HomeLiterature Study GuidesThe DecameronIntroduction And First Day First Story Summary

The Decameron | Study Guide

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron | Introduction and First Day, First Story | Summary

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Summary

Introduction to First Day

As the book begins, Florence has been hit hard by the black death. The disease is highly contagious and is spreading rapidly throughout cities and towns. Seven women friends, ranging in age from 18 to 28, meet at the church of Santa Maria Novella, which had recently been built in the city. The eldest, Pampinea, suggests a plan to escape the city for the relative safety of the countryside. Filomena and Elissa comment they realize some men should accompany them on the trip. Luckily, three handsome young men arrive at the church, and the group decides to head to a palazzo, a large villa with gardens on the outskirts of Florence to escape the devastation brought on by the plague.

Once they arrive, Pampinea suggests a way for the group to pass the time while they are there so they do not stray into "trouble." Over the course of the two weeks they are staying at the palazzo—minus the four days for religious observance—each member of the brigata (the Italian word for "group" or "party") will be monarch for one day. The "king" or "queen" will be in charge of the entertainment, the food, and all aspects of their lives, and will choose a theme for the stories to be told that day. Each member of the brigata will tell one story per day (10 stories over the course of 10 days, for a total of 100).Panfilo tells the first story. A rich merchant and knight named Musciatto Franzesi comes to Tuscany with the brother of the king of France at the behest of the pope. He wishes to make sure his affairs are in order, and is particularly worried about collecting money from several Burgundians he had loaned funds to. He needs someone who can match them in their wickedness, and so he asks Cepparello to help him.

First Day, First Story

Cepparello is an evil man—he cheats, lies, kills, blasphemes, and expresses no remorse over these things. He gladly takes the job and travels to Burgundy. Against his evil nature, he begins his duties in a pleasant manner, but soon falls ill while staying in the house of two brothers from Florence. The brothers discover what kind of man Cepparello really is and debate what to do with him.

Cepparello asks them to fetch the holiest priest they know of, and says he will take care of the rest. The brothers find a monastery and bring back a friar to hear the man's confession. Cepparello lies to the friar about everything, convincing the man he is all but a saint. The brothers cannot believe Cepparello's audacity.

Cepparello dies and is buried at the monastery. The friar who heard his confession and believed everything he said gives such an impassioned sermon over his goodness and sanctity that soon Cepparello is considered a saint throughout the countryside.

Analysis

The introduction shows that Boccaccio's stories are rooted in the here and now, with a focus on earthly pursuits and passions. As the next major Italian literary figure after Dante, Boccaccio stands opposite Dante's Divine Comedy with his human one. He documents the foibles and failures of the human condition, the everyday lives of the lords and friars and merchants and painters and poor folk. They are not waiting to die to gain their heavenly reward; rather, they are pursuing their earthly rewards while they are still alive. Compassion and humanity are lauded in Boccaccio's stories rather than piety. The human condition is of far more interest to Boccaccio than the divine, and is further worth pursuing.

The opening story is the first of many stories in The Decameron that poke fun at religion. Cepparello is a terrible man who delights in doing evil things, and yet he is able to con a clergyman into believing he is of such purity and goodwill he should be considered for sainthood. In the medieval period it was a common trope to have caricatures of priests, friars, and monks. Usually they were portrayed as greedy or lecherous, but there were also instances where the clergy were easily duped.

This story is the case of the latter. The friar in the story is a true holy man and believes the best in what Cepparello says. It is this naïveté that allows Cepparello to trick him so completely. The story also shows the willingness of people to believe the things a priest or religious leader tells them. The fact a man of Cepparello's wickedness could be hailed as a saint by a churchman who barely knew him is also part of the joke.

However, this introduces an important theme Boccaccio revisits again and again throughout The Decameron. The power of faith and belief is addressed in a number of stories, but it is first introduced here. While Cepparello may have been a horrible person in life, the people's belief in him as a saint and the friar's faith in him elevate him in death. It doesn't matter he was terrible; the people do not believe it of him. There is power in faith that elevates the mundane to the miraculous. In the end it doesn't matter Cepparello was not a saint. It is enough the people believe he was.

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