Won by love

Marco Montagnin

      Giovanni Bocaccio – Certaldo 1313 – is known to be the author of the Decameron, a work we have all studied, sometimes with little interest, in high school. But we owe not only this great work of Italian literature to him; he is also remembered for having helped to pass on Dante Alighieri’s Comedy and for having given it its iconic title with which it is still mistakenly called today: The Divine Comedy.

     Boccaccio was essentially self-taught: he knew Latin and some Greek – unknown on the peninsula during the Middle Ages and only rediscovered at the end of Constantinople. Thanks to his time in Naples and his visit to Montecassino – a monastery which, like many others, was a fundamental cultural centre in the Middle Ages – he came across many Latin works which he studied from a Christian cultural perspective. It was the meeting with Petrarch and the beginning of their letter correspondence that led Boccaccio to reread Classical writings from a humanistic point of view.

He cannot escape, and only death awaits him

     These premises are necessary to situate one of his secondary works, which in the writer’s opinion should be remembered: the Filostrato, that is ‘won by love’ (Filos+Stratos[1]). The story is set during the Trojan war, but reread from the point of view of courtly love: it is about the love story between Troilus, one of Priam’s sons, and Criseyde, Crise’s daughter. The text is structured according to the song La dolce vista e ‘l bel guardo soave by Cino da Pistoia: love, separation and death. Troilus after having known love – according to the rules of Andrea Capellano’s De Amore – and after having crossed its five degrees (vision, locutius, the hands touching, the kiss and the carnal union), is abandoned by his beloved. After an exchange of prisoners Criseyde finds herself in the Greek camp and before separating she promises Troilus that they would meet again after ten days. However, she finds a new and safer love in Diomedes and Troiolo only finds out by chance about his beloved’s betrayal. From this point on the poem recounts the events of the war until Troilus’ death at the hands of Achilles.

    The main Latin source of inspiration for the Boccaccio del Filostrato is Ovid, and as a matter of fact he writes the following in the preface:

Omnia sunt hominum tenui pendentia filo et subito casu quae valuere ruunt[2]

Here, we find the Ovid’s ‘wistful’ character, who is chosen to prepare the reader for the story’s unfolding of of Troiolo. It is still our Latin author Boccaccio who also takes up the Remedia Amoris –  an anti-erotic treaty in Ars Amandi’s appendix – which teaches us how to forget the beloved maiden; however Boccaccio does not refer to this specific theme of the Remedia, but uses them for a sort of ‘symptomatology’ of love.

   It is interesting to note how in the frame of this work Boccaccio states that he finds himself in a similar situation; he talks about himself and how, after having tasted love, he is abandoned: the author was in the kingdom of Naples and his beloved (Filomena) had been forced to leave. Boccaccio, tried by the sufferings of love, looked for comfort in ancient writing and it is here that he found the story of Troilus and Criseyde. In this frame – unlike Cino – he speaks of love, separation and hope:

Tale che la vita mia, la quale ad un sottilissimo filo pendente è da speranza con fatica tenuta in forse[3]

But if the memory’s sublimation of the beloved can be a nepenthe to Boccaccio’s punishment, the same cannot happen for Troilus: he wanders around Troy and remembers. He remembers his beloved, he remembers his love in the places they spent together, places where he still passes by, alone.

Quando sol gia per Troia cavalcando, / ciaschedun luogo gli tornava a mente; / de’ quai con seco giva ragionando: / «Quivi rider la vidi lietamente, / quivi la vidi verso me guardando, / quivi mi salutò benignamente, / quivi far festa e quivi star pensosa, / quivi la vidi a’ miei sospir pietosa. / / Colà istava, quand’ella mi prese / con gli occhi belli e vaghi con amore; / colà istava, quand’ella m’accese / con un sospir di maggior fuoco il core; / colà istava, quando condiscese / al mio piacere il donnesco valore; / colà la vidi altera, e là umile / mi si mostrò la mia donna gentile»[4]

In Ovid the case is similar but as already mentioned, he proposes not only a phenomenology of symptoms of this love sickness but also a cure:

I procul, et long as carpere perde vias; / Flebis, et occurent desertae nomen amicae, / Stabit et in media pes tibi saepe via: / Sed quanto minus ire voles, magis ire memento; / Perfer, et invitos currere coge pedes. / Nec pluvias opta, nec te peregrina morentur / Sabbata, nec damnis Allia nota suis. / Nec quot transieris et quot tibi, quaere, supersint / Milia; nec, maneas tu prope, finge moras: / Tempora nec numera, nec crebro respice Romam, / Sed fuge[5]


But even if such advice could have reached Troilus on time, he could not have followed it: Troy is under siege, there is a war going on, he is one of Priam’s sons; he cannot escape, and only death awaits him.

     A brief literary notation, before reaching the conclusion of this work. Boccaccio was the first multi-purpose writer on the Italian peninsula: he tried his hand at various genres, becoming iconic for some and a forerunner for others; in particular he laid the foundations for the eighth rhyme, later revived by ‘compatriots’ such as Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso and by foreign poets such as George Gordon Byron, John Keats, John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, William Butler Yeats and many others. Indeed, there is also a very modern outlook in the way he deals with the theme of the tension of love that finds no fulfilment, in the pain of absence and the ineluctability of one’s own destiny. It is also worth remembering that Boccaccio’s Filostrato is the oldest work in octaves that has reached us; the eighth rhyme was probably not created by the Tuscan writer, but he ennobled it – it is supposed that it previously belonged to oral tradition.

Now let us take the last steps together with Boccaccio and conclude our witness and his work together.

     In the last verses he defines his poem as a ‘canzon’ which is similar to an epistle; in fact, it too includes a petitio – he makes a request – and an addressee from whom he wishes, and for this reason prays to the gods, to have an answer:

Or va’, ch’io priego Apollo che ti presti / tanto di grazia ch’ascoltata sii, / e con risposta lieta a me t’invii.[6]


Even those who write a petitio at the end, perhaps less profound but still heartfelt: do not forget this work by Boccaccio, which deserves its rightful place alongside the Decameron and the great works of Italian literature.

[1] Boccaccio mistranslates the title, the correct translation is “the lover of armies”.

[2] All human affairs hang by a slender thread; chance on a sudden brings to ruin what once was strong

Ovid, Tristia. Ex Ponto, Loeb Classical Library, 1924, p. 432

[3] So that my life, which is hanging by a very slender thread and is with difficulty sustained by hope

Boccaccio, Filostrato, Ugo Mursia Editore, 1990, p. 58

[4] Then he went forth riding through Troy. And every place recalled her to his mind. Of these places he continued to hold discourse with himself as he rode on. “There I saw her laugh happily; there I saw her cast her glance upon me; there she graciously saluted me; there I saw her rejoice and there turn thoughtful; there I saw her pitiful of my sighs. “There she was when with her fair and beautiful eyes she made me a captive with love; there she was when she enkindled my heart with a sigh of greater warmth; there she was when her ladylike worthiness condescended to my pleasure; there I saw her haughty, and there humble did my gentle lady show herself to me.”

Ivi, p. 331

[5] you must craftily deceive yourself. Only go away, though strong be the bonds that hold you, go far, and make a lengthy voyage ; you will weep, and the name of your deserted mistress will haunt your mind ; and oft will your foot halt in mid-journey : yet the less you wish to go, the more be sure of going ; persist, and compel your unwilling feet to run. Hope not for rain, nor let foreign sabbaths stay you, nor Allia well-known for its ill-luck. Ask not how many miles you have covered, nor how many more remain ; nor feign delays that you may tarry near at hand. Count not the days, nor be ever looking back at Rome ; but flee

Ovidio, Rimedi contro l’amore, Marsilio, p. 86   

[6] Now go, for I pray Apollo to lend thee so much grace that thou mayest be listened to and she may send thee back to me with a happy response.

G. Boccaccio, Filostrato, Ugo Mursia Editore, 1990, p. 425

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