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Giovanni Boccaccio | Biography

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Early Life and Education

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in June or July of 1313, in Certaldo, Italy, or perhaps Paris, France. His father, Boccaccino di Chellino, was a successful merchant, while his mother was unidentified. Boccaccio spent much of his early childhood in Florence. His education was typical for the son of a wealthy man at the time: grammar, rhetoric, argumentation, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. By 1328 Boccaccio traveled to Naples with his father, an acting agent of the prominent Bardi Bank of Florence. It was here Boccaccio received training in business and canon law in the court of one of the bank's most important clients, King Robert d'Anjou.

Boccaccio's position allowed him to undergo mercantile training, spend time with the aristocracy, and further his literary education. He met friends of the famous Italian poet Petrarch and was introduced to the man's works. When his father moved to Paris for business in 1332, Boccaccio continued his education, eventually joining a group of men who met in the Royal Library. This gave him access to a wide range of sources he would later draw on in The Decameron and other works: French romances, mythology, astrology, history, magic, alchemy, and stories from other countries. This experience greatly broadened his knowledge of the world at a time when very few were educated at all.

Early Career and Writings

Boccaccio wrote several pieces during his studies, the most notable being Il filocolo (1336), a five-book romance focusing on the characters Florio and Biancofiore and their adventures in love. He returned to Florence during a time of great upheaval. The plague, a bacterial infection spread by fleas and also known as the black death, had ravaged the city, killing hundreds of thousands and causing financial failings and political unrest. During this period he wrote both prose and poetry, usually based around themes of love and chivalry. His deft use of the ottava rima (stanza of eight 11-syllable lines) commonly used by minstrels of the period became the accepted model of Italian verse at the time.

It was after the second round of the plague in Florence in 1348 Boccaccio was inspired to write The Decameron. Between 1349 and 1353 he worked on this book that would become his most famous prose collection. In 1350 he met Petrarch, the leading poet in Italy (and one of the founders of the modern Italian language). They began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.

Upon meeting Petrarch, Boccaccio's literary focus shifted away from his traditional chivalric and romantic subject matter. He began his De genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles, 1350–75) shortly after meeting Petrarch and would continue working on it until his death. He wrote a series of short pastoral poems, as well as a biography of famous women. In addition Boccaccio wrote the Vita di Dante Alighieri, or Trattatello in laude di Dante (Tractate in Praise of Dante, c. 1360).

Death and Legacy

Poverty and ill health forced Boccaccio to retire to his home in the town of Certaldo. Learning of Petrarch's death in 1374 caused him further grief, and he died on December 21, 1375.

Boccaccio's impact on the Italian Renaissance and literature in general is profound. His work to reinterpret ancient texts and incorporate them into his own prose and poetry raised the standards of literature in his day. His focus on the everyday experience in The Decameron and Il filocolo, among other works, influenced not just writers in the latter half of the Italian Renaissance, but had a great impact and influence on authors such as English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and English playwright William Shakespeare centuries later.

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