Time-Tested Sacrilege


Reviewing Wayne A. Rebhorn’s new translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Joan Acocella considers the role of religion in what “is probably the dirtiest great book in the Western canon”:

The young people sometimes make ardent professions of faith. Yet Boccaccio is not afraid of blasphemy—at one point, he refers to a man’s erection as “the resurrection of the flesh”—and there is almost nothing he insists on more than the corruption of the clergy. They are stupid and lazy. Your wives are not safe with them. They smell like goats. In one story, the merchant Giannotto di Civignì tries to get his Jewish friend Abraham to convert to Christianity. Abraham says that he must first go to Rome, to observe the clergy and see if they lead holy lives. This worries Giannotto. He fears that Abraham will discover how debauched the priests are. And that is exactly what happens. Abraham, returning home, reports that the Roman clergy are all sots, satyrs, and sodomites. Then he invites Giannotto to go with him to church, where he intends to be baptized. If the Roman church survives, he says, despite the debauchery of its representatives, then it must be endorsed by the Holy Spirit, and he wants to join the winning team.

Acocella reveals that, in his later years, Boccaccio seemed conflicted about his one great work:

In the thirteen-fifties, just after the Decameron, he underwent a religious crisis. By 1360, he had taken holy orders. It is said that he wanted to destroy the Decameron—that he thought it was a frivolous and dirty thing. Yet, a few years before his death, he copied the whole manuscript out in his own hand. (This is the version used by all modern editors and translators.) So he seems to have had some residual pride in this book. Furthermore, he could never have taken the Decameron out of circulation. It was already famous.

(Image of The Banquet in the Pine Forest (1482/3) from Sandro Botticelli’s series The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, which depicts parts of Boccaccio’s Decameron, via Wikimedia Commons)