Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Eroticizing Theology in Day Three and the Poetics of the Decameron

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Eroticizing Theology in Day Three and the Poetics of the Decameron

Article excerpt

Critics have often noted the conjunction of eros and religion that characterizes Day Three of the Decameron. From its first tale of Masetto cavorting with nuns in a convent, producing "many monklets" ("assai monachin" Dec. 3.1.42), through the stories of Dom Felice, who achieves the paradise of orgasm with Frate Puccio's wife while Puccio prays in penance (3.4), or the anonymous abbot, who constructs a fake Purgatory for Ferondo so he can sleep with Ferondo's wife (3.8), to the final account of Alibech putting the devil back in hell by having sex with the hermit Rustico (3.10), the day's storytelling mixes the secular and sacred (De Meijer 298-99; Ferroni 238-39; Usher, "Industria" 105). (1) This intermingling of sex and theology caused Renaissance editors to revise and censure these tales (Chiecchi and Troisio) and through the middle of the twentieth century the day's stories were routinely omitted from anthologies. While some modern critics have seen these stories not as obscene but as expressions of a new ideology that reveal "un potente soffio di umanita" (Alicata 248), others have argued that even the day's most challenging tale, that of Alibech and Rustico, teaches a moral lesson when read in the larger context of the Decameron and Boccaccio's other works (Kirkham, "Love's Labors Rewarded") and that it may encode a lesson about salvation (Ruggiero). Yet another group of critics has moved away from the dichotomy of moral or immoral, interpreting the day's mixture of eros and religion as parodic or, in the wake of Bakhtin, as "carnivalesque" (Fido 117-18; Muscetta 220; Grimaldi 63). This essay argues that the fusion of the erotic and religious that characterizes Day Three constitutes a central element in Boccaccio's poetics in the Decameron itself, as expressed both in the (significantly contiguous with Day Three) Introduction to Day Four, where Boccaccio aligns himself with lyric poets who had explored the same issue of the relationship between eros and theology, and in the Author's Conclusion, where the erotics of religious art are a central part of his defense of poetry. As this textual itinerary suggests, Boccaccio's eroticization of theology in Day Three is part of an effort to theologize poetry by giving literature the same institutional status afforded to the disciplines of philosophy and theology.

Although the queen of the day, Neifile, initially portrays her rule as in keeping with the previous reigns (Dec. 2. Concl. 3), she establishes fundamental changes in the life of the brigata and its storytelling in terms of time, space, and theme that reinforce the day's fusion of erotic and religious discourses. Neifile's first innovation is to suspend storytelling on Friday, to honor Christ's crucifixion, and Saturday, for hygienic purposes and out of reverence for the Virgin Mary, before storytelling resumes on Sunday. In a work whose title, Decameron, enacts its own temporal expansion of the exegetical Hexameron, as the six days of creation (Stillinger, "The Place of the Title"), the significance of this temporal shift should not be underestimated. Boccaccio's decision to have Neifile suspend storytelling on the day of Venus, moreover, is surprising given that much of Boccaccio's earlier work, such as the Ameto, which has often been described as a mini-Decameron, is written under the aegis of Venus. Whereas Neifile, in her rationale for taking a break from storytelling, contrasts orazioni and novelle ("'piu tosto a orazioni che a novelle vacassimo'"; "'we should devote ourselves to prayer [...] rather than storytelling'" 2. Concl. 5; Nichols 154), the day's tales repeatedly mix the secular and the sacred: four of the day's stories (3.3, 3.6, 3.7, 3.10) conclude with prayers for sexual fulfillment and the conjunction of sex and prayer constitutes the plot of 3.4.

The idea of taking two days off has its own erotic resonance as well. In Dioneo's tale of Riccardo and Bartolomea (Dec. 2.10), which immediately precedes Neifile's organization of her reign and whose importance to the Decameron has been analyzed by Barolini ("Le parole son femmine"), the significance of venerdi, sabato, and domenica is the subject of marital tensions. …

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