A much-translated tale of plagues, priestly malfeasance, courtly love and the Seven Deadly Sins finds a satisfying new version in English.
The Decameron, as its Greek-derived name suggests, is a cycle of stories told over a period of 10 days by Florentines fleeing their city for the countryside in order to escape the devastating Black Death of 1348. Perched at the very point of transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the author of those stories, Giovanni Boccaccio, was a narrative innovator: As translator Rebhorn notes in his long, circumstantial introduction, medieval readers were fond of grab bags of stories, but “there is no precedent in Italian literature for Boccaccio’s use of a frame narrative to unify his collection.” Boccaccio borrowed liberally from previously published anthologies, but as Rebhorn also shows, he added plenty of new twists and arranged his material to form a thematic arc: Day 1, for instance, centers on characters who got out of trouble thanks to their native wit, while Day 4 centers on the character flaws that keep people from getting what they want. What so many of his characters want, it happens, are things frowned upon in polite society, as his ribald tale of the poor cuckolded owner of a conveniently large barrel so richly shows. Rebhorn’s translation of Boccaccio’s sprawling narrative, accompanied by informative endnotes, is sometimes marked by odd shifts in levels of diction, often within the same sentence (“That’s when I felt the guy was going too far...and it seemed to me that I should tell you about it so that you could see how he rewards you for that unwavering fidelity of yours”); it is otherwise clear and idiomatic, however, and Rebhorn capably represents Boccaccio’s humor and sharp intelligence.
A masterpiece that well merits this fresh, engaging translation, which marks its author’s 700th birthday.