Academic journal article Italica

Hagiographic Romance and the Wild Life in Boccaccio's Novella of Beritola (Decameron II, 6)

Academic journal article Italica

Hagiographic Romance and the Wild Life in Boccaccio's Novella of Beritola (Decameron II, 6)

Article excerpt

The novellas of the Second Day of the Decameron, in which protagonists suffer various reversals at the hands of all powerful Fortune, include many of the book's more elaborate, romance-like narratives. (1) Some of these, especially the tales of Andreuccio (II, 5) and Alatiel (II, 7), have attracted considerable critical attention not only as narrative tours de force, but also because their protagonists' misadventures serve to illustrate the ethical tensions inherent in Boccaccio's concept of Fortune. Much less emphasis has been placed on the novella of Madama Beritola, which lies between these two. To some extent, this can be easily explained: the story of the long suffering and ever virtuous Beritola, who loses all contact with her husband and children for many years until at last all are joyfully reunited, does not include the sort of ethical equivocations that pervade the novellas of Andreuccio and Alatiel--Beritola's chastity is never called into question for instance, nor does she have to steal a ring from a dead bishop in order to regain what she has lost. Nonetheless, I would suggest that her experiences deserve more attention than they have heretofore received. Beritola's peculiar episode of wildness, in which we see her feeding a pair of fawns with her own milk on a deserted island, has only been superficially studied over the years, despite its clear descent from models of wildness that permeate the literature of both East and West. Even studies of literary wild folk that take the Decameron into account fail to mention Beritola, and I can find no evidence that an adequate attempt has ever been made to investigate the relationship between this episode and its sources, nor indeed the implications of Boccaccio's artful interpenetration of the modes of hagiography and romance in this tale. (2)

Boccaccio provides a grand historical backdrop for his story, which begins in thirteenth century Sicily. Beritola Caracciola is the aristocratic Neapolitan wife of Arrighetto Capece, a Ghibelline vassal of King Manfred of Sicily. When Arrighetto is captured by forces loyal to Charles of Anjou after Manfred's death at Benevento in 1266, the pregnant Beritola is compelled to flee Sicily by ship with her young son. While a refugee she gives birth to another son, whom she names Lo Scacciato ("The Exile") in recognition of the circumstances of his coming into the world. Beritola attempts to return to her home in Naples with her sons, but on the way the ship is forced to stop at the island of Ponza, which Boccaccio would have his reader believe is uninhabited. During this interlude Beritola, still grieving for the loss of her husband who she believes might be dead, acquires the habit of retiring to a remote part of the island to mourn in solitude. One day, while she is separated thus from the others for this daily ritual ("il suo diurno lamento," 1, 203), pirates make off with Beritola's ship and all of its company, including her sons. Finding herself marooned, Beritola is so overcome with emotion that she is reduced to falling on the beach in a faint, then frantically searching the caves of the island in the vain hope of finding her sons. However, she soon comes to realize the uselessness of such behavior:

   Ma poi chela sua fatica conobbe vana e vide la notte sopravenire,
   sperando e non sappiendo che, di se medesima alquanto divenne
   sollecita, e dal lito partitasi in quella caverna, dove di piagnere
   e di dolersi era usa, si ritorno. (1, 204)

Beritola resorts to reason as a means of tempering the folly of irrational behavior: if she is unable to help her family, it is wise for her to begin to help herself. However, we cannot fail to note a certain irony: her return to reason must take the form of animal-like behavior. The process of her conversion to a bestial state begins when she goes back to her cave and makes a meal of raw herbs, having no other recourse; significantly, she is said to "graze" on grass just like an animal ("da fame constretta a pascer l'erbe si diede," 1, 204). …

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