Dante’s Boethius buried in Boccaccio’s Decameron X.9

Dante sees Boethius in Paradiso X

Raising his eyes to gaze rapturously at the Master’s work, Dante in Canto X of his Paradiso saw “living lights of blinding brightness.” Those lights were the souls of the twelve most eminent Christian thinkers. Dante with thirsting eagerness saw the soul of Boethius within the eighth light:

Within it rejoices, in his vision of all goodness,
the holy soul who makes quite plain
the world’s deceit to one who listens well.

The body from which it was driven out
lies down there in Cieldauro, and he has risen
from martyrdom and exile to this peace. [1]

Defending poetry, Boccaccio criticized those failing to fully understanding Boethius’s words, those who “consider them only superficially.”[2] Boccaccio’s Decameron X.9 magically returned the rich, noble Torello to the Church of Ciel D’Oro where Boethius’s body was buried. In Decameron X.9, Boccaccio responded to Dante with a vision of the true consolation of Lady Philosophy: personally loving, virtuous action in worldly living.

Decameron X.9 begins with a chance encounter between the mighty sultan Saladin and the gentleman Messer Torello di Stra da Pavia. Saladin along with two of his wisest senior counselors were disguised as merchants. Torello, together with servants, dogs, and falcons, was going to his country estate. Torello evidently was wealthy by the standards of European nobility. He was also an influential and respected public figure in his home city of Pavia. Lady Philosophy warned Boethius about valuing too highly wealth and power. Saladin and Torello were men with great wealth and power.

Torello extended lavish hospitality to Saladin and his companions. Since they were looking for lodgings, Torello had them guided to his country estate. There Torello hosted Saladin’s party with pleasant conversation, a meal, and comfortable beds. The next day Torello escorted Saladin’s party to his mansion in Pavia. Fifty leading citizens greeted Saladin’s party in Pavia and joined in a banquet in Torello’s great hall in honor of them. After the dinner was over and the leading gentlemen of Pavia had left, Torello’s wife met privately with Saladin and his companions. She gave them gifts of magnificent robes, doublets, and undergarments.[3] The three tired, old horses that Saladin and his companions rode were quietly replaced by three fine, sturdy palfreys. In response to Torello’s entreaties, Saladin’s party spent another day with him and enjoyed another magnificent feast with many noble guests. Torello had told them that he could not believe that they were merchants. Just before departing, Saladin told Torello, “we may yet have the chance to show you some of our merchandise and make a believer out of you.”[4] A deceit of the world is believing that merchants cannot be noble.

Saladin received an opportunity to make a believer out of Torello. On a Crusade attacking Saladin’s Islamic empire, Torello was captured. Torello’s skill as a falconer brought him into service to Saladin. One day Saladin recognized Torello. Saladin joyfully embraced him and declared that he would be co-ruler of his empire. Despite his new position of wondrous wealth and power, Torello still agonizingly yearned for his wife back home in Pavia. He told Saladin that he wanted either to die or to return home to his wife. Boethius’s Lady Philosophy would have applauded Torello’s valuing of wealth and power relative to being with his wife.

Saladin arranged to transport Torello home quickly. Torello was put to sleep on a bed. Torello thus took the position of Boethius at the beginning of the Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was in bed in prison, deprived of wealth and honor, and facing execution. Saladin put Torello in bed with dazzling wealth: a extremely valuable crown, a ruby ring, a brooch studded with pearls and precious stones, two enormous golden bowls and doubloons, and much more. Torello in this bed was then magically transported within a single night to Boethius’s burial place, Pavia’s Church of San Pietro in Ciel D’Oro.[5] All in Pavia had believed that Torello was dead. Torello rose as a living man in Boethius’s burial place.

Torello’s return home warded off his wife’s remarriage. After she had mournfully passed the agreed one year, one month, and one day without Torello’s return, Torello’s wife was persuaded to take a new husband. Torello, disguised as an ambassador from Saladin, appeared at the nuptial banquet for his wife’s remarriage. A ring placed in a wine cup prompted her to recognize that the ambassador was really her first husband Torello. She overturned the banquet table in front of her and started shouting:

Then she dashed over to where he {Torello} was sitting, and without giving a thought to her clothing or any of the things on the table, she flung herself across it as far as she could and hugged him to her in a tight embrace. Nor could she be induced to let go of his neck, for anything the people there could say or do, until Messer Torello himself told her to exercise a little self-control, for she would have plenty of time to embrace him later on. [6]

They lived happily together as a wealthy and honored couple for many years thereafter.

Boccaccio framed with worldly reality Decameron X.9’s vision of all goodness. The narrator Panfilo recognized human failures in love:

even though our defects may prevent us from winning the deepest sort of friendship with another person, by imitating the things you hear about in my tale, we may at least derive a certain delight from being courteous to others and hope that sooner or later we will receive our reward for doing so. [7]

Decameron X.9 isn’t told as just a marvelous romance. It’s a moral exemplum showing tribulations ended under the economy of punishment, reward, and credit:

This, then, was how the tribulations of Messer Torello and his beloved wife came to an end, and how they were rewarded for their prompt and cheerful acts of courtesy. There are many people who strive to do the like, but although they have the wherewithal, they perform such deeds so ineptly that before they are finished, those who receive them wind up paying more for them than they are worth. And so, if people get no credit for what they do, neither they nor anyone else should be surprised.

That’s a divine comedy of merchant philosophy and aristocratic performance. That’s Boccaccio’s deep reading of the concluding prayer of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

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Notes:

[1] Dante, Commedia, Paradiso X.124-9, from Italian trans. Robert Hollander at the Princeton Dante Project. The previous quote is from X.64. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy influenced Casella’s song and Cato’s rebuke (Purgatorio II.76-133), Beatrice dispelling the false lady of Dante’s dream (Purgatorio XIX.1-33), and Beatrice’s sudden appearance as a guide for Dante (Purgatorio XXX.49-145). More generally, just as Consolation of Philosophy has Lady Philosophy instructing Boethius, Dante’s Commedia features a series of knowledgeable guides (Virgil, Beatrice, Statius, Bernard of Clairvaux) leading a troubled man. Goddard (2011) argues that Dante included within his Commedia a typological fufillment of Philosophy’s attempt to console Boethius.

[2] Boccaccio, Geneologia deorum gentilium XIV.20, from Latin trans. Osgood (1956) pp. 94-5.

[3] The gifts of undergarments emphasizes intimate friendship.

[4] Boccaccio, Decameron X.9, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 827. Roman aristocratic ideals of Latin antiquity are important context for Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Donato (2013) Ch. 1.

[5] Singleton (1970), p. 188, observes:

He {Boethius} was buried in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, where in 722 a tomb was erected to his memory by Liutprand, king of the Lombards; this was replaced in 990 by a more magnificent one erected by the Emperor Otto III, for which Pope Sylvester II wrote an inscription.

[6] Decameron X.9, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 837.

[7] Decameron X.9, trans. id. p. 820. The Latin etymology of Panfilo is “all loving,” with loving carrying the sense of earnest care for the good of the other, as in deep friendship. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 838.

[image] Illumination of Dante’s Paradiso X, showing twelve lights of the Church, including Boethius. From manuscript of Dante’s Divina Commedia, made about 1444 to 1450 in Northern Italy. BL Yates Thompson 36, fol. 147. Thanks to the British Library and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Donato, Antonio. 2013. Boethius’ Consolation of philosophy as a product of late antiquity. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Goddard, Victoria Emma Clare. 2011. Poetry and Philosophy in Boethius and Dante. Thesis (Ph.D.)–University of Toronto.

Osgood, Charles Grosvenor. 1956. Boccaccio on poetry; being the preface and the fourteenth and fifteenth books of Boccaccio’s Genealogia deorum gentilium in an English version with introductory essay and commentary. New York: Liberal Arts Press.

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

Singleton, Charles S., trans. and commentary. 1970. Dante Alighieri. The divine comedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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