The Plague and Its Aftermath in Florence
In the years immediately preceding the arrival of the plague in Florence in 1348, the city suffered economically from the failure of three major banking houses within a span of four years (1343–1346). The nearby Po River Valley was struck by flash floods in 1345, and the city experienced widespread famine in 1346. Late in 1347, the plague reached Italy and spread along trade routes from port to port, from Catania in Sicily to Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. The plague reached Florence in 1348. Unbeknownst to fourteenth-century Italians, the disease was spread by the bite of fleas carried by rats, which ran rampant aboard ships and in port cities. The bacterial disease infects the lymph nodes of contaminated individuals and is known as the bubonic plague at this stage. It is characterized by black swellings, or buboes, in the victim’s armpits and groin area. When the infection spreads to the lungs, the disease is termed pneumonic plague, which is particularly contagious since it may be spread by contact between humans and not just by contact with fleas. (If the infection spreads to the blood (septicemic plague), it is always fatal, but this version of the disease is the rarest.) The disease usually kills its victim within days. However, some individuals were known to have survived the bubonic plague. Harry Hearder, in his 2001 study Italy: A Short History, observes that the city of Florence was ‘‘perhaps worse hit than any other Italian city.’’ The plague, and the smaller-scale disasters that preceded it, all contributed to the stagnation in the artistic and economic achievements Florence and much of the rest of Italy had been making in the earlier part of the fourteenth century. Boccaccio survived the plague and wrote about it in the introduction to the Decameron. Likewise, the poet Petrarch, Boccaccio’s friend and literary peer, lived through the horrors of the plague. Yet, as Hearder observes, few notable figures in the literary or visual arts arose until the fifteenth century. In addition, the economic prosperity enjoyed by citizens in the region of Tuscany, already jeopardized just prior to the plague, was further damaged by the challenges the cities faced in rebuilding after the epidemic. True economic revival was not experienced in Florence, or on a widespread scale in Italy, until the fifteenth century.
Florence in the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance
Boccaccio is often seen as a transitional figure who exemplifies qualities of two different time periods, the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance periods. The late Middle Ages, or the later medieval period, is typically viewed as the late fourteenth century. The Renaissance period is often regarded as the early fifteenth century, a time in which economic recovery following the disasters (including the plague, floods, famine, and banking crises) begins to transform Italian cities, and art and culture begins to flourish once again. Some of the philosophical and cultural viewpoints associated with the Renaissance could already be seen during the later years of the 1300s, and especially in the work of Boccaccio. Boccaccio’s transitional status reflects the nature of the city of Florence, where he lived and worked for much of his life.
It is important to note that Italy during this time period was not a nation unto itself. Rather, different regions were ruled as independent city-states or republics. Some cities were ruled by elected councils, others by powerful families, and still others by the foreign powers that had conquered the city or region. For example, Florence had been governed by citizens—guilds (organizations of skilled workers) comprised of middle-class bankers, merchants, and artisans— as well as by members of the nobility. By contrast, Naples was ruled by a king, Robert of Anjou, who was related to the French royal family. The Florentine government was more inclusive than the governing bodies in other cities or regions of Italy, including as it did members of the growing middle class, which was wealthy, but not of the noble class. However, struggles for power between the middle class and the nobles frequently troubled the Florentine government. According to Judith Powers Serafini-Sauli, author of the 1982 study Giovanni Boccaccio, the prominence of this wealthy middle class gave rise to a large population literate in Italian. Boccaccio chose to write his Decameron in Italian rather than Latin, making his literature available to a broader base of readers. He has been viewed as forward-thinking for this and for his proposal in his Decameron to view narrative storytelling as both entertaining and instructive. At the same time, Boccaccio embraced the conventions of his time. His settings and themes are those of medieval literature, feudal societies and courtly love. Boccaccio also is a product of post-plague Florence, and stories such as ‘‘Federigo’s Falcon’’ envision a future in which wealth and nobility may be viewed as separate yet equally respectable. Federigo, who has lost his fortune, is able to shed his status as an embarrassment to the noble world when he is finally embraced by Giovanna. Boccaccio, often regarded as an early humanist, encourages a view of people as individuals rather than as members of a class, who are able to participate in the restructuring of Italian society in the aftermath of the plague. Humanism respected the teachings of classical Greek and Roman writers and consequently was viewed as a secular rather than a religious philosophy.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Giovanni Boccaccio – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.