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Giovanni Boccaccio


A great Italian writer. 
He is famous for writing Decameron.

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in 1313 in the town of Certaldo, near Florence in Tuscany.   

Giovanni's father was Boccaccino di Chellino who married Margherita de' Mardoli.  Giovanni grew up in his father's household with Margherita as his stepmother.  The identity of his natural mother is uncertain.

At that time, Florence (Firenze) was considered to be a very large city.  In fact, it was more than twice the size of London and was one of the most important places in the world.  It was particularly important for business and banking.

Giovanni's father worked with the Bardi Bank of Florence.  In 1327, the family moved to Naples (Napoli) where Giovanni's father conducted business for the bank and for the King of Naples - Robert the Wise.  In Italian, this king is called Roberto d'Angiò or Roberto Il Saggio.

Giovanni grew up with the education and the lifestyle of an upper-class person.  His father wanted him to become a banker or businessman and follow in his footsteps with a secure profession but Giovanni had his own ideas.  He wanted to be a writer.

During his years in Naples, Giovanni fell in love with King Robert's daughter.  He wrote about her and gave her the name Fiammetta, meaning 'little flame.'  Her real name was Maria d'Aquino.


The painting above portrays Fiammetta.  It is called 'A Vision of Fiammetta' by artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Eventually, Giovanni Boccaccio left Naples and returned to the area of Florence.  

In 1348, the most dreadful outbreak of the plague swept across Europe.  It was called the Black Death.  In Italian the plague is called la peste.  The English word 'pest' comes from this.

In Florence, three quarters of the population was wiped out.  It killed Giovanni's father.  
This outbreak of the plague was the terrifying event that inspired Giovanni Boccaccio to write Decameron.  

Giovanni Boccaccio began to write Decameron in 1349.  It is the story of ten upper-class young people who are forced to flee the city of Florence during the plague.  They go to the country villa of one of the group and they pass the time telling stories.  One of the seven characters is called Fiammetta.

The group spends ten days in the countryside, waiting for the worst part of the plague to pass.  To entertain and distract themselves, each person tells a story every day.  Over the ten-day period this results in one hundred stories.  As you can see, the number 'ten' is significant in the Decameron.

The painting below by John William Waterhouse, depicts the telling of a tale in the Decameron.  It can be seen in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.


The one hundred stories of Decameron are varied.  They are funny, or rude, or serious, and some are religious. 

Decameron is presented in a very realistic way.  The ten characters and their situation seem to be real.  The manner in which the stories are told is highly entertaining: much better than watching television for entertainment! 

It is said that the English writer Geoffrey Chaucer was so impressed by the style of Decameron that he was inspired to write in a similar manner and created The Canterbury Tales


Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer.  Artist unknown.
This painting belongs to The Government Art Collection


Decameron has a fascinating but frightening introduction.  It vividly describes daily life in Florence during the plague of 1348.  The description is so real that it is like looking through a window and observing the plague-stricken city.

The introduction of Decameron describes -
1. How people ran away from home, abandoning their sick and dying relatives.  Even children were left alone.
2. How servants and poor people made lots of money by being paid to look after the wealthy, abandoned people.
3. How the countryside was considered the safest place to stay whilst waiting for the plague to pass.
4.  The terrifying symptoms if you caught the disease.

What can we learn from Decameron?..... 
1.  All humans are equally vulnerable when natural disasters strike.  Social class is irrelevant in the natural world.  
2.  Human beings have the ability to remain optimistic and hopeful even during the most dreadful times.  The ten storytellers remain lighthearted and positive, trying not to think about the devastation in the city nearby.

Giovanni Boccaccio was a great admirer of the Italian poets Dante Alighieri and Petrarca.  He loved La Commedia written by Dante Alighieri and renamed it La Divina Commedia by which it has been known ever since.

Giovanni Boccaccio died in 1375 at the age of sixty-three in the town of his birth, Certaldo.  His tomb is inside the church called Chiesa dei Santi Jacopo e Filippo and the house where he lived - La Casa Boccaccio - can be visited. 

Below is a photo of Giovanni Boccaccio's house.  Photo by Matteo Tani.



Grazie, Giovanni Boccaccio! 
Thank you, Giovanni Boccaccio, for all the great stories that you wrote in Decameron and for sharing your experience of the plague so that centuries later we can learn about it.
Grazie mille!

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