In past generations, before sex and violence became routine staples of our literary life and soft-core pornography became as readily available as prophylactics in our drugstores, Giovanni Boccaccio occupied a special place in the affections of hormone-driven schoolboys. He was the classic (as Erskine Caldwell was the modern writer and National Geographic the picture magazine) to whom they could turn for erotic stimulation. There was not much else; parts of Chaucer, but they tended to be in verse, while other classics such as the "Satyricon" and "Les Quinze Joyes de Mariage" were fully available only to those who had mastered a foreign language.
Presumably, that audience has withered away, following a literary corollary of Gresham's law, and Boccaccio probably would not mind losing it; he collects no royalties and he did not consider the "Decameron" his major entry in the literary glory sweepstakes. It was a sort of breathing space, a transition between youthful poems in Italian and Latin, modeled on his idols Dante and Petrarch, and the scholarly Latin works of his later years, after he had served honorably on many diplomatic missions for the city-state of Florence.
In a sense, the "Decameron" marks a breathing space, too, between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which Boccaccio helped bring to birth as much as any single man in history. He may have written poems about the semi-symbolic Fiammetta, who served as the inspiration for his youthful poems (as Laura did for Petrarch and Beatrice for Dante), but his true, lifelong infatuation was with the Greek language, which he came to know slightly, used in many of his titles ("Decameron," for example) but never fully mastered. He wangled the appointment of Leontius Pilatus as the first professor of Greek at the newborn University of Florence, in 1360. The appointment lapsed two years later, after the bankers and merchants of the city discovered that Pilatus was teaching ancient, literary Greek, rather than the modern language that might have been useful in business, but the date is nonetheless a landmark in the cultural history of western Europe.
As far as immortality goes, Boccaccio probably counted more on his learned Latin "Genealogies of the Pagan Gods," which occupied the last 25 years of his life and are now (except for some personal references and allusions to his contemporaries) almost totally useless for scholarly purposes. But if Boccaccio's investment of time and energy in this work was a poor long-term venture, it was a good short-term bet. Like his geographical dictionary, "De montibus," it served the literary men of Europe as a basic reference source for more than two centuries, until other scholars came along, more specialized and equipped with better research tools, to improve on his work.
Today, his fame rests chiefly, and deservedly, on the "Decameron," not for the schoolboy reasons of bygone years but because it is the cornerstone for the building of modern Italian prose style, an ingenious work with many subtleties unclear to the casual reader, and the first major expression of the spirit of realism embodied in the rising bourgeois class that Boccaccio somewhat reluctantly represented. Born (illegitimately but nonetheless welcome) into a Florentine banker's family, he was trained both in law and in accounting, but chose (whenever he could) to associate with "lusty young lords and cavaliers" in his youth, writers and scholars in his later years. His father, who seems to have treated him more kindly than was the norm in the 14th century, he dismisses as "a coldhearted, coarse and stingy old man."
His own personality, known chiefly through his works and his correspondence with Petrarch, is fairly problematic. In one of Boccaccio's poems, Thomas G. Bergin notes, "we learn the fact, not stressed by most biographers of our subject and ignored by some, that he fathered five children . . . One may be permitted to wonder why he never married."
There is also the paradox (or is it?) that a writer who obviously and assiduously sought female companionship and idealized women in some of his early works also showed a strong streak of misogyny in some of his writing. In this, as in his writing styles, his social status and aspirations, his role in the history of literature, Giovanni Boccaccio was a man poised uneasily between two worlds. Without adding any new information to the enormous scholarly literature on him, Thomas Bergin has written for the general reader a useful, readable study of the man and those worlds.