takes advantage of this chance encounter to get the lowdown on Andreuccio’s family. Armed with this information, she lures him to her house in Malpertugio where she passes herself off as his newly-found half-sister.

After a substantial dinner, Andreuccio is persuaded to spend the night as the woman’s guest. He undresses to his doublet and, heeding a call of nature, takes himself to the rudimentary latrine, where a loose plank plunges him back into the befouled lane below. With this fatal (faecal?) misstep, the young man loses his five-hundred florins as well as his ‘sister’, but also has a narrow escape for god knows how far the woman would have been prepared to go to get her hands on his purse. This is only the beginning of a night to remember. Wandering about town in his sorry state, Andreuccio falls in with a pair of scoundrels who recruit him to rob the grave of Archbishop Minutolo, a real historical figure, buried with his giant ruby earlier that very day.

Before heading to the Duomo, Andreuccio must get rid of his terrible stench, but not even his ablutions go according to plan: he is left at the bottom of a well by the two thieves, who fled the scene at the approach of a company of patrols. Said patrols get the fright of their life when, instead of drawing a bucketful of water, they pull our lad out of this other ‘evil hole’. It is only by the skin of his teeth – and thanks to impeccable slapstick timing – that he avoids a second, deadly fall by gripping the edge of the well. Phew! Andreuccio’s third and final close shave with death follows shortly when the grave robbers he has serendipitously rejoined coax him into entering the Archbishop’s tomb.

This time Andreuccio has learnt his lesson: he will trust no one. He retrieves all the prelate’s jewels apart from the coveted ring. He has guessed, correctly, that were he to hand it over to his accomplices, they’d lock him up in the coffin and take to their heels. Alas, this is exactly what they do anyway. But, as luck would have it (again), robbers are practically queuing up in the cathedral to have a go at ransacking the tomb: when the next bunch of chancers – priests, no less – prop up the lid, out Andreuccio pops like Jack-in-the-Box, with the ring on his finger. The criminals leave in a panic, and Andreuccio can return to Perugia, “having invested in a ring the money with which he had intended to buy horses”.

My students thought the story hilarious. Double phew! Our first talking point was how well its humour has travelled through the ages, and in translation. The comedy is mostly physical, and the characters are stock types (the sympathetic dupe, the seductress, the villains) whose interactions follow the frantic pace and slammed-doors logic of farce. Andreuccio’s three trials are progressively more terrifying journeys downwards – dude gets smeared in excrement, nearly breaks his neck and then is buried alive – before the final ascent appropriate to the comedic genre.

Fortuna plays a big role in the adventures, with several “what are the chances?” moments, but – and this is an important point – Andreuccio is no mere pawn in the service of a high design. In the course of one evening, he becomes an agent of his own secular destiny: it’s a streetwise (future) merchant, not a loser with his tail between his legs, who makes a (hasty) return to Perugia. And if the ethics of his actions are not beyond reproach, let’s put them down to the frenetic, heightened domain of farce, rather than to an earnest endorsement of the profanation of graves, thievery and general skulduggery. “Nothing to it. No biggie. Just a quiet night in Naples.”[1]

Even more than ‘Andreuccio’, ‘Federigo degli Alberighi’ shows us that Boccaccio writes on the cusp between two epochs, when the doctrine of courtly love, with its belief in innate nobility of spirit, starts to make room for the greater investment in pragmatism, careful financial husbandry and social mobility of the rising middle classes. The genteel Federigo, “who for feats of arms and courtesy had not his peer in Tuscany”, bankrupts himself in trying to win the love of the equally peerless Monna Giovanna, who remains unmoved by his largesse. For the record, she is married at this point, as objects of true amor cortese typically are: conveniently forbidden and out of reach, they ennoble the lover from afar. Don’t get me started: the whole point of courtly love is the celebration of the male lover’s exquisite sensibility. Women are mere incidentals, passively radiating grace and looking pretty. Not (quite) so in this couple’s case. Triple phew!

Federigo’s magnanimity persists in his reduced circumstances and shines through in an extraordinary act of hospitality. Recently widowed, Giovanna pays him a visit to beg the gift of his precious falcon: it’s for her little boy who is gravely ill and has a great desire for it. The falcon is the last vestige of his owner’s previous status, but this is not why Federigo can’t grant his beloved her wish: the two of them have just eaten the bird, served up for lunch as the only suitable repast that could be put together, at short notice, for such a noble guest. The scale of Federigo’s disinterested sacrifice, and the cruel irony of its immediate aftermath, are heart-breaking. The man’s a keeper.

Giovanna’s son never recovers, but the story can’t afford to dwell on maternal grief. Instead, it moves swiftly to the need for a rich young widow – she has now inherited from her son her husband’s wealth – to remarry. Although she’d rather remain single, Giovanna explains to her brothers, those sensitive champions of women’s rights who are pestering her to settle down, that the only man for her is Federigo. Romantic or what! In her own words, she had rather “uomo che abbia bisogno di ricchezza che ricchezza che abbia bisogno d’uomo” (“a man without riches than riches without a man”), not the resounding feminist message I’d like to hear, but there you go. It’s all relative and, anyway, she sticks to her guns until her brothers concede that Federigo is not a bad sort, and give her to him as a bride.[2]

The Bookclub jury was less unanimous on Federigo (both the man and the story) than on Andreuccio (ditto). One of the students thought that, never mind the poor falcon, Federigo’s early courtship of Giovanna had been lame and borderline stalkerish. I am paraphrasing, but only just.[3] Regardless of how we feel about Federigo, and courtly love, the real moral of the story is a matter of financial, not sentimental, education: “And so Federigo, being wedded to such a woman, and one that he had so much loved, and being very rich to boot, lived in happiness with her, having become a better manager of their estates, until the end of his days”.

Don’t let the parenthetical mention of “good husbandry” fool you: that “miglior massaio fatto” is no throwaway comment. It is marking time for the rules of amor cortese, a code for aristocrats and intellectuals, and heralding the entrepreneurial ideology of the new mercantile classes. Boccaccio may not have enjoyed his time at Banco dei Bardi – he wasn’t cut out for a career in finance: the business world’s loss has been world literature’s gain – but his Decameron sings the praises of ingenuity, quick wit, expediency, hard graft (and sheer luck?) that would elevate banking families, like the Medici in his native Tuscany, from local professional concerns to powerful political dynasties and economic juggernauts. With Boccaccio we wave goodbye to the Middle Ages and roll up our humanist sleeves for the brave new world of the Italian Renaissance.

Dr Stefania Ciocia is a Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. You can find her on Twitter as Gained in Translation @StefaniaCiocia.

[1] I am quoting the end of the adaptation of this very tale in Robin Brooks’ Decameron Nights: Ten Italian Indelicacies Remixed from Boccaccio, first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2014, and now available on BBC Sounds and here. This brilliant series, which includes ‘Federico and his Falcon’ too, is true to the spirit, if not always to the letter, of the original. Added bonus for Monty Python fans: the ten stories are introduced by Terry Jones.

[2] If we translate the original as if it were modern Italian, we get “I’d rather have a man in need of wealth than wealth in need of a man”: can we not assume that Giovanna is saying that she would prefer to be poor and single than rich and in need of a husband? That’s more in line with her reluctance to wed again, but I suspect that this translation is skewed towards my modern sensitivity.

[3] I don’t agree with my student, and I told him so at Bookclub, but his comment has stayed with me. I wonder to what extent our respective reactions are a matter of generational difference as much as anything else. Long may these moments of respectful disagreement and discussion continue. They are the heart and soul of critical thinking, whether in the classroom, in the local pub or wherever they may happen.