Ninth Day, Tenth Story
Lit 211, Dr. Richie
(The Original Sin from Raphael)
Boccaccio was born in 1313 in either Certaldo or Florence, the illegitimate son of a wealthy merchant who recognized and raised him. Little is known of his mother whom he professed to be French. In 1327, Boccaccio accompanied his father to Naples where his father set up a banking business; while in Naples, he embarked on the study of canonical law. In 1341, with great reluctance, he returned to Florence with his father because of the decline of the banking business in Naples.
Boccaccio met Petrarch in 1350 in Florence, around the time he finished The Decameron. Petrarch, whom he held in high regard, had an amazing influence on his writing. In 1363, Boccaccio underwent a religious conversion, and began to write in Latin emulating the style of his idol. The Decameron became his last piece of secular work, which he tried to distance himself from because of his conversion. Boccaccio suffered a bout of illness in 1372; soon after in 1374 Petrarch died. Saddened by the death of his friend, Boccaccio did not linger and succumbed to death in 1375.
Father Gianni di Barolo, a poor parish priest, is forced to earn a living with the use of his mare. His friend, Pietro da Tresanti, also engages in the same trade. Whenever Pietro comes to town, Father Gianni offers him lodging; however, Pietro’s can only reciprocate by offering Father Gianni the use of his barn. This troubles Pietro’s wife, Gemmata, who always offers to arrange alternate accommodations. Father Gianni assures her that he is comfortable because he is able to turn his mare into a beautiful young girl, lie with her, and then turn her back into a mare.
Consumed with astonishment, Gemmata repeats the story to Pietro. She envisions that becoming a mare would enable them to double their earnings. Refusing to be dissuaded, Pietro proposes that Father Gianni teach them this magic trick. Admonishing that silence is critical to the success of this trick; Father Gianni orders Gemmata to strip, and get down on all fours. He caresses her body willing that each part he touches becomes that of a mare. Inevitably becoming aroused, Father Gianni penetrates Gemmata stating, "And let this be the beautiful tail of a mare". Upon seeing this, Pietro blurts out that he has positioned the tail too low. Father Gianni promptly informs them that the spell is now ruined, and cannot be tried again; however, Pietro never asks that it be performed a second time.
During the fourteenth century, education was a luxury only a few could afford. The wealthy were educated, as their families had the resources and the time to spend on schooling. The opportunity to be educated was also offered in the convents and monasteries; however, for the general public as a whole, it was not an important issue. In the majority of families, children had to work to help earn money for the necessities of life. This lack of education invariably led to a general ignorance among the common people, thereby leaving them open to the deception and trickery of the educated.
In medieval society, most people believed in magic and the power of magic spells. Though the masses were uneducated, many were rational enough not to fall prey to deceit; however, many peasants were raised on the belief that supernatural occurrences could be enlivened by God (a miracle) or by magic. Boccaccio’s use of magic and magic spells in The Decameron is often used to show criticism not of a social class, but instead of the folly of people, who are less intelligent and more vulnerable to succumbing to superstitious beliefs (Social Critique).
Throughout the fourteenth century, the sexual activities of the clergy posed quite a problem for the Catholic Church. Although reform in the church during the eleventh century mandated celibacy among the clergy, it was not well received by many of its members (Sex and the Clergy). Fornication continued among the clergy though the fourteenth century, as this mandate on celibacy was rarely enforced. The clergy was revered and respected by society and Boccaccio’s use of the clergy’s sexual infractions in The Decameron is not intended as a form of contempt for the church, but a mere reflection of human weakness, to which we are all susceptible.
As a member of the clergy, Father Gianni de Barolo is accorded a certain level of respect. His acquired station in life permits him to be held in very high esteem by his friend Pietro, a truly simple-minded fellow. Upholding his vow of celibacy, or being concerned with the societal repercussions for his perverse actions are of little importance to him; his ultimate goal is to satisfy his deviant sexual whims. Preying upon the naiveté and greed of Pietro and his wife, Gemmata, Father Gianni is able to deceive them and engage Gemmata in a sexual act.
Pietro and his wife are not on an intellectual par with Father Gianni. For Gemmata to readily believe Father Gianni’s tale of being able to transform his mare into a beautiful young girl is evidence of her lack of mental prowess. Not once did it occur to her that such a feat is impossible; her prime focus is to augment her husband’s income, and consequently improve their lifestyle.
Pietro, the ultimate simpleton, lost in his reverence for Father Gianni has no qualms about permitting him to perform such a trick. He did not at any time envision that Father Gianni would take advantage of his stupidity, and have his way with his equally gullible wife. He, too, overcome by greed and ignorance succumbs to the contrived farce.
Father Gianni knows that "…[he is] committing an act which is commonly labeled as a sin…"(Sexual Deviance), yet he perseveres; given the social climate at the time, he knows that he will not have to suffer the consequences of his actions. Exerting his influence over the unsuspecting pair, he finally performs the intended deed under the guise of a magic trick. However, when Pietro realizes what Father Gianni’s true intentions are, he has to speak up. He can no longer contain himself; for society’s worst sin, the violation of his wife, is being perpetrated upon him. He has to set aside his ingrained belief in miracles and the Supreme Being and put a stop to it; augmenting his income is now of no importance to him. As the result goes awry, the two fools are still unable to comprehend that they have fallen victim to Father Gianni’s duplicity. When Gemmata expresses to her husband that "you’re and idiot!" (Boccaccio, 599) it shows that she is the bigger fool. That she has been violated never once occurs to her; her only concern is that the spell has been broken, and that the hope for any additional income has been shattered.
In light of all that transpires, Pietro maintains his professional relationship as a trader with Father Gianni. He never admonishes him, nor does he exhibit any signs of animosity towards him for having intercourse with his wife. A feat of this nature could only be accomplished because of his ingrained ignorance and his veneration for Father Gianni.
The greatest folly in life is to be governed by greed, or not to be in full possession of one’s wits, as these shortcomings often lead to one falling prey to the unscrupulous. The best defense is to be objective, and to adhere to the notion that no one is infallible. It is advisable not to accept anyone at face value, because to do otherwise may lead to harmful or even deadly consequences.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. New York: Penguin, 1982.
The Decameron Web, Sex and Canon Law. 16 June 1999.
The Decameron Web, Social Critique. 29 June 1999.