Page images

selves, and not to individuals; but Italy, while in the general progress of intellectual culture she was not behind either France or Spain, gave birth to three men of extraordinary genius, who stood then, as they stand now, preeminent among all their contemporaries, and who, each in his peculiar kind, bequeathed the noblest models of excellence to an admiring posterity. They were all Florentines, children of that proud republic, whose destiny it was to renovate, in commercial splendor and in taste for letters, the glories of ancient Athens. Dante, the oldest of the three, and he among them, whose mind was of the most sublime and original cast, gave to the world the first great poem after the revival of letters in Western Europe; Petrarca created lyric poetry anew; and Boccaccio that rich, easy, mellifluous, flexible prose, which is so finely adapted to the national character of the Italians.

Boccaccio is the least celebrated of these illustrious names, because the department of literature, which he most successfully cultivated, wants the elevation of lyric or heroic poetry, and because the licentiousness of a part of his writings has fixed a lasting stigma upon his fame; owing to which, the incidents of his life and the merits of his writings are, perhaps, less familiarly known at the present day than those of Dante or Petrarca. But as Boccaccio was in fact the creator of the classic prose style of his nation, and as the Decameron, the most popular of his works, and that on which his reputation as a writer chiefly rests, is possessed of sterling excellencies, which, in our own day, as well as in preceding times, have endeared it to all the lovers of Italian literature, an account of his life, with a particular examination of the Decameron, may not be devoid of interest.

Neither the birthplace, nor the parentage of Boccaccio is known with certainty. His family, which maintained a respectable rank in the republic of Florence, belonged to Certaldo, a small village in the Val d'Elsa, about twenty miles from the city, from which our author himself was called Giovanni di Boccaccio da Certaldo. His father, Boccaccio di Chellino di Buonaiuto, was a merchant extensively engaged in commercial speculations, who, nevertheless, in the spirit which created the grandeur of his country, had been appointed to important offices in Florence. Giovanni, his son, was born in the year 1313, and, as some authors contend, in

Florence; but Tiraboschi concludes, from the testimony of his oldest biographer, Villani, and of Domenico d'Arezzo, that he was born at Paris, where his father was then casually residing, and was the fruit of an intrigue with an obscure French woman. Manni, and other admirers of Boccaccio, strive hard to free his escutcheon from the sinister bar; but the fact, as we have stated it, is nearly certain.

Boccaccio was placed at Florence in his childhood under the care of Giovanni, father of the famous poet Zanobii da Strada, for instruction in liberal knowledge; but was soon removed from school by his father to be devoted to mercantile affairs, in the transaction of which he travelled constantly through the various provinces of Italy, and the neighboring countries. But in the short space of time, which he spent in study, he had acquired or developed a decided predilection for literature, which no exertions of his father could extinguish, nor any of the pleasures or cares of the world dissipate. On the contrary, he returned from his travels, not with that taste for business, which his father was anxious to inspire, but with increased intellectual accomplishments, and a more ardent thirst after knowledge. In this manner he wasted his youth and the prime of his manhood, reluctantly fastened down to the detail of commerce, doing constant violence to his feelings, and struggling in vain to accomplish his filial duties, while a more powerful and irresistible impulse was forcing him forward into the career of fame, on which he was destined to enter.

His example strikingly illustrates the uselessness of attempting to constrain the dispositions of the youthful mind, when they are once decidedly formed. The same intellect, that, in the situations to which nature and acquired taste adapt it, flourishes luxuriantly, and puts forth its hardy and healthful blossoms, will, if torn from the genial skies and earth, which it demands, droop away into a stinted and languishing growth. So it was with Boccaccio until his twenty eighth year, when a little incident, which occurred at Naples, emancipated his genius from the fetters, wherein it had hitherto lain imprisoned. While residing at Naples as a merchant, he happened to visit the tomb of Virgil, the sight of which so inflamed his poetic enthusiasm, and so heightened the disgust he felt towards commerce, that his father finally suffered him to fol

low the bent of his inclinations. The only condition imposed on Boccaccio was, that he should learn the canon law, which, in his eagerness to devote himself to study, he was willing to do, although he himself complains that the years thus occupied were thrown away, so invincible and exclusive was his attachment to letters. His father's death, soon afterwards, left him unconstrained master of his actions, when he gave himself up unreservedly to his favorite studies, and pursued them with all the energy of his ripened faculties. He collected and copied the manuscripts of ancient classics, and studied their works with enthusiasm; he eagerly sought for the society and instructions of all contemporary scholars in Italy, France, and Germany; in fine, he left unexplored no source of knowledge, which his age or country supplied, until he had mastered the severer sciences, as well as politer arts, and became not only one of the most cultivated writers, but also one of the most learned and accomplished men of his times.

The voluminous works of Boccaccio in mythology, geography, and history, to which we shall advert hereafter, fully attest his various and profound erudition. The acquisition of learning is the more honorable to him, as he commenced the study of letters late in life, and pursued it under an accumulation of disadvantages, of which it is not easy for us to form an adequate conception in our day. The invention of the art of printing has so immensely multiplied the copies of books, that learning is now as common as the very air we breathe. But then the scholar was obliged to plunge into the darkness of conventual cells in quest of the treasures of ancient lore, which lay buried there beneath the cobwebs and dust of centuries. He was compelled to proceed in his solitary path, without the illumination of criticism to guide his footsteps, painfully gathering up the strains of poetic inspiration from rolls of torn, defaced, and worm eaten parchment, or transcribing the oracles of philosophy from the lines of a palimpsesta, which the barbarism of monkish bigotry had sacrilegiously obscured for the reception of its superstitious legends. Nor, in the fourteenth century, did they possess any of those ample and abundant helps to learning, which have since rendered it as accessible to the peasant as the prince. The land was not then thronged with able professors in every depart

ment of human knowledge; nor was a multitude of schools established to diffuse the elements of science throughout the whole body of the people; nor were colleges and universities sprinkled all over the civilized world. We, therefore, in times when science has spread open her portals, and beckons all mankind to enter freely and bend before her shrine, cannot easily realise the situation of one, who aspired after her favor, and who, at the revival of letters, slowly won his way up the steep and laborious ascent, which then led to her temple. This consideration ought to increase our respect for men, who surmounted all these difficulties, and attained to so much well earned celebrity as did Boccaccio.

Among the remarkable circumstances in the studies of Boccaccio, we may mention his close intimacy with Petrarca. Their acquaintance began in 1350, Boccaccio being thirty seven years of age and Petrarca forty six, in the memorable year of the great jubilee, at which time they met in Florence, as Petrarca passed through it on his way to Rome, to unite there with the general assemblage of all the learning, wealth, rank, and beauty of christendom. The friendship, which arose between these two great scholars at this period, continued with them through life, each of them, in the constant interchange of letters and other friendly services, contributing to the improvement of the other, mutually communicating all their most secret thoughts, and zealously combining their common faculties for the advancement of learning. They cherished and admired each other's talents; and the tribute of public respect, which Boccaccio was the means, on one occasion, of communicating to Petrarca, served greatly to cement their union.

The family of the poet, as the admirers of him well know, was banished from Florence by the faction of the Neri in 1302, in the same year with Dante Alighieri, for his father's adhesion to the fallen party of the Bianchi. But in 1351, after the fame of Petrarca had spread far and wide throughout all Italy, after he had been solemnly crowned in the capitol as the prince of poets, before the applauding multitudes of Rome, when Naples, Venice, Padua, Milan, were contending for the possession of him, who was the glory of the Italian name, then it was that the Florentine republic, deeming the political sins of the parent atoned for by the celebrity of the son,

strove to reclaim the poet to the land of his fathers, by restoring to him his confiscated patrimony, and soliciting him to fix his residence in the city of Florence. To enhance the value of the compliment, Boccaccio was charged with the grateful duty of presenting the request of the republic to his friend Petrarca, who, however, declined their solicitations, preferring to retire among the delightful solitudes of Vaucluse. But from this day the intimacy of the two friends continued close and unshaken till Petrarca's death, which was only a year before that of Boccaccio.

To Petrarca, and his friend Boccaccio, belong the merit of having introduced into modern Italy the study of Greek, and that, too, long before the dispersion of the Constantinopolitan exiles by the conquests of the Turks. Petrarca preceded his friend a few years in the study of a language and literature, which had so long been neglected by their countrymen; but Boccaccio applied to it with greater zeal than Petrarca, acquired more extensive knowledge of it, and did more towards rendering it familiar to the Italians. While Petrarca was learning the Greek language of the celebrated Calabrian monk Barlaamo, Boccaccio was acquiring it of Leonzio Pilato. These teachers were both natives of Calabria, where the Greek was still a spoken tongue. Leonzio had become deeply imbued with Greek erudition at Constantinople, and, being invited to Florence in 1360 by Boccaccio, founded there the first chair of public instruction in Greek, which, in modern times, was established in Western Europe. Leonzio is described by his patron and pupil as a man of rough aspect, deformed features, with a long beard, and a profusion of black hair, always immersed in thought, and of manners as rude as his person, but whose mind was, nevertheless, an inexhaustible storehouse of the history and literature of Greece. His immense erudition induced Boccaccio to overlook his defects of temper, manners, and person, to receive him into his own house, and to procure him a stipend from the city for a course of public lectures on Homer.

Boccaccio, after the death of his father, resided sometime at Naples, but chiefly at Florence; and in the mean time wrote and published various works, mostly of poetry and

VOL. XIX.-NO. 44.


« PreviousContinue »