Until about 50 years ago, the prevailing account of Boccaccio’s Decameron was of an unreflective celebration of the natural, especially sexual, world, which in turn was said to play an equally unreflective role in the emergence of the kind of secularly based realistic representation whose history Auerbach sketches and celebrates in Mimesis.
Then came a scholarly revolution, which turned away from Boccaccio as “nature boy” to an author deeply engaged with his late medieval world, whether in socio-political terms (Branca’s “epic of the merchants”), allegorical-iconographic terms (Kirkham’s “allegorically tempered Decameron”), or in those of a ludic revision of Dantean and other medieval conceptions of the literary (Mazzotta, Marcus, et alii). In the project of which the present talk is part, Albert Ascoli revisit the question of “nature” on the other side of this critical revision—not as the unexplored “essence” of Boccaccio’s masterpiece, but rather as a category at once central and deeply problematic, explored in its dual aspects as object of literary (and artistic) representation—the supreme visual “naturalism” attributed to Giotto by Panfilo Day 6, novella 5—and epistemological inquiry—the supposed Epicurean speculations within the domain of a God-free nature attributed to the poet-philosopher Guido Cavalcanti in Day 6, novella 9. In particular, he argues that Boccaccio deliberately juxtaposes these two characters and the stories they inhabit via an elaborate intertexual and intratextual weave that constitutes, among other things, a focused and ironic interpretation of Dante’s representations of the possibilities and limitations of human art and human knowledge in the Commedia.
Albert Russell Ascoli (B.A., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1975; Ph.D., Cornell University, 1983) is Terrill Distinguished Professor of Italian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently serves as President of the Dante Society of America. He is the author of three books, Ariosto’s Bitter Harmony (1987); Dante and the Making of a Modern Author (2008) and A Local Habitation and a Name: Imagining Histories in the Italian Renaissance (2011) and numerous essays, as well as co-editor of several books and journal issues, most recently The Cambridge Companion to Petrarch (with Unn Falkeid, 2015). Among other honors, he has held the Rome Prize of the American Academy in Rome (2004-2005), while in 2013 he was elected “Foreign Member” of the Istituto Lombardo Accademia delle Scienze e delle Lettere, and in 2016 became “Socio Straniero” of the Arcadia, Accademia Letteraria Italiana (with the pastoral name, Aganisto Clelio). While serving as visiting professor at the Villa I Tatti he is writing a book provisionally entitled, “Lo Specchio di Emilia: Natura, Arte, Sapere, nel Decameron di Boccaccio” and is preparing a study of the 1516 edition of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso.