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Boccaccio's Pisan Allegory of "Death" in Petrarch's Triumphus Mortis


From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, viral contagions, such as the Black Death of 1348, disrupted many social, political, and economic parts of life, situating the idea and the reality of Death in mass numbers at the forefront of late medieval and early Renaissance minds. Responding to the anxieties experienced by the thousands, literary and visual texts from this period emphasized the personification of Death as an imposing figure and common threat. This paper traces the visual evolution of the figure of Death which, I argue, developed according to intertextual and intervisual dialogues among Francesco Petrarca’s Triumphus Mortis, Giovanni Boccaccio’s L’Amorosa visione, and the fresco known as the Triumph of Death by Buonamico Buffalmacco in the Pisa Camposanto. While early visual portrayals of Petrarch’s Triumphus Mortis attest to the renewed interest in the “Triumph of Death” in the decades immediately following the 1358 plague, most artists depict a chariot atop which Death rides during a “triumphal” procession, painted elements that are not explicitly recounted in Petrarch’s text.  I investigate the reasons for this cross-contamination between word and image around the “Triumph of Death,” demonstrating further how Boccaccio’s engagement with funerary rituals informed his Amorosa visione, as well as his viewing of the Pisa Camposanto. The fusion of live-action pageantry with the visual “Triumph of Death” provided Petrarch with an intermedial model for his Triumphus Mortis, to which later artists turned for inspiration in depicting figures within and beyond the poet’s Trionfi. Such intermedial dialogues across art and poetry resonated with audiences striving to overcome the indiscriminate nature of Death and the fear of disease during a most unsettling historical moment.

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