Encrypted Messages: Men, Women, and Figurative Language in Decameron 5.4

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In an expert and thought-provoking reading of tragic and comic stories in the Decameron, Millicent Marcus proposes that several of the most brutal tragedies are the result of the literalization of metaphor, and that Filostrato's tale of Ricciardo Manardi and Caterina da Valbona (Decameron 5.4) rewrites those tragic stories in order to show the beneficial consequences of embracing figurative exchanges.(1) Filostrato's tale is, in Marcus's words, an "an adventure in circumlocution," where the young lovers succeed, first of all, because from the very beginning they share a figurative language ("dying" for love, suffering "heat," "hearing the nightingale sing") that will allow them to circumvent protective parents and fulfill their desires.(2) Further helping to tip the scales away from death is Caterina's father, Messer Lizio, who rather than take offense, is open to accept and even himself to deploy the metaphors that the young lovers have offered. In the novella's most comic transposition of figures, Messer Lizio takes a veiled metaphor for sex ("making the nightingale sing") and extends and reshapes it so that it becomes, as Marcus notes, a "conceit for marriage":(3) "converra che primieramente la sposi, si che egli si trovera aver messo l'usignuolo nella gabbia sua e non nell'altrui" ("he will have to marry her first; thus he shall have put his nightingale into his own cage and not into anybody else's!" [5.4.38; p. 339]).(4) Acceptance of figurative language shields Caterina, Ricciardo, and Messer Lizio from the tragedy that had befallen Ghismonda, Guiscardo, and Tancredi in Decameron 4.1.

A reading like Marcus's, which emphasizes the enormous difference that language can make, does much to explain why Filostrato's story is so striking and compelling.(5) No doubt, we are moved and reassured by the idea that the production and the manipulation of language is salutary. The tale further reinforces this by rendering the characters' dialogue very prominently, first as Caterina seeks to persuade her mother to let her sleep on the balcony (where she hopes to meet Ricciardo); then as Caterina's mother intercedes with her father; and finally, after the lovers are discovered in delicto flagrante, when Ricciardo pleas with Caterina's father to spare his life. One senses that the energy of life is conveyed in the possibility of continued expression. It is when silence falls that one suspects the worst.

Although I affirm the validity of Marcus' reading, which is most certainly supported by the novella, I believe that another reading of men, women, and figurative language in Decameron 5.4--a reading in tension with Marcus's affirmation of the young lovers' active choice and expression--remains nestled here. If we read Filostrato's story with attention to the power relations formed around the use of figurative language, we see that the story isn't really very reassuring to readers--or at least not to readers of a feminist persuasion. As in several of his other stories, Filostrato keeps the control of social codes and of language in the hands of men, especially elder men. He presents a conflicted view of women: empowered on one hand to express their sexuality (at least initially, and within certain bounds), but ultimately dispossessed of language.

The novella shows us that the creative use of language will make not a whit of difference in social relations if the status quo is significantly threatened. Ricciardo can fall in love with Caterina, even fiercely (fieramente [5.4.6]), and is not necessarily destined for a tragic end because the social configuration of the characters is different from those we saw both in the tragic stories of Decameron 4 and to French and Provencal sources and analogues.(6) Caterina is unmarried (unlike the wives in the vida of Guilhem de Cabestanh, in Decameron 4.9, and in Marie de France's "Laustic"), so her relationship with Ricciardo is potentially licit. Her parents are anxious to find a good match for her (as Tancredi was not in Decameron 4. …