The Different Facets of Humor in Boccaccio's Decameron

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Between 1349 and 1351, the Italian poet and writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375) wrote his major work, the Decameron. The title itself is in Greek (deca-hemeron) and means “ten days”: the work is, in fact, a collection of one hundred tales told by ten storytellers over a ten-day period of time. In order to create a realistic setting, Boccaccio invented a framework about the Black Death, the plague that was ravaging entire Europe, killing a third of its population. Due to the terrible devastation caused by the epidemic, seven young women and three young men decide to escape to the Florentine countryside. They find refuge in one of the girls’ farmhouses, where they recreate the social and moral order lost with the plague by setting up rules and organizing the day. They agree upon pleasantly spending time together by telling each other stories: at the end of every day, a king or a queen would be elected to choose the activities and the theme of the tales to be narrated the following day. One may think that the gloomy setting of the Black Death would have some kind of impact on the content of the stories, but this is not the case here. Boccaccio’s Decameron is actually extremely well known to be the first work in Italian vernacular in which the value of comedy is fully exploited.

His aim is, in fact, to entertain all different classes through the stories, creating humor that both lower and higher classes could find funny. In order to do so, he mocks all classes equally, allowing people to laugh at themselves and at everyone else, trying to find common ground through laughter and humor in which they could be connected. At the same time, he had the chance to comment on different aspects of the society of the time and expressing his opinion in a more subtle way.

Boccaccio was innovative in his way of approaching delicate themes and important institutions. In this essay I will attempt to show the different facets of humor in the Decameron, and how the use humor contributed to express his criticism towards the Church, which had great importance over the life of people of the 14th century; we’ll also see his stance over taboos such as sex, a common theme through his work; finally, we’ll look at how he describes the virtues he conferred to the merchant culture of his time, the social class he belonged to, and that he wanted to convey to the rest of the population.

Boccaccio harshly criticizes the Church’s behavior of corruption and inconsistency, questioning Christian moral values. The writer addresses these issues in a completely revolutionary attitude compared to the literary culture of the time. He especially condemns the commerce of false relics and the exploitation of the veneration of Saints, and also clerical celibacy and religious people’s hypocrisy about sexuality. In order to demonstrate these claims, we can take two meaningful stories as examples: Frate Cipolla and La Badessa Delle Brache.

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The tale of Frate Cipolla (Decameron VI, 10) is one of the major examples of humor in the Decameron. The story has as main character a friar, Frate Cipolla, who every year visits the Tuscan village of Certaldo in order to collect alms, making people believe of owning some rare relics, in this case claiming to have a feather of the angel Gabriel. Two prankster friends of his decided to steal the feather, which the friar intended to show to the people during mass and replaced it with simple coal. Unaware, Frate Cipolla proceeds with the sermon in front of hundreds of people, and, when he finally finds out about the wrongdoing, he manages anyway to extricate himself from this embarrassing situation, thanks to his oratorical talents. In this tale, we can find humor under many different aspects, especially under a linguistic point of view.

In Book II of De Oratore, Cicero distinguishes wit of matter, based on facts and includes anecdote and caricature, and wit of form, based on words and awakens laughter. Here, we can find both. Nancy Minicozzi, in her essay “Sources of Comedy in Boccaccio's Decameron: The Tale of Frate Cipolla”, writes that “the descriptions of the characters and the situations make us laugh because the linking of disparates underscores the discrepancy between them, pointing out how ridiculous the one is compared to the other. This is the wit of matter, a comedy that exploits the gap between reality and appearance. Conversely, the humor found in the speeches is mainly wit of form, a comedy of language, filled with puns, ambiguity, and nonsense” (Minicozzi, 106). An example of wit of matter in the descriptions is the fact that Frate Cipolla is described to be uneducated but with a great oratorical talent, as had Cicero or Quintilian (“... non solamente un gran rettorico l’avrebbe estimato, ma avrebbe detto esser Tulio medesimo o forse Quintiliano”, Boccaccio, tale VI, 10). The comic discourse here is the result of the inappropriate comparison between two opposite social levels since he could have hardly be mistaken for the two major Roman orators (Miniciozzi, 108). As for the wit of form, the main source is found in the words themselves: in the speeches, Boccaccio exploits equivocal language, such as double meanings, nonsense, parody, and nonexistent words or names. In his final sermon, Frate Cipolla claims to have traveled around the world to find the rarest relics and found the most incredible cultures. What he is actually doing is transforming the ordinary into extraordinary using the ambiguity of language. He describes the habits of the residents of Abruzzi of clothing pigs in their own entrails, instead of simply stating that they make sausages. Boccaccio’s opinion about the commerce of false relics and the veneration of Saints. Not only does he condemn the Church for corruption, but he also criticizes the foolish masses who can be easily manipulated due to the religious beliefs they hold.

A great number of tales have, as main characters, members of the clergy becoming involved in sexual relationships. We can take as an example the tale “La Badessa Delle Brache” (Decameron IX, 2): the abbess of a convent in Lombardy rises in haste one night, with intent to surprise a nun in bed with her lover. Thinking to put on her veil, she puts on instead the breeches of a priest that she has with her: the nun, noticing her headgear, and exploiting her wit, is acquitted, and from then on finds it easier to meet with her lover. Here, the source of humor is, of course, sex and sexuality, a taboo for the conservative society of the time. Boccaccio’s stance on sexual needs is completely new to the people of the 14th century. In his famous Novella delle Papere, he interrupts the narration to clarify his point of view: love in all its form (both spiritual and carnal) is an instinct inspired by nature itself, and thus it cannot be suppressed, neither by social nor religious norms. In fact, there are numerous tales in which the character are given free rein to fulfill their needs.

An example is Peronella (Decameron VII, 2), a beautiful woman, married to a poor man, who is unfaithful to her husband when he goes off to work every day. One day, the husband returns home early and finds her with a young gentleman, so she cunningly makes her husband believe that the man is there to buy a barrel. Intelligence and acumen are celebrated all over the Decameron together with oratorical talents because it is thanks to these abilities that the characters achieve their goal, even though it is at someone else’s expense. This inclination is shown by planning jokes and pranks on gullible and naive people just for fun. Related to this, the series of tales dedicated to Calandrino, a character actually existed in Florence, who is always the target of pranks planned by his two friends, Bruno e Baffalmacco. In Calandrino e l’Elitropia, the main character is convinced of the existence of a magic stone that could make people invisible, so he suggests to his friend to find it in order to steal money and become rich; in Calandrino è Incinto Bruno e Baffalmacco make him believe to be pregnant to take his money; lastly, in Calandrino e la Bella Niccolosa (day IX, the two pranksters tell him that a young and beautiful girl is in love with him, making his wife Tessa so jealous that she brutally punishes him when she finds out about the attempted betrayal. Calandrino represents the stereotypical fool without virtues, who is always pranked as a punishment for his stupidity, his selfishness, and his greed.

In conclusion, in this essay, we have looked at Boccaccio’s modernity towards institutions and values that were considered sacred in the 14th century. In his work, the author condemned the Church’s corruption and hypocrisy, in tales like Frate Cipolla and La Badessa Delle Brache. We have seen how he celebrated secular and worldly values, with little interest to religion, with the Novella delle Papere, and Peronella. And finally, we have learned which values Boccaccio appreciates the most, intelligence, acumen, and wit, in the series of tales dedicated to Calandrino and his misfortune.

The humor in the Decameron comes in many forms: of course taboos, mishaps and pranks engender laughter, but it is also on a deep linguistic level. Boccaccio’s Decameron is one of the major works of Italian literature. The fact that was written in vernacular Italian, that is the language spoken by ordinary people, means that it was meant to be spread among all the people and that everyone could have the chance to enjoy the same stories and laugh at common humor. Moreover, the use of common issues of society allowed the jokes, pun, and criticism to be understood by a broader public. Boccaccio created a really entertaining literary work, able of breaking class barriers with its humor.

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