Frate Alberto, Filostrato, and Mary: ways of love

In Day 4 of the Decameron, the story of Frate Alberto displays extraordinary viciousness.  Filostrato in the preface to that story complained, “every hour of my life I die a thousand deaths without ever having received even a tiny morsel of pleasure.”[1]  He ordered Pampinea to tell “some savage tale that partly resembles my own predicament.”  Pampinea prefaced her story with a savage attack on the clergy.  She concluded her attack by declaring “may it please God that what happened to a Franciscan should happen to them {the clergy} on account of all their lies.”  The Franciscan, Frate Alberto, suffered brutalization.  He was smeared with honey, covered with feathers, had a chain put around his neck, and was publicly displayed for verbal and physical abuse.  He then was incarcerated.  Frate Alberto spent the rest of his life in utter misery.  Pampinea proclaimed that it will give her “the greatest pleasure” to tell the story of Frate Alberto.[2]  She concluded her story of Frate Alberto with a curse, “May it please God that the same thing should befall all the others like him.”

angel Gabriel greets Mary

The story of Frate Alberto, like many stories in the Decameron, describes guile and deception in sexual activity.  Hearing the confession of the married woman Madonna Lisetta, Frate Alberto asked her, unprompted, whether she had a lover.  That’s improper.  Madonna Lisetta responded with a declaration of chastity supported by extreme vanity:

Hey, Messer Friar, don’t you have eyes in your head?  Do you think my charms are just like everybody else’s?  I could have lovers to spare if I wanted, but my kind of beauty is not something for just anybody who happens to be attracted to it.  How many women have you seen whose good looks are anything like mine?  Why, I’d be counted a beauty even in Paradise.

Frate Alberto’s response figured passionate love as inversely related to personal merit:

Frate Alberto saw immediately that this one {Madonna Lisetta} was something of an idiot, and since she seemed like good soil for him to plow, he fell passionately in love with her then and there.

Frate Alberto subsequently told Madonna Lisetta that the angel Gabriel appeared to him, declared her “celestial beauty,” and ordered him to convey a message to her:

he’s sent me to inform you that he wants to come one night and spend time in your company, and because he’s an angel and you would not be able to touch him in that form, he says that for your pleasure he would like to come in the form of a man.  Therefore, you should let him know when you want him to be here and in whose shape, and he’ll do it.

Angels typically act as God’s messengers.  In this story, Madonna Lisetta employed Frate Alberto to send a message to the angel Gabriel about how he could best serve her sexual preferences.  Emphasizing her estrangement from personal reality, she expressed no preferences about the male body angel Gabriel will incarnate for her.  Frate Alberto then reasoned about costs and benefits to her:

you can do me a great favor that will cost you nothing, namely, you should have him use this body of mine when he comes to you.  Let me explain how you’ll be doing me a favor: the moment he enters my body, he’s going to remove my soul and place it in Paradise, where it will remain for as long as he’s down here with you.

Madonna Lisetta readily agreed to that favor.  Frate Alberto, dressed in angelic gewgaws, thus repeatedly enjoyed carnal intercourse with Madonna Lisetta.

The story leads to an extremely unhappy end for Frate Alberto.  Although she had promised secrecy, Madonna Lisetta eventually bragged to a lady friend about her affair with the angel Gabriel.  The lady friend spread that amusing gossip around town.  Madonna Lisetta’s in-laws soon caught her and Frate Alberto in bed.  Frate Alberto escaped with a leap from a high window into a river.  However, subsequently duped into playing the part of a wild man in a carnival, Frate Alberto was exposed, brutalized, and incarcerated.  The story describes no punishment for Madonna Lisetta.  Frate Alberto’s crime was having sex by means of an absurd delusion, like the delusion that a woman will stay young and beautiful forever, without makeup.

The story of Frate Alberto is more than just a story of sexual deception and vicious punishment of the man.  The story of Frate Alberto reconfigures the Christian story of incarnation.  In the Christian story of incarnation, the angel Gabriel came to Mary, who was engaged to Joseph.  The angel Gabriel told Mary that she had found favor with God.  The angel Gabriel told her that God would come to her and impregnate her.  She would become pregnant with a son.[3]  Is Frate Alberto’s story more ridiculous than the Christian story of Mary of Nazareth?  Was Boccaccio formally ridiculing a fundamental Christian belief?

Boccaccio wasn’t the first to present a story like the Christian story of incarnation.  The historian Flavius Josephus told the story of Mundus and Paulina.  Carrying out a scheme for Mundus, the eldest priest of the Temple of Isis in Rome informed Paulina that the god Anubis had fallen in love with her and wanted to have sex with her.  She came to the temple and had sex with Mundus, disguised as the god Anubis.[4]  In the Alexander romance, the last Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo fled Egypt and came to Macedonian.  He told Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias that she must have sex with the god Ammon incarnated as a serpent.  Disguised as that incarnation of Ammon, Nectanebo repeatedly had sex with Olympias.[5]  Boccaccio apparently read Josephus in Latin translation.[6]  He also knew the Alexander romance.  Boccaccio wrote that Alexander would have been more admirable if he hadn’t claimed that his mother had sex with “Jupiter” disguised as a serpent.[7]

Attending to the narrative framework transforms understanding of the story of Frate Alberto.  Filostrato ruled Day 4.  His name has the Greek etymology “lover of war.”  Frustrated with his rejection in love, Filostrato ordered stories of love leading to unhappiness.  To his companions, gathered in a refuge from the plague to enjoy imaginative pleasure, Filostrato explained:

Loving ladies, ever since I could distinguish good from evil, it has been my misfortune, because of the beauty possessed by one of your number, to be perpetually enslaved to love.  I have been humble and obedient and followed his rules, to the extent that I understood them, but all to no avail, for first I would be abandoned for another lover, and then things would always go from bad to worse for me — and I think they will continue to do so from now on until the day I die.  Consequently, it is my pleasure that the subject for us to talk about tomorrow should be none other than the one that fits my situation best, namely, those whose love came to an unhappy end.  For I myself expect a most unhappy one in the long run, and that is the reason why the name you use to address me was conferred on me by someone who certainly knew what it meant.[8]

Filostrato is an Ulrich von Liechtenstein, a Suero de Quinones, and an Elliot Rodgers, all of whom needed professional helpTrue love doesn’t lead to slavery, violence, and an unhappy end.

Providing a shining counterpoint to Filostrato, Boccaccio inserted in the introduction to Day 4 a vigorous, first-person affirmation of true love.  The imagined author of the Decameron declared:

no one can justly say anything about me or any of the others who love you except that we are acting naturally.  In order to oppose the laws of Nature, one has to have exceptional powers,and they are often employed not only in vain, but to to the greatest harm of the person who makes use of them.  Such strength I confess I lack, nor do I have any desire to acquire it for such a purpose.  In fact, even if I did possess it, I would lend it to others rather than use it myself.  Therefore, let my detractors be silent, and if they cannot find any warmth in themselves, let them live in their cold rancor, and while they pursue their own delights, or rather, their corrupt appetites, may they allow me to pursue mine during the brief life that is granted to us.[9]

Frate Alberto and Madonna Lisetta incarnated narrow, selfish love: corrupt appetites.[10]  Their story is narrated via Pampinea’s and Filostrato’s cold rancor.  The Christian story of Mary describes love incarnate joyously making God greater.  That, for Boccaccio, was love according to the laws of Nature.

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Notes:

[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 4, story 2, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 319.  All subsequent quotes from the story of Frate Alberto are from id. pp. 319-329.

[2] Pampinea included nasty characterizations not necessary to carry the plot.  She referred to Madonna Lisetta as a “frivolous, empty-headed young lady.”  She also called Madonna Lisetta names: Lady Pumpkinhead, Madonna Simple, and Madonna Noodlepate.  She described Frate Alberto as “a pimp, a forger, and a murderer.”  That’s characterization far beyond the story of a guileful seducer.  She declared that Berto della Massa, who became Frate Alberto, moved to “Venice, that receptacle of every sort of filth.”

[3] Luke 1:26-38.

[4] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.4.  The context in Josephus (immediately following his account of Jesus) and a fourth-century description of the text suggests that Josephus was mocking the Christian story of incarnation.  Bell (1976).

[5] Alexander Romance, Bk I.1-7, from Greek trans. Stoneman (1991) pp. 35-41.  A story of a man pretending to be an eminent religious figure in order to be accepted as a woman’s lover exists in an early eighteenth-century collection of Persians tales translated into French.  See François Pétis de La Croix, Les Mille et un jours (1710-1712), Days 109-115 (Historie de Malek).  In that story, the man pretends to the be the prophet of Islam.  A nineteenth-century English translation of the story (“The story of Malek and the Princess Schirine”) changed the religious figure to the King of the Genii.

[6] Kirkham, Sherberg & Smarr (2013) pp. 334, 340.

[7] Id. p. 243, citing Boccaccio, Genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles) 13.7.

[8] Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 296-7.  Id, note, and id. p. lxxviii states that Boccaccio thought that Filostrato means “he who is cast down or overcome by love.”  In the broad context of the Decameron, Boccaccio seems to me to have only pretended to be certain of that wrong etymology.

[9] Decameron, Day 4, Introduction, trans. id. p. pp. 306-7.

[10] Marcus (1979) focuses on Frate Alberto’s transgression:

Frate Alberto’s transgression is more than sexual. … When we examine the particular mode of the friar’s misconduct, we learn that his crime is a literary one — that he has appropriated for his own selfish uses the unique poetic strategies of Scriptures.

Separating “unique poetic strategies of Scripture” from myth-making generally is inconsistent with Boccaccio’s general approach to myth.  Gittes (2008).  In addition to uncritically accepting the story’s sexual balance of fault, Marcus (1979) doesn’t recognize the broader narrative connections of the story of Frate Alberto within and beyond the Decameron.

[image] Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo, Annunciation (angel Gabriel’s message to Mary), Spain, 1655.  Held in Hermitage Museum.  Thanks to Enrique Cordero and Wikipedia.

References:

Bell, Albert A. 1976. “Josephus the Satirist? A Clue to the Original Form of the ‘Testimonium Flavianum.'” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 67 (1): 16-22.

Gittes, Tobias Foster. 2008. Boccaccio’s naked muse: eros, culture, and the mythopoeic imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kirkham, Victoria, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2013. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, Millicent. 1979. “The Accommodating Frate Alberto: a Gloss on Decameron IV, 2.” Italica. 56 (1): 3-21.

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

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 1991. Pseudo-Callisthenes. The Greek Alexander Romance. London, England: Penguin Books.

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