Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Speaking Truth to Powerful Friends and Foes: Genoese Merchants and the Mamluks in Decameron 2.9

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Speaking Truth to Powerful Friends and Foes: Genoese Merchants and the Mamluks in Decameron 2.9

Article excerpt

Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1349-51) speaks many truths to many powers. In the introduction to Day 4 and in the author's conclusion, for instance, Boccaccio challenges the potential and actual charges brought by critics against his collection, calling attention--amongst other things--to the double standards by which his work had been evaluated and defiantly adding that readers are free to skip those novellas "che pungono" and read only "quelle che dilettano" ("Conclusione dell'autore" 19). (2) In the opening prologue, moreover, he offers his collection in aid of a group he views as particularly disenfranchised, namely women in love who might otherwise be "ristrette da' voleri, da' piaceri, da' comandamenti de' padri, delle madri, de' fratelli e de' mariti" to spend their days "nel piccolo circuito delle loro camere racchiuse" with nothing to do but lament their circumstances ("Proemio" 10). The subsequent declaration that men can instead resort to numerous distracting activities when emotionally burdened ("l'andare a torno, udire e veder molte cose, uccellare, cacciare, pescare, cavalcare, giucare o mercatare" 12) reinforces Boccaccio's ostensible critique of the gender inequalities at work in the patriarchal social order of his day. The conceit of a mixed-gender brigata that asserts its right to flee plague-ridden Florence and grants equal authority to both its male and female members further shows, as Teodolinda Barolini argues, that there "is power in the text's ability to imagine a different social order from that which it can ultimately predict or endorse" ("Sociology of the Brigata" 6). In fact, as many of the essays in Boccaccio's Decameron: Rewriting the Christian Middle Ages implicitly suggest, and as Dino S. Cervigni explicitly argues in his contributions to the volume, the entire Decameron could be read as a critique of the Christian world view prevailing in the Middle Ages.

Turning to the hundred novellas themselves, we find myriad instances of marginalized or downtrodden protagonists who make good of bad situations by taking powerful figures down a peg or two. Examples include tales wherein socio-economically subordinate (male) figures call their (male) superiors out (through words or deeds) on their moral shortcomings, sometimes even for the very same misdemeanors of which they stand accused (e.g., 1.4, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, and 6.2). Female protagonists who put their honor, livelihood, and/or lives on the line by speaking truth to (almost invariably male and sometimes political) power and taking destiny into their own hands include the Marchioness of Montferrat (1.5), a lady from Gascony (1.9), the daughter of the King of England (2.3), Zinevra (2.9), Bartolomea (2.10), the wife of Messer Francesco Vergellesi (3.5), Ghismonda (4.1), Andreuola (4.6), the wife of Pietro di Vinciolo (5.10), Monna Nonna de' Pulci (6.3), Madonna Filippa (6.7), and the nun Isabetta (9.2). While all these women advocate for their personal rights thanks to their intelligence, quick wit, eloquence, and (at times) serendipitous circumstances, the heroine of 2.9, Zinevra, distinguishes herself by exploring the transcultural, interfaith, male-dominated world of Mediterranean travel, trade, and diplomacy disguised as a man. In addition, while all the other heroines listed above must contend with a single threat to their honor and/or life (be it from an institution or an individual), Zinevra successfully overcomes dangers from multiple sources of authority in both Christian and Muslim realms.

Critics have approached 2.9 from various related formal and gendered perspectives, including as a variant of wager narratives and as an example of the Decameron's discursive strategies concerning women's agency and the power of storytelling, while taking also into consideration Boccaccio's sexual poetics and intratextual self-referentiality. (3) In this essay, I propose a historicized reading of Zinevra's novella by considering the context of Genoese-Mamluk relations and in particular the singular travels of a Genoese merchant, Segurano Salvaygo, who was active in the Mamluk sultanate in the early 1300s. …

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