Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the epic history of Teodoro. That history combines strands from the life of Joseph, as reported in the biblical book of Genesis; the union of Dido and Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid;, and recognition scenes from ancient Greek novels. The history of Teodoro creates a new future. Men will be freed from brutal captivity and will live long, happy lives in love with women.
Teodoro was born of high parentage among an ancient Christian people living in Cilicia, just north of the Holy Land. Italian pirates captured Teodoro and sold him into slavery to the wealthy Amerigo household in the Sicilian town Trapini. As a slave, Teodoro was renamed Pietro. Teodoro experienced personally the institutional capture of god’s service by corrupt successors of Peter, the first bishop of Rome. Yet hope remained for Teodoro, because what happened to him was like what happened to Jacob’s son Joseph, sold into slavery and taken west to Egypt. Amerigo freed Pietro and put Pietro in charge of all Amerigo household’s affairs. God was with Teodoro as he followed the experience of Joseph.
Through the happy fault of Amerigo and the actions of Fortune, Pietro secured the love of Amerigo’s beautiful young daughter Violante. Amerigo did not hurry to arrange a marriage for Violante when she became eligible. As a result, Violante happened to fall in love with Pietro. Pietro was already in love with her. Fortune acted according to the plot that brought together Dido and Aeneas in the Aeneid. While Pietro and Voilante were out in the countryside, a sudden, heavy storm compelled the pair to take shelter in an old, abandoned church. Huddling together there under a roof, they expressed their love to each other and became physically intimate.
Violante and Pietro’s love led to the threat of violent death. The natural effect of sex became a serious problem:
things went on until the girl became pregnant, much to the dismay of both parties, and although she took a number of measures to resist the course of Nature and produce a miscarriage, none of them had any effect.
Afraid for his life, Pietro made up his mind to flee and told her so. But on hearing this, she said, “If you leave, I’m going to kill myself for sure.”
To this remark, Pietro, who was deeply in love with her, replied: “O my lady, how can you possibly want me to stay here? Your pregnancy will reveal our offense, and although you may be easily forgiven for it, I’m the poor wretch who’ll have to pay the penalty for both your sin and my own.”
Just as the social punishment for the pregnancy would be directed at Teodoro, so too today the socially constructed punishment for unplanned parenthood falls heavily on men. Violante promised not to reveal that Teodoro was the father of the child. Fictional claims about fatherhood have long been socially sustained. In response to Violante’s promise, Teodoro agreed to stay.
Violante’s mother accepted her fictional story of fatherhood, but Violante’s father reacted violently. When Violante began to show her pregnancy, she told her mother “a tall tale containing a disguised, garbled version of the truth.” Her mother accepted that tale and hid Violante away in a country estate for the remaining duration of her pregnancy. Just as Violante was about to give birth, her father happened to stop at the estate. Her mother told her father the pregnancy tale and tried to persuade him to believe it. But her father, enraged by the fictional story, demanded to know the truth:
Drawing out his sword, he rushed over in a towering rage toward the girl, who had, in the meantime, while her mother was talking with her father, given birth to a baby boy. “Either tell me who fathered this child,” he exclaimed, “or you’re going to die right now.”
Violante told of her affair with Pietro. Because Pietro had the status of a freed slave, Violante’s father, the noble Amerigo, did not want Pietro to marry Violante. Pietro having sex with Violante was socially interpreted as a crime that Pietro committed against Amerigo. Amerigo immediately reported that crime to the head of the local militia. That official tortured Pietro and extracted a full confession. He sentenced Pietro “to be whipped through the city and then hanged by the neck.”
Having Pietro executed wasn’t enough to satisfy Amerigo. He ordered that his daughter Violante choose suicide by dagger or by poison, or be publicly immolated. Amerigo also ordered one of his servants to “take the child she gave birth to a few days ago, smash its head against a wall, and throw it away to be eaten by dogs.” This extravagant, fanciful brutality came with the new ending.
Pietro being recognized by his true, long-lost father saved him and Violante from violent deaths. Pietro’s father Fineo, traveling to Rome as an ambassador from the Armenian King of Cilicia, just happened to be in Trapini. Fineo recognized the red birthmark on Pietro’s chest as Pietro walked by being whipped. Fineo called out to him, “O Teodoro!” After a brief exchange in Armenian, the two were certain that they were father and son. That was a recognition scene like recognition scenes in ancient Greek novels. Overjoyed to find his son who had been lost, Fineo took off his silk cloak and wrapped it around Pietro. That was just as the father had done upon the return of the prodigal son. Fineo went to the official who had sentenced Pietro and declared:
the person you’ve condemned to death as a slave is actually my son, a free man, and he’s ready to marry the girl he is said to have robbed of her virginity. Therefore, I beg you to delay his execution until we can find out whether she’ll accept him as her husband, because that way, if she does want him, you won’t find that you yourself have gone and broken the law.
Pietro apparently was falsely accused of raping Violante, just as Joseph was falsely accused of raping Potiphar’s wife. Teodoro’s re-union with Fineo encompassed more human difficulties than the prodigal son’s re-union with his father in the Gospel of Luke. The re-union of Teodoro and Fineo was also more conditional. Fineo said to Amerigo:
I fully intent to have my son marry your daughter. And if he doesn’t want to, then let them carry out the sentence that has been passed upon him.
Teodoro wanted to marry Violante. Violante wanted to marry Teodoro. Fineo’s recognition of Teodoro enabled Teodoro and Violante to marry within the prevailing social order. Amerigo reversed his order of death for Violante and her son, and gave Violante in marriage to Teodoro. Along with their newly born son, Teodoro and Violante returned to Cilicia with Fineo. Using the happy ending of recognition plots in ancient Greek novels, there they lived in peace and tranquility for the rest of their days.
Joseph did not return alive to the Holy Land. Dido did not enjoy a long, happy marriage with Aeneas. Ancient Greek novels weren’t historical. The epic history of Teodoro solved those historical problems.
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- from the Life of Saint Pelagia to the Decameron‘s story of Alibech and Rustico
- Boccaccio’s inspiring ladies and Muses on Mount Parnassus
- lost in the woods and seeking direction in Libro de buen amor
The history of Teodoro occurs as Day 5, Story 7 (told by Lauretta) in the Decameron. All the quotes above are from that story, as translated in Rebhorn (2013) pp. 437-44. Teodoro is a Greek name meaning “gift of God.” The life of Joseph is in Genesis 37-50. The story of Dido and Aeneas’ union is in Virgil’s Aeneid, 4.105-172. The most famous identifying bodily mark in Greek literature is Odysseus’s scar in Homer’s Odyssey, Bk. 19. Recognition scenes are common in the ancient Greek novels. For analysis, Montiglio (2013). On Boccaccio’s knowledge of myths and his use of them in constructing new social understanding, see Gittes (2008) and Lummus (2012).
[image] Virgil and Dante entering the eighth circle, holding adulterers, seducers, and flatterers. Illustration of Dante’s Commedia, Inferno, Canto XVIII. Painted by Priamo della Quercia between 1442 and 1450 in north Italy for an edition of Dante’s Commedia. Folio 32, Yates Thompson 36, held in the British Library.
Gittes, Tobias Foster. 2008. Boccaccio’s naked muse: eros, culture, and the mythopoeic imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Lummus, David. 2012. “Boccaccio’s Poetic Anthropology: Allegories of History in the Genealogie deorum gentilium libri.” Speculum. 87 (03): 724-765.
Montiglio, Silvia. 2013. Love and providence: recognitions in the ancient novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.