Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) - pronounced jo-VA-ni bo-KACH-yo, IPA: /dʒo'vani bok'kattʃo/ - was an Italian author, best known for his Decameron, a collection of 100 short stories, and for his commentary on Dante's Commedia.
Boccaccio was born in Tuscany, the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker, and spent his earliest years in Florence. In 1326, his father having been put in charge of the Neapolitian branch of the Compagnia dei Bardi, the merchant bank for which he worked, Boccaccio moved with his father and his father's family to Naples, where he remained for the next 15 years. In Naples Boccaccio was first an employee of the Compagnia dei Bardi and then a law student, but neither of these occupations proved congenial: he devoted as much of his time as possible to literature, and some of his early works, e.g., Filostrato (?1338) and Teseida (1341), were written during these years.
In 1341 Boccaccio returned to Florence, and apart from a few years in Ravenna in the 1340s he remained in Tuscany for the rest of his life. He worked intermittently for the Florentine government and served on embassies to various Italian cities as well as to Brandenburg and Avignon, but he was able to spend the greater part of his time studying and writing. His most famous work, the Decameron - see further below - was probably begun in 1349 and completed some three years later. In 1350 Boccaccio met Petrarch, the other great Italian writer and humanist of the period: the two became good friends and Petrarch encouraged Boccaccio's interest in the classical world of Greece and Rome, an interest which led to Boccaccios learning Greek - a rare accomplishment at this period - and is reflected in some of his later works, such as the Genealogia deorum gentilium (Genealogy of the Pagan Gods) (begun in 1350), a reference book on classical mythology, and De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women) (begun in 1361).
In 1373 at the invitation of the city of Florence Boccaccio began to give weekly public lectures on Dante's Commedia in the church of Santo Stefano di Badia. He continued these lectures for just over a year until ill health forced him to give up even though he was only half way through Inferno, the first of the three parts of the Commedia. The text of the lectures has survived (Esposizioni sopra la Commedia di Dante) and is the first published commentary on the Commedia. Sometime in the 1360s Boccaccio had begun to spend time in his birthplace, Certaldo, a village some 30 km south west of Florence, and it was here, in 1375, that he died.
The Decameron is a collection of 100 short stories, set within the framework of a narrative which explains the circumstances in which the stories come to be told. The bubonic plague is rife in the city of Florence, and to escape the plague a group of seven young women and three young men have left Florence and are all staying in the same villa not far from the city. They agree to entertain one another in the evenings with story telling, and each member of the group tells one story on each of the ten days of their stay at the villa. (The word Decameron comes from two Greek words δέκα (deka, ten) and ἡμέρα (hemera, day).) The ten stories told each evening have a single theme decided by the member of the group who is chosen to be 'king' or 'queen' for the day. But throughout the stories there is a keen sense of the vicissitudes of fortune and of the ways in which human life is subject to chance and can be significantly affected, for good or ill, by unforeseeable events over which we have no control. Versions of stories in the Decameron are to be found in the works of many later writers, among them Chaucer, Shakespeare, Molière, and Lessing, Keats, Shelley, Longfellow, and Tennyson. However, it is not always clear that the later writer has borrowed directly from the Decameron: in some cases Boccaccio and the later writer may have drawn on a common source.