The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio: Day Four.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt (1868).

This week is Day Four of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1348-52), which means I've now read forty out of the hundred stories told by the seven women and three men whilst staying in the countryside of Florence avoiding the Black Death. I've been especially looking forward to Day Four because it contains the famous 'Isabella and the Pot of Basil' story. But for now, I'll start at the beginning!

In Day Four the king of the day is Filostrato (1.7, 2.2, 3.1) and the theme is "those whose love ended unhappily".

This section begins with what is sometimes known as "the 101st story of The Decameron". Boccaccio addresses his readers and tells the story of Filippo Balducci who lives in a cave with his son having lost his wife. When his son is of age he goes to Florence and is entranced with the young women. His father discourages him however because it is in the son's nature to love women, no amount of discouragement will prevent him from seeking their society. Boccaccio tells this in order to argue to his detractors that he must not be blamed for loving women. The tale probably originates in the Ramayana (रामायणम्), an ancient epic Sanskrit poem.

First Story: This is told by Fiammetta (1.5, 2.5, 3.6). It's about Tancredi, the Prince of Salerno who arranges a marriage for his daughter Ghismonda to the son of the Duke of Capua. When he dies she returns to the Prince, and she falls in love with Guiscardo, a valet of her fathers. When they are discovered the Prince kills Guiscardo despite his daughter's pleas. When he presents the heart of Guiscardo in a golden chalice she pours poison over it and drinks it, killing herself. A version of this tale is mentioned in the Tristan and Iseult stories of the 12th Century.

Second Story: Told by Pampinea (1.10, 2.3, 3.2), she tells of Alberto della Massa, "a depraved and wicked fellow", who moves to Venice and becomes a monk in order to hide his true identity. He falls in lust with the beautiful Monna Lisetta de Ca' Quirino, and in order to seduce her he tells her he has had a vision from the Angel Gabriel who wishes to meet her. Berto tells Lisetta that Gabriel will assume his, Berto's, body so that Berto is able to have his way with her. Ultimately discovered, punished, and locked away in a monastery for the rest of his days. This tale is likely to be inspired by One Thousand and One Nights (كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة).

Third Story: Narrated by Lauretta (1.8, 2.4, 3.8), she tells of three sisters (Ninetta, Maddalena, and Bertella). who fall in love with three young men and elope to Crete having stolen a part of their father's fortune. In a fit of jealousy Ninetta kills her husband, and in order to save her from being burned at the stake Maddalena offers herself to the Duke. Her husband finds out and kills her in a fit of rage, Bertella and her husband Ughetto are accused of the murder and are imprisoned, so they bribe the guards to escape. They do and die later in total poverty.

Fourth Story: Told by Elissa (1.9, 2.8, 3.5), it's about Gerbino, the grandson of King William II of Sicily. He plans to kidnap the daughter of the King of Tunis when she is aboard the King's ship following the affair of the two and the revelation the King plans to marry her to the King of Granada. Gerbino attacks the boat and during the attack his lover is killed. The King of Tunis informs King William II who promptly kills Gerbino.

Fifth Story: Told by Filomena (1.3, 2.9, 3.3) this is probably the most famous story within The Decameron. Lisabetta and Lorenzo are in love, however Lisabetta's brothers find out and murder Lorenzo. Lorenzo appears to the heartbroken Lisabetta in a dream telling her of his fate and he guides her to his body. Unable to move the body she decapitates him and hides his head in a pot of basil which she weeps over. The brothers grow suspicious and take away the pot, and they discover she has hidden the head there. They flee to Naples, meanwhile Lisabetta cries herself to death.

There is no known source for this story, but it went on to inspire John Keats who wrote the 1818 poem Isabella or the Pot of Basil, as well as William Holman Hunt's painting (above), John William Waterhouse's Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1907), and John Everett Millais' Lorenzo and Isabella by Sir John Everett Millais (1849).

Lorenzo and Isabella by John Everett Millais (1849).
Sixth Story: Narrated by Panfillo (1.1, 2.7, 3.4), he tells of two lovers Andreuola and Gabriotto. Andreuola has a dream she believes to be prophetic about Gabriotto dying horribly in the garden, but though she tries she is unable to resist seeing him. She tells him in the garden and he laughs it off, however, quite suddenly, he dies. Their affair has been a secret and the heartbroken Andreuola is left with his body, which she does not know what to do with. She and her maid decide to take the body back to his house at night so they are unseen, however someone does see them. She is accused of murder, but the magistrate tells her she will go unpunished if she sleeps with him. She refuses, and is also later cleared of killing Gabriotto. She enters into a convent, unwilling to live any longer in the world. This was the basis for Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Nun's Tale' in The Canterbury Tales.

Seventh Story: This is told by Emilia (1.6, 2.6, 3.7) and is again about two lovers, Simona and Pasquino. Like in Panfillo's story told before, Pasquino dies suddenly having rubbed sage on his teeth. The judge questions Simona, believing her incapable of murder, and she shows him what happened by rubbing sage into her teeth. She too dies, and it later emerges that under the sage plant lives a venomous toad.

Eighth Story: Told by Neifile (1.2, 2.1, 3.9), she describes Girolamo and his love for Salvestra, however his family disapproves and send him away to Paris. He returns to find her married, creeps into her house and lies next to her, then he holds his breath until he dies. Salvestra and her husband remove the corpse back to his home. On the day of his burial Salvestra regrets not marrying him. She lies next to him and dies.

Ninth Story: Told by Filostrao (1.7, 2.2, 3.1), the king of the day. He tells of how Guillaume de Roussillon murders his wife's lover and tricks her into eating his heart. After she's eaten it he reveals what he has done and she kills herself by throwing herself out of the window.

Tenth Story: Told by Dioneo (1.4, 2.10, 3.10) who breaks from the miserable and gruesome theme of Day Four and tells a story about the wife of Mazzeo Della Montagna, a physician. His young wife feels sexually frustrated so finds a younger lover, Ruggieri d'Aieroli. He is a bad sort and Montagna's wife tries to reform him. One day he finds a drug in the house from Montagna's patient and takes it, leaving him in a corpse-like state. She hides him in a trunk then hides the trunk in someone else's house, he wakes up and is arrested for burglary and sentenced to death. Montagna's wife saves him and they become more in love than ever.

There ends Day Four, a rather depressing day for The Decameron. For Day Five Fiammetta will be queen and the theme is "the adventures of lovers who have survived calamities or misfortunes and attained a state of happiness".

← Pʀᴇᴠɪᴏᴜsʟʏ: Day III
Nᴇxᴛ: Day V


  1. Keep it up, O! You are inspiring me! If I can get to July, I should have some freer reading time and then I can begin The Decameron again, and definitely Metamorphoses. It sounds like you're enjoying it and the posts are such great resources to have. Brava, again!

    1. Thanks for cheering me along Cleo - very much appreciated! Can't believe I'm nearly half way through - have I really been doing this for a month!? :)


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