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Authorizing the Reader: Dante and the Ends of the Decameron

  • Author(s): Cleaver, Natalie Ann
  • Advisor(s): Ascoli, Albert R
  • et al.


Authorizing the Reader: Dante and the Ends of the Decameron

by Natalie Ann Cleaver

Doctor of Philosophy in Comparative Literature and Medieval Studies

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Albert Ascoli, Chair

We now speak easily of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch as the tre corone of Italian literature, the three great foundational authors of the tradition, but there is no question who stands first among them. Not just for his historical primacy of place, or his commanding self–presentation, but also for his truly daunting range of influence, Dante Alighieri is the Italian poet with whom all others must reckon. He influenced the development of virtually every aspect of Italian culture, from literature and the Italian language itself, to theology, political philosophy, historical memory, and even constructions of national identity. Though this influence has been long–lasting, it was every bit as pervasive in his own age.

Few felt Dante’s shadow more than Giovanni Boccaccio, one of the first in subsequent generations of writers in the vernacular who had to negotiate his relationship to his illustrious predecessor. Boccaccio was a great Dantista in his own right; in addition to giving the first set of public lectures on the Commedia, he also composed the Trattatello in laude di Dante, in which he is the first to apply the epithet divina to the Commedia. Boccaccio obviously respected and admired Dante as a poet deeply. His minor works in particular demonstrate a profound engagement with the Commedia, and this relationship has been the subject of much recent scholarship.

The most puzzling case of Boccaccio’s debts to Dante is his own great vernacular masterpiece: the Decameron. On the one hand, the Decameron signals its relationship to the Commedia in some very obvious ways: the structure of the 100 stories, its title, and the appearance of many of the same characters who populate the Commedia. On the other, past these obvious signs, the relationship begins to break down, or to seem merely superficial upon further investigation. Any analysis of this relationship is additionally complicated by the seemingly antithetical nature and tone of the two works.

This dissertation examines one of the crucial ways in which the Decameron seems to be antithetical to the Commedia: Boccaccio's construction of authorship. I argue that Boccaccio creates an authorial persona who intentionally represents his Decameron as flawed, contradictory, and full of error. This persona in turn claims a distinctly un–authoritative authorship, disavowing his control over meaning and insisting that readers alone are responsible for how the Decameron is interpreted. This construction of authorship is not merely dissimilar to Dante’s; I suggest instead that it is a conscious response to Dante's own masterful self–presentation as author that reflects a deep engagement with the Commedia. Where Dante demonstrates anxiety over possible misinterpretation, working to control and constrain modes of reading, Boccaccio’s authorial persona emphasizes moments in which the Decameron is most open to multiple and conflicting interpretations.

The Decameron has long been understood to contain various structural and narrative ambivalences, apparent gaps in its creative and literary coherence. My dissertation reframes these seeming flaws as the “staging of failure” by Boccaccio, arguing that they are part of the same construction of the errant authorial persona. In the Decameron, Boccaccio creates structures of expectation, makes programmatic declarations of intent, only later to draw attention to the text's failure to live up to those promises. (Thus, the simultaneously obvious and seemingly insubstantial references to the Commedia — the first of the great “failures” of the Decameron, is its failure to be Dantean.) Boccaccio’s true authorial project in staging these failures is to train astute readers capable of understanding how texts produce meaning and generate authority.

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