Giovanni Boccaccio as a model for Italian fairy tale writers

Giovanni Boccacio. Il Decamerone. Lyon: Gulielmo Rovillio, 1555.

Although Giovanni Boccaccio did not write any fairy tales, his fourteenth-century masterpiece the Decameron served as a model for two of the first European authors to embrace the genre, Giovanfrancesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile.  The Decameron opens with a frame tale or cornice that describes the plague of 1348 ravaging the city of Florence.  To escape the death and chaos, ten young Florentines, seven women and three men, flee to a villa in the Tuscan countryside where they amuse themselves by telling a tale each for ten days, for a total of one hundred tales.
By the sixteenth century, the Decameron had become a model for all authors who penned prose tales in Italy.  Both Straparola and Basile imitated to some extent the structure of the Decameron. In Straparola’s The Pleasant Nights, a group of men and women gather on the island of Murano in Venice for thirteen nights during carnival to dance, sing songs, tell tales, and solve riddles.  In Basile’s The Tale of Tales, a fairy tale frame circumscribes 50 tales. An old woman curses Princess Zoza to marry Prince Tadeo who lies in an enchanted sleep.  To wake him, Zoza must fill a jug with her tears.  She falls asleep before finishing the task and a slave name Lucia finishes the job, wakes the prince, and becomes his wife. Undaunted, Zoza has an enchanted doll breathe the desire to hear stories into Lucia’s ear. Ten old crones are called to Prince Tadeo palace to tell one tale each for five days to satisfy his pregnant wife Lucia ‘s craving for tales.  Straparola’s and Basile’s tale collections were so closely linked to Boccaccio’s Decameron in the minds of early modern readers that in 1674 the printer Antonio Bulifon published Basile’s The Tale of Tales with the title Il Pentamerone.
The edition of the Decameron displayed here demonstrates Boccaccio’s appeal to sixteenth-century readers and his influence outside of Italy.  Printed in Lyon, France, in 1555, this Italian edition of the Decameron includes a biography of Boccaccio and a table of proverbs found in the tales.  If you look closely at the pages displayed, you will note that some printed pages have been replaced with pages that were painstakingly copied by hand.

Text by Associate Professor Suzanne Manganini


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