Some Reading Suggestions for Florence
The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio
To immerse oneself into the heart of medieval Florence, there is no better way than Boccaccio's iconic work. The Decameron is not so much a single work as a collection of novellas revolving around a central theme. As the Black Death ravishes the city, seven ladies and three young noble men take shelter in a secluded villa (along with a myriad of servants) in the hills above Florence. To pass the time, every day each one must tell a tale, and their stories range from the comic to the tragic, from moral tales to simply erotic. Over ten days they tell a tale each per day– the Decameron of the title.
The Tale Begins
“In the vulnerable church of Santa Maria Novella, on a Tuesday morning, when almost no one was there, […] seven young women met each other…”
The Decameron opens with the young ladies chatting together inside Florence's Santa Maria Novella, the first basilica built in the city and one of the most important Gothic buildings in Tuscany. (It contains works by Ghirlandaio, Masaccio, Lippi, Brunelleschi and Giotto, and the façade, completed in 1470, is the oldest original in Florence.) On meeting three young noblemen friends, they form a plan to escape the city, which is being ravished by the plague. Although never clarified, it is commonly believed they go to Fiesole, an Etruscan town settled as early as the 9th C BCE, which offers stunning views of Florence. (A beautiful – but steep – way to reach Fiesole is by walking the Via Boccaccio.) The Villa Palmieri, famous for its gardens, has long claimed to be the setting for their luxurious retreat.
I first read The Decameron when staying in the Convent San Girolamo in Fiesole. Like the noble men and women telling their tales, each morning I opened my windows to gaze down at the city. The sounds of bells, of traffic, of life floated up to me, close enough to be heard, distant enough to feel a world away.
As did Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio wrote in the 'vulgar' vernacular of the Florentine language, rather than using Latin. (In his will, Petrarch left Boccaccio 50 florins, 'to buy a warm gown'.) Through Boccaccio's work I felt privy to life in Florence and Italy during the Middle Ages (The Decameron was finished by 1353). The Decameron has proved highly influential – from Chaucer to Shakespeare, and down into modern writers.
Themes of The Decameron
Of the many themes, one which recurs frequently was popular in Medieval time: the intertwining of Lady Fortune and the Wheel of Fate. However high one might rise, whether peasant or King, as the wheel turns they will eventually fall – or if they have fallen, they will rise again. Many of the tales carry the leitmotif of riches to rags to riches (and back to rags), but with spiritual and personal growth along the way. How and when Lady Fortune will turn the wheel is unknown. Nothing is certain, and although people are becoming increasingly portrayed as individuals, no one has full control of their fate.
Considering the period in which he wrote, Boccaccio sympathetically contrasts the life of women, confined by society to their homes and so often left without a voice, to that of men who have the liberty the noble women lack.
I found The Decameron easiest to read in short sections, much like the way the tales were told. Read cover to cover they can become repetitive, although they are flow with language, metaphor and layer upon layer of allegory. Indeed, I know missed many of the references, just much as it takes a lot of reading to understand all the imagery in the artworks of the time – imagery everyone once understood. Boccaccio borrowed many of the stories from Italian folklore and earlier writers, but increased their complexity while adapting them to a 14th C audience. Sitting on my convent balcony, sipping a glass of prosecco before dinner as the bells in the city below called the faithful to prayer, the works seemed entirely appropriate.
The Prince – Machiavelli
Machiavelli begun his famous work in 1513, a few months after his arrest and torture by the Medici's. Understandably, this had a profound influence on both him and the tone of his work. Although distributed amongst the intellectual elite soon after it was completed, The Prince was not officially published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death. This required the permission of Pope Clement VII (the Church later placed The Prince on its list of prohibited books in 1559).
Machiavelli wrote in the Tuscan vernacular, not Latin. (The influence of Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio is using the vernacular had led to debate about a national language. The first Italian dictionary was not published until 1612, and a formal Italian language was adopted after unification).
This is hardly surprising, considering the nature of the work. The Prince is often cited as one of the first works of modern political philosophy. Its philosophical and political content contrasted markedly with prevailing religious teaching. In essence, Machiavelli suggests that the use of immoral acts is justified if used to achieve a moral one, and that the effective truth is more important than the abstract ideal of Church doctrine. “He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.”
Realism, as opposed to idealism, dominates his work, and Machiavelli takes for granted that political leaders will pursue their own ambitions above any abstract ideal. To found a new state, or a new religion, using injustice and inhumanity, is justified. The use of rhetoric to say one thing while doing another is not a modern political invention.
The Literary Traveller
The Prince was written during the High Renaissance, a time which saw, amongst other developments, a rapid growth of the middle class economy. The concept of the State, as opposed to the City-State previously common in Italy, was growing as feudal territories came under central control. Henry VIII had come to the English throne in 1509, and the Protestant Reformation was brewing, with Luther nailing this thesis to a cathedral door in 1517.
Amongst the artistic splendour of the time was a growing humanism, (Petrarch is considered the first humanist) and the growing concept of the individual and the role of free will. Machiavelli’s work is in direct contrast with this – as were the actions of many leaders. His contempt of the Papacy is barely disguised, and there is no concept of God supporting, or punishing, rulers.
Although The Prince can be read as satire (and was popularly seen as such in the 18th C), it remains unclear whether it would have been understood as such at the time. Indeed, most readings have been otherwise. The influence of The Prince can be seen from Thomas Cromwell and Catherine de Medici (and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572) to America’s founding fathers: Franklin, Madison and Jefferson were all avid readers of Machiavelli. Frederick the Great of Prussia criticised the work, while Napoleon read it extensively, making notes in the margins – as did Stalin. Mussolini wrote a discourse on The Prince, whilst Shakespeare’s Iago adheres faithfully to Machiavelli’s ideals.
Machiavelli does not make light reading, but he remains essential reading for anyone wanting to understand Florence and her history (and, unfortunately, modern history). I suggest sitting somewhere in the sun, with a bowl of steaming pasta and a glass of a local wine, and try to keep your faith in the humanity. The splendours of Florence are witness to such.
And to Come.....
Obviously, these two works only are the start of what promises to be an impossibly long list. Some further suggestions (with reviews to come):
- Dante: Divine Comedy
- Goethe: Italian Journey
- Sobel: Galileo's Daughter
- King: Brunellechi's Dome
- the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who is buried in Florence)
Can all of these be read in one visit? No - but working your way through them offers a good excuse to return!
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Anne Harrison