Dico adunque che già erano gli anni della fruttifera incarnazione del Figliuolo di Dio al numero pervenuti di milletrecentoquarantotto, quando nella egregia città di Fiorenza, oltre a ogn’altra italica bellissima, pervenne la mortifera pestilenza: la quale, per operazion de’ corpi superiori o per le nostre inique opere da giusta ira di Dio a nostra correzione mandata sopra i mortali, alquanti anni davanti nelle parti orientali incominciata, quelle d’inumerabile quantità de’ viventi avendo private, senza ristare d’un luogo in uno altro continuandosi, verso l’Occidente miserabilmente s’era ampliata.
We all are in dire need of some escapism. Locked down in our cities, often unable to venture beyond the confines of our own flats, we stare at the uncomfortable truth of a world that, suddenly, has gotten beyond reach. And it’s not as if the media can be relied upon for some solace: every bulletin, every website, every TV programme, offers nothing but the count of the dead, of the sick and of the hospitalized with the added cherry on top of the latest draconian measures. Yes, we need some respite.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be away from it all? To be able to disconnect, to secede from this madness and to return only when things are back to normal-ish?
If that thought has ever crossed your mind, you’re in good company. Not just of many others like you but also of 10 Florentine youths that, although not entirely real, have etched their names into the history of Italian literature. I’m talking about the young narrators of Boccaccio’s Decameron.
The year is 1348 and the situation is grim. Covid-19’s casualty rate in Italy, as of today, is 0.008%; the bubonic plague that exploded 670 years ago killed one in three Italians and almost half the population of Florence. Caught in the maelstrom of the Black Death, seven young women and three men meet up on a Tuesday in the empty nave of Santa Maria Novella. Around them the city is collapsing, its society buckling under the relentless assault of yersinia pestis.
Why staying? What’s there for them to do? Isn’t it better to leave for the hills, to their lands out of town? After all,
Quivi s’odono gli uccelletti cantare, veggionvisi verdeggiare i colli e le pianure, e i campi pieni di biade non altramenti ondeggiare che il mare, e d’alberi ben mille manière… e di quelle cose che alla vita bisognano in questi tempi v’è la copia maggiore e minore il numero delle noie.
Isolated from the collapsing world, the brigade initiates a life made of good food, music and, crucially, storytelling. A queen or king is elected each day and a new topic is chosen by the reigning monarch. One after the other, they’ll tell each other stories, ten a day, for ten days. Decameron. Out of Medieval Europe’s darkest period come a hundred novellas, a book that – together with Dante’s Divina Commedia – is the pillar upon which the entire Italian literary tradition rests. I, and with me millions of Italian schoolchildren, have read the stories of Chichibio and the crane, of Federigo degli Alberighi and many others, as fresh today as they were six centuries ago.
We live in interesting times and much of what’s happening has either never occurred before or hasn’t manifested itself in our living memory. We both need distraction and something to stretch our minds, a wee challenge to keep our creative spirit alive. That’s why I decided to join Boccaccio’s ten in their buen retiro, an uninvited 11th guest, a Johnny-Come-Lately turning up at the villa with seven centuries’ delay and not even a bottle of spiced rum to make up for it. I will follow the rules of the queen or king and will add my own stories. Some will be based on travels I’ve made, experiences I lived; others will be about local lore. And in some cases – thank you very much, Fiammetta – I haven’t the foggiest idea of what I’ll blabber about.
This Wednesday, much like Boccaccio’s ten, I will start posting my stories, writing every day for ten days – with the exception of Fridays and Saturdays, like they did. I’ve never written this much, or this frequently, before and I’m seriously concerned about biting more than I can actually chew. But we’ll see. I hope it’ll be fun to do, to read and that it might spur others to do it as well. In the meantime, if you want to read the actual Decameron in a somewhat dated (but in my opinion appropriate) translation, including the excerpts I have included in this posts, you can find it here.