Boccaccio’s Corbaccio: comic reality of love as new Vita Nuova

The fourth wave of Corbaccio criticism has now arrived. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote Il Corbaccio in Italian in the mid-fourteenth century. From the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, critics interpreted Boccaccio’s Corbaccio as autobiographical and misogynistic. Then, from 1947 to 1975, they interpreted the Corbaccio as fictional and misogynistic. For the next quarter century, leading critics described the Corbaccio as fictional and ridiculing of misogynists. Today, cutting-edge fourth-wave critics recognize that the Corbaccio is realistic and love-affirming.[1] Boccaccio’s Corbaccio presents the comic reality of heterosexual love in a humanistic re-conception of Dante’s Vita Nuova.

Boccaccio presents book to ladies

Dante’s Vita Nuova tells of love servitude long culturally constructed as men’s finest aspiration. Dante the narrator saw a beautiful girl named Beatrice:

At that moment I say truly that the vital spirit, that which lives in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt it fiercely in the least pulsation, and, trembling, it uttered these words: “Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi {Behold a god more powerful than I, who, coming, will rule over me}.”

{ In quello punto dico veracemente che lo spirito de la vita, lo quale dimora ne la secretissima camera de lo cuore, cominciò a tremare sì fortemente che apparia ne li mènimi polsi orribilmente; e tremando, disse queste parole: “Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi.” }[2]

Dante became a captive soul. So too enslaved have been many men throughout history: the men Ovid ridiculed, all-mighty caliphs in the ancient Islamic world, Ulrich the foolish knight. Dante envisioned his burning heart in the hand of Love {Amor}, a personification of love. Love fed his heart to Beatrice:

Joyfully Love seemed to me to hold
my heart in his hand, and held in his arms
my lady wrapped in a cloth, sleeping.
Then he woke her, and that burning heart
he fed to her reverently. She was fearing
after he went, not to be seen weeping.

{ Allegro mi sembrava Amor tenendo
meo core in mano, e ne le braccia avea
madonna involta in un drappo dormendo.
Poi la svegliava, e d’esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea:
appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo. }

Suffering from love-sickness, Dante became absorbed in thoughts of Beatrice. He became weak and debilitated. His friends, noticing his illness, inquired about the cause. Acknowledging the obvious, Dante said that he suffered due to Love. Then he said no more:

When they asked me: “For whom has Love so distressed you?’ Gazing at them, I smiled, and I said nothing to them.

{ E quando mi domandavano: “Per cui t’ha così distrutto questo Amore?”, ed io sorridendo li guardava, e nulla dicea loro. }

Dante’s Vita Nuova consists of continual love-sickness combined with lavish praise of Beatrice from a distance. The Vita Nuova ends with Dante’s vow, “I hope to write of her what has never been written of any woman {io spero di dicer di lei quello che mai non fue detto d’alcuna}.”

In Boccacio’s Corbaccio, a specter of Dante leads the narrator to a new life more propitious for love in the flesh. The narrator of the Corbaccio gets lost in a desolate wilderness resounding with howling and shrieking. The narrator meets a guide. In sharp contrast to Dante’s spiritual journey of love, this guide shows the narrator love in the style of comic realism:

The execrable feminine sex is suspicious and bad-tempered beyond all comparison. Unless they are informed of it, nothing can be discussed with a neighbor, relative, or friend, without women’s immediate suspicion that you are working against them to do them harm — although men ought not to wonder greatly at that, since it is natural always to fear from others the wrongs we do to them; and for this reason, thieves usually know how to hide their belongings well. Women’s every thought, design, and action aim at nothing else but to rob, lord over, and deceive men

{ Et è questo esecrabile sesso femmineo, oltre ad ogni altra comparazione, sospettoso e iracundo. Niuna cosa si potrà con vicino, con parente o con amico trattare, che, se ad esse non è palese, che esse subitamente non suspichino contro a loro adoperarsi e in loro detrimento trattarsi; benché di ciò gli uomini non si debbono molto maravigliare, per ciò che naturale cosa è di quelle cose, che altri sempre opera in altrui, di quelle da altrui sempre temere; per questo sogliono i ladroni sapere ben riporre le cose loro. Tutti i pensieri delle femine, tutto lo studio, tutte l’opere a niuna altra cosa tirano, se non a rubare, a signoreggiare e ad ingannare gli uomini }[3]

In a claim that has been historically influential, the guide asserts that men do not necessarily need women:

As a rule, women are all presumptuous. They pretend that for them everything is seemly and that nothing is too good, that they are worthy of every honor and all greatness, and that men are worthless and cannot exist without them.

{ Sono generalmente tutte presuntuose; e a se medesime fanno credere che ogni cosa loro si convenga, ogni cosa stia loro bene, d’ogni onore, d’ogni grandeza sien degne; e che, senza loro, niuna cosa gli uomini vagliano, né viver possano }[4]

The guide fearlessly takes the narrator through men’s fear of enraged women:

As instinctively as animals, women immediately fly into such a burning temper that tigers, lions, and snakes have more humanity when enraged than do women. Women, whatever the cause for which they have lost their temper, run instantly for poison, fire, and the sword.

{ Ma, sì come animale a ciò inchinevole, subitamente in sì fervente ira discorrono che le tigre, i leoni, i serpenti hanno più d’umanità, adirati, che non hanno le femine; le quali, chente che la cagione si sia per la quale accese in ira si sono, subitamente a’ veleni, al fuoco, al ferro corrono. }[5]

The guide challenges women’s superiority with a low-bodily exercise of apophasis:

Among women’s other vanities, when they wish to exalt themselves far above men, they say that all good things are of the feminine gender: the stars, planets, Muses, virtues, and riches. If it weren’t indecent, to this you would only want to reply, “It’s quite true they’re all feminine, but they don’t piss!

{ E, tra l’altre loro vanità, quando molto sopra gli uomini si vogliono levare, dicono che tutte le buone cose son femine: le stelle, le pianete, le Muse, le virtù, le riccheze: alle quali, se non che disonesto sarebbe, null’altro si vorrebbe rispondere se non: “Egli è così vero che tutte son femine, ma non pisciano”. }[6]

The guide presents many of the concerns and figures already established in the literature of men’s sexed protests. Boccaccio had compiled and studied that literature for years.[7] That literature’s concern for gender equality and self-sufficiency can readily be recognized as a forefather of present-day feminist literature. Yet the Corbaccio does not advance idealized moralism of misandry any more than it does idealized moralism of misogyny. The Corbaccio presents men’s sexed protests in a low-realistic style that subverts abstract moralism. Love in the flesh depends on recognizing real persons.

In a brilliant stroke of parody, the guide turns out to be the former husband of the lady for whom the narrator pines. Foreshadowing the 15 Joys of Marriage, the guide reports realistically type-typical bedroom talk of a woman to her husband:

Get over there! So help me God, you’ll not touch me! Chase after those whom you deserve, for certainly you don’t deserve me; go show yourself for what you are. You’ll get what’s coming to you. Remember, you didn’t drag me out of the mud! God knows who and what class of men they were who would have considered themselves lucky to have taken me without a dowry! I would’ve been lord and master of all they owned! And to you I gave so many gold florins! I could never even command a glass of water without a thousand reproaches from your brothers and servants; one would think I were their lackey! I was surely unlucky to ever have set eyes on you; may he who said the first word about it break a leg.

{ Fatti in costà: se Dio m’aiuti, tu non mi toccherai: va’ dietro a quelle di che tu se’ degno; ché certo tu non eri degno d’avere me; e fai ben ritratto di quel che tu se’. Ma a fare a far sia. Pensa che tu non mi ricogliesti del fango; e Dio il sa chenti e quali erano quelli che se l’arebbono tenuto in grazia d’avermi presa senza dote, e sarei stata donna e madonna d’ogni lor cosa: e a te diedi cotante centinaia di fiorini d’oro, né mai pur d’un bicchiere d’acqua non ci pote’ esser donna, senza mille rimbrotti de’ frateti e de’ fanti tuoi: basterebbe s’io fossi la fante loro! E’ fu bene la mia disaventura ch’io mai ti vidi: che fiaccar possa la coscia chi prima ne fece parola! }[8]

Explicitly drawing upon his knowledge as the lady’s former husband, the guide provides an outrageous description of the lady’s body. The description ends at her anus:

What shall I say further to you therefore about the village of Evilhole, placed between two lofty mountains? From here sometimes just as from Mount Etna, first with great thunderclaps and then silently, issues forth a sulfurous smoke. It’s so fetid and repulsive that it pollutes the whole surrounding countryside. I do not know what to say to you about it except that, when I lived near it (for I remained there longer than I would have liked), I was offended many times by such blasts that I thought to die there something other than a Christian death.

{ Che ti dirò adunque più avanti del borgo di Malpertugio, posto tra due rilevati monti, del quale alcuna volta, quando con tuoni grandissimi e quando senza, non altrimenti che di Mongibello, spira un fummo sulfureo sì fetido e sì spiacevole che tutta la contrada atorno apuzola? Io non so che dirmiti, se non che, quando io vicino v’abitai (ché vi stetti più che voluto non arei), assai volte, da così fatto fiato offeso, mi credetti altra morte fare che di cristiano. }[9]

With his undressing of his former wife, the guide at a superficial level is taking revenge. In a somewhat similar story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the group’s most senior member Pampinea described what she called the “just revenge” of a scholar on a lady who had rejected his love and cruelly abused him.[10] That scholar caused the lady real pain. The guide in the Corbaccio provided words of knowledge that generated laughter in recognition and wisdom.[11]

Men abasing themselves in servitude to women doesn’t create a new life of love. Echoing the teachings of Ovid, the leading authority on making love, the guide counsels the heart-broken narrator:

If you want to atone fully for the errors you have committed, you must act in the opposite way to what you have done; but this must be understood correctly. What you have loved you must hate; and whatever you were ready to do to earn someone’s love, you must be ready to do the contrary so that you gain hatred.

{ A volere de’ falli commessi satisfare interamente si conviene, a quello che fatto hai, operare il contrario; ma questo si vuole intendere sanamente. Ciò, che tu hai amato, ti conviene avere in odio; e ciò, che tu per lo altrui amore t’eri a volere fare disposto, a fare il contrario, sì che tu odio acquisti, ti conviene disporre }[12]

In modern seduction literature for men, the guide’s advice is known as push-pull technique and the “women love jerks” principle. In the Decameron, the last song is that of the strong, independent woman Fiammetta. She sings of the unity of love and jealousy:

If Love could come unmixed with jealousy
there’d be no lady born
so glad as I, whoever she may be.

{ S’amor venisse senza gelosia,
io non so donna nata
lieta com’io sarei e qual vuol sia. }

But love for women is always mixed with jealousy. It’s also mixed with hostility toward all men and all women:

Yet if I knew my lord’s
fidelity were equal to his worth,
I’d not be jealous then.
But nowadays one sees
so many women lead men on that I
hold all men culpable.
This breaks my heart and makes me long to die,
for I suspect each one
who eyes him, fearful she’ll take him away.

{ Se io sentissi fede
nel mio signor, quant’io sento valore,
gelosa non sarei:
ma tanto se ne vede,
pur che sia chi inviti l’amadore,
ch’io gli ho tutti per rei.
Questo m’acuora, e volentier morrei,
e di chiunque il guata
sospetto e temo non mel porti via. }

Fiammetta holds “all men” culpable for being led on by women. The enjambment of the line “For I suspect each one” taunts those who understand only the abstraction of misandry or misogyny. The suspects are the women who eye Fiammetta’s beloved man:

For God’s sake then, I pray
no woman in the world would ever dare
to do me such a wrong,
For should some one of them,
by using words or signs or flattery,
attempt in this affair
to do me harm and should I learn of it,
then mar my looks if I
don’t make her weep her folly bitterly.

{ Per Dio, dunque, ciascuna
donna pregata sia che non s’attenti
di farmi in ciò oltraggio;
ché, se ne fia nessuna
che con parole o cenni o blandimenti
in questo in mio dannaggio
cerchi o procuri, s’io il risapraggio,
se io non sia svisata,
piagner farolle amara tal follia. }[13]

That’s not actually an avowal to seek revenge. Dioneo says to Fiammetta:

Madam, you would be doing all the other ladies a great kindness if you would reveal your lover’s name to them, so that out of ignorance they would not take from you what is yours, since this would make you so angry!

{ Madonna, voi fareste una gran cortesia a farlo cognoscere a tutte, acciò che per ignoranza non vi fosse tolta la possessione, poi che cosí ve ne dovete adirare. }[14]

The Decamaron records no response from Fiammetta. Like Dante in the Vita Nuova, Fiammetta undoubtedly refused to reveal the name of the man she loved. What seems like an avowal to seek revenge is actually a form of declaring love. So too the guide in the Corbaccio was actually leading the narrator to love in the flesh.[15] For heterosexual men, gaining the love of a woman starts with confidence in one’s own worth relative to women. It depends on a human vision that allows a man to remain unflustered when facing a woman’s overwhelming beauty. With the knowledge and the example of the guide, the Corbaccio’s narrator gained key skills in the art of love.

* * * * *

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Notes:

[1] On the first three waves of Corbaccio criticism, Hollander (1988) p. 42. Id. p. 43 takes the position of abnegation characteristic of the dolce stil novo:

In my interpretation of the Corbaccio I find Boccaccio poor in friends indeed. And I think he may have felt a sense of isolation, of having labored for those unworthy of his talent. … He had had enough of us because we simply were not up to him. Who can blame him for that?

[2] Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova, II (alternate labeled I), Old Italian text from Digital Dante, English translation (modified slightly) from Kline (2001). Dante doesn’t translate the Latin phrases included within his Italian text. The subsequent three quotes above are similarly from id. III, IV, XLII (numbering of sections varies slightly). For an alternate English translation, here’s Frisardi’s translation.

[3] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio, sec. 155-6, Old Italian text of Padoan (1994) via Decameron Web, English translation from Cassell (1993) pp. 28-9. Subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s Corbaccio are similarly sourced. Medieval men suffered from bad guides. See, e.g. the go-between in Pamphilus and the serranas in Libro de buen amor.

[4] Corbaccio 166, trans. Cassell (1993) p. 30. Mocking the claim “men cannot exist without women” is now the slogan, “A man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle.”

[5] Corbaccio 158, trans. Cassell (1993) p. 29. On the danger of enraging women, see Solomon’s experience in the medieval Latin work Solomon and Marcolf.

[6] Corbaccio 175, trans. Cassell (1993) p. 32. Women’s superiority in guile is well-documented. On the relation of excrement to wisdom, see the Seven Sages of Ostia.

[7] Boccacio’s notebook, known as the Zibaldone laurenziano, has survived to the present. It contains, in Boccaccio’s own hand, a florilegium of men’s sexed protests, Theophrastus’s De nuptiis, and Walter Mapes’s Valerius Rufino ne ducat uxorem. Cassell (1993) intro. pp. xx-xxi. Those are major works in the literature of men’s sexed protest. Id. p. xviii notes, “the Decameron itself was not always kind to the ladies.” A major work of imaginative literature that is “always kind to the ladies” either lacks appreciation for human nature or has internalized the rules of the socially dominant discourse.

[8] Corbaccio 145-6, trans. Cassell (1993) pp. 26-7. Wives depriving their husbands of sex appears to be a more important problem today than it was in medieval Europe.

[9] Corbaccio 145-6, trans. (modified) Cassell (1993) p. 56. In the more liberal circumstances of medieval Europe, crude descriptions of bodily parts were less socially troubling than seems to be the case today. About the village of Evilhole, Psaki (2003).

[10] Boccaccio, Decameron, 8th day, 7th story, from Italian trans. Musa & Bondanella (2002) p. 589. The scholar in that story is called Rinieri. Displaying Solomonic malice toward men, Hollander (1988) p. 23 declares:

Rinieri, the narrator of the Corbaccio, and the latter’s guide and mentor are all better regarded as male hysterics than as lance bearers in an imagined Boccaccian war against women.

The first alternative is only slightly better than the second. As a senior male academic would have to agree, the woman Pampinea was correct in describing Rinieri’s action as “just revenge.”

[11] In the middle of the guide’s description of his horrible experience in marriage to the narrator’s beloved, the narrator states: “after these truthful words of the spirit, I couldn’t restrain my laughter {postemi dalle vere parole dello spirito, io non pote’ le risa tenere}.” Corbaccio 224, trans. Cassell (1993) p. 41. After much additional description of marital horrors, the guide tells the narrator:

But if your mind and intellect had been as healthy as they should have been, and if you had considered those things which I have been talking about (not, certainly, those things which you failed to learn from your studies, but those things which they could have shown you had you wished to look), you would have laughed over not seeing her differ from the general run of women. Perhaps you are laughing to yourself about this now, and you are wise if you do.

{ Ma, se cotale avessi la mente avuta e lo ‘ntelletto sano, come dovevi, avendo riguardo a quello ch’io detto t’ho, non miga per quello che tu per li tuoi studi potevi sapere, ma a quello che per quelli ti sarebbe stato mostrato avendo voluto riguardare, riso te ne avresti, veggendo lei dalla general natura dell’altre femine non deviare; il che forse testé medesimo il fai; e fai saviamente, se ‘l fai. }

Corbaccio 339, id. p. 64. One modern scholar has admitted to laughing at the Corbaccio:

the particularized loathing of someone’s natural bodily parts, page after page, is either hilariously repulsive or repulsively hilarious. Either way, it is hilarious.

Barricelli (1975) p. 108.

[12] Corbaccio 382, trans. Cassell (1993) p. 72. Ovid’s Remedia Amoris, in describing contemplating your lover’s defects, ironically develops a key seduction technique called “negging.” Hollander (1988), p. 37, declares:

A perception of the ludicrous, self-centered, and antisocial behavior of Ovidian lovers is all that we should require to understand that the author of Amores and Ars amatoria is first of all an ironist.

That analysis misses an important point: the Ovidian lover is ludicrous, self-centered, antisocial, and successful.

[13] Boccaccio, Decameron, 10th day, Conclusion, Old Italian text of Branca (1992) via Decameron Web (with added lineation), English trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 853 (previous three quotes above). Rebhorn’s translation of this song seems to me to be more musical than that of Musa & Bondanella (2002). For the line “I hold all men culpable,” the latter has “I think all men are horrible!”

[14] Decameron, 10th day, Conclusion, Italian text from Branca (1992) via Decameron Web, trans. Musa & Bondanella (2002) p. 801.

[15] For a lofty defense of flesh-and-blood love, see Ghismunda’s speech to her father in Decameron, 4th day, story 1.

[image] Boccaccio presenting book to ladies, illumination from manuscript of Giovanni Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus, in French translation; Rouen, c. 1440, Royal 16 G V, f. 3v, thanks to the British Library.

References:

Barricelli, Gian Piero. 1975. “Satire of Satire: Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.” Italian Quarterly 18.72 (Spring): 95-111.

Branca, Vittore, ed. 1992. Giovanni Boccaccio. Decameron. Torino: Einaudi.

Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The corbaccio, or, The labyrinth of love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Hollander, Robert. 1988. Boccaccio’s last fiction, “Il Corbaccio”. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kline, A.S., trans. 2001. Dante Alighieri. La Vita Nuova (The New Life). Poetry in Translation online.

Musa, Mark and Peter E. Bondanella, trans. 2002. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: Signet Classic.

Padoan, Giorgio, ed. 1994. Giovanni Boccacio. “Il Corbaccio.” In Carlo Delcorno, ed. Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio. Volume 5, Book 2. Milano: Mondadori.

Psaki, Regina, F. 2003. “‘Women Make All Things Lose Their Power’: Women’s Knowledge, Men’s Fear in the Decameron and the Corbaccio.” Heliotropia 1.1

Rebhorn, Wayne A. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio The Decameron. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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