Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian author and poet, a friend, student, and correspondent of Petrarch, an important Renaissance humanist and the author of a number of notable works including the Decameron, On Famous Women, and his poetry in the Italian vernacular. Boccaccio is particularly notable for his dialogue, of which it has been said that it surpasses in verisimilitude that of virtually all of his contemporaries, since they were medieval writers and often followed formulaic models for character and plot.
The exact details of his birth are uncertain. The majority of sources state that he was born either in Florence or in a village near Certaldo where his family was from.Giovanni Villani, a contemporary of Boccaccio and chronicler, states that he was born in Paris as a consequence of an illicit relation but others denounce this as a romanticism by the earliest biographers. He was the son of a Florentine merchant and an unknown woman, and almost certainly born illegitimate.
Boccaccio grew up in Florence. His father worked for the Compagnia dei Bardi and in the 1320s married Margherita dei Mardoli, of an illustrious family. It is believed Boccaccio was tutored by Giovanni Mazzuoli and received from him an early introduction to the works of Dante. In 1326 Boccaccio moved to Naples with the family when his father was appointed to head the Neapolitan branch of his bank. Boccaccio was apprenticed to the bank, but it was a trade for which he had no affinity. He eventually persuaded his father to let him study law at the Studium in the city.For the next six years Boccaccio studied canon law there. From there he pursued his interest in scientific and literary studies.
His father introduced him to the Neapolitan nobility and the French-influenced court of Robert the Wise in the 1330s. At this time he fell in love with a married daughter of King Robert of Naples (known as Robert the Wise) and she is immortalized as the character "Fiammetta" in many of Boccaccio's prose romances, particularly Il Filocolo (1338). Boccaccio became a friend of fellow Florentine Niccolò Acciaioli, and benefited from his influence as the administrator, and perhaps the lover, of Catherine of Valois-Courtenay, widow of Philip I of Taranto. Acciaioli later became counsellor to Queen Joan I of Naples and, eventually, her Grand Seneschal.
It seems Boccaccio enjoyed law no more than banking, but his studies allowed him the opportunity to study widely and make good contacts with fellow scholars. His early influences included Paolo da Perugia (a curator and author of a collection of myths, the Collectiones), the humanists Barbato da Sulmona and Giovanni Barrili, and the theologian Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro.
In Naples, Boccaccio began what he considered his true vocation, poetry. Works produced in this period include Filostrato and Teseida (the sources for Chaucer Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight's Tale, respectively), Filocolo, a prose version of an existing French romance, and La caccia di Diana, a poem in terza rima listing Neapolitan women. The period featured considerable formal innovation, including possibly the introduction of the Sicilian octave to Florence, where it influenced Petrarch.
Boccaccio returned to Florence in early 1341, avoiding the plague in that city of 1340, but also missing the visit of Petrarch to Naples in 1341. He had left Naples due to tensions between the Angevin king and Florence. His father had returned to Florence in 1338, where he had gone bankrupt. His mother died shortly afterward. Although dissatisfied with his return to Florence, Boccaccio continued to work, producing Comedia delle ninfe fiorentine (also known as Ameto) a mix of prose and poems, in 1341, completing the fifty canto allegorical poem Amorosa visione in 1342, and Fiammetta in 1343. The pastoral piece Ninfale fiesolano probably dates from this time also. In 1343, Boccaccio's father re-married, to Bice del Bostichi. His children by his first marriage had all died (except Boccaccio) but he had another son, Iacopo, in 1344.
In Florence, the overthrow of Walter of Brienne brought about the government of popolo minuto ("small people," workers). It diminished the influence of the nobility and the wealthier merchant classes and assisted in the relative decline of Florence. The city was hurt further, in 1348, by the Black Death, which killed some three-quarters of the city's population, later represented in the Decameron.
From 1347, Boccaccio spent much time in Ravenna, seeking new patronage, and despite his claims, it is not certain whether he was present in plague-ravaged Florence. His stepmother died during the epidemic and his father, as Minister of Supply in the city was closely associated with the government efforts. His father died in 1349 and as head of the family Boccaccio was forced into a more active role.
Boccaccio began work on the Decameron around 1349. It is probable that the structures of many of the tales date from earlier in his career, but the choice of a hundred tales and the frame-story lieta brigata of three men and seven women dates from this time. The work was largely complete by 1352. It was Boccaccio's final effort in literature and one of his last works in Italian, the only other substantial work was Corbaccio (dated to either 1355 or 1365). Boccaccio revised and rewrote the Decameron in 1370-1371. This manuscript has survived to the present day.
From 1350, Boccaccio, although less of a scholar, became closely involved with Italian humanism and also with the Florentine government. His first official mission was to Romagna in late 1350. He revisited that city-state twice and also was sent to Brandenburg, Milan, and Avignon. He also pushed for the study of Greek, housing Barlaam of Calabria, and encouraging his tentative translations of works by Homer, Euripides, and Aristotle.
In October 1350, he was delegated to greet Francesco Petrarch as he entered Florence and also to have the great man as a guest at his home during his stay. The meeting between the two was extremely fruitful and they were friends from then on, Boccaccio calling Petrarch his teacher and magister. Petrarch at that time encouraged Boccaccio to study classical Greek and Latin literature. They met again in Padua in 1351, Boccaccio on an official mission to invite Petrarch to take a chair at the university in Florence. Although unsuccessful, the discussions between the two were instrumental in Boccaccio writing the Genealogia deorum gentilium; the first edition was completed in 1360 and this would remain one of the key reference works on classical mythology for over 400 years. It served as an extended defense for the studies of ancient literature and thought. Despite the Pagan beliefs at its core, Boccaccio believed that much could be learned from antiquity. Thus, he challenged the arguments of clerical intellectuals who wanted to limit access to classical sources to prevent any moral harm to Christian readers. In that the revival of classical antiquity became necessary to the achievement of the Renaissance, his defense of the importance of ancient literature was an essential requirement for its development. The discussions also formalized Boccaccio's poetic ideas. Certain sources also see a conversion of Boccaccio by Petrarch from the open humanist of the Decameron to a more ascetic style, closer to the dominant fourteenth century ethos. For example, he followed Petrarch (and Dante) in the unsuccessful championing of an archaic and deeply allusive form of Latin poetry. In 1359 following a meeting with Pope Innocent VI and further meetings with Petrarch it is probable that Boccaccio took some kind of religious mantle. There is a persistent, but unsupported, tale that he repudiated his earlier works, including the Decameron, in 1362, as profane.
In 1360, Boccaccio began work on De mulieribus claris, a book offering biographies of one hundred and six famous women, that he completed in 1374.
Following the failed coup of 1361, a number of Boccaccio's close friends and other acquaintances were executed or exiled in the subsequent purge. Although not directly linked to the conspiracy, it was in this year that Boccaccio left Florence to reside in Certaldo, and became less involved in government affairs. He did not undertake further missions for Florence until 1365, and traveled to Naples and then on to Padua and Venice, where he met up with Petrarch in grand style at Palazzo Molina, Petrarch's residence as well as the place of Petrarch's library. He later then returned to Certaldo. He met Petrarch only once again, in Padua in 1368. Upon hearing of the death of Petrarch (July 19, 1374), Boccaccio wrote a commemorative poem, including it in his collection of lyric poems, the Rime.
He returned to work for the Florentine government in 1365, undertaking a mission to Pope Urban V. When the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon in 1367, Boccaccio was again sent to Urban, offering congratulations. He also undertook diplomatic missions to Venice and Naples.
Of his later works the moralistic biographies gathered as De casibus virorum illustrium (1355–74) and De mulieribus claris (1361–1375) were most significant. Other works include a dictionary of geographical allusions in classical literature, De montibus, silvis, fontibus, lacubus, fluminibus, stagnis seu paludibus, et de nominibus maris liber (a title desperate for the coining of the word "geography"). He gave a series of lectures on Dante at the Santo Stefano church in 1373 and these resulted in his final major work, the detailed Esposizioni sopra la Commedia di Dante.Boccaccio and Petrarch were also two of the most educated people in early Renaissance in the field of archaeology.
Boccaccio's change in writing style in the 1350s was not due just to meeting with Petrarch. It was mostly due to poor health and a premature weakening of his physical strength. It also was due to disappointments in love. Some such disappointment could explain why Boccaccio, having previously written always in praise of women and love, came suddenly to write in a bitter Corbaccio style. Petrarch describes how Pietro Petrone (a Carthusian monk) on Boccaccio's death bed sent another Carthusian (Gioacchino Ciani) to urge him to renounce his worldly studies. Petrarch then dissuaded Boccaccio from burning his own works and selling off his personal library, letters, books, and manuscripts. Petrarch even offered to purchase Boccaccio's library, so that it would become part of Petrarch's library. However, upon Boccaccio's death his entire collection was given to the monastery of Santo Spirito, in Florence, where it still resides.
His final years were troubled by illnesses, some relating to obesity and what often is described as dropsy, severe edema that would be described today as congestive heart failure. He died at the age of sixty-two on 21 December 1375 in Certaldo, where he is buried.
Boccaccio married Margherita di Gian Donato de' Martoli in 1314 who bore him a legitimate son, Francesco. He also had three other children. Mario and Giulio were born in the 1330s. In the 1340s, Violente was born in Ravenna, where Boccaccio was a guest of Ostasio I da Polenta from about 1345 through 1346.