The Renaissance 'Decameron'

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Modern Languages


Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) is widely acknowledged as a major figure in world literature, and his 'Decameron' continues to have an international impact on culture today, influencing works such as Fay Weldon's 2007 novel 'The Spa Decameron' and Woody Allen's 2012 film 'To Rome with Love'. The 'Decameron' is best known today for its sexual licence and Boccaccio is most frequently viewed as a risque storyteller, contrasted with his more serious intellectual literary cousins, Petrarch and Dante. The roots of the 'Decameron''s success as both a structurally innovative literary work and entertaining narrative stretch back to the Renaissance. Yet it is astonishing that the editions which were printed in vast quantities during the sixteenth-century remain largely unexplored. This is the period in which the 'Decameron' came to prominence: the influence it exercised over the development of a national literary language, combined with its international impact on the structure and style of storytelling, without doubt rivals the European dimensions of 'Petrarchism', but a similar term has never been coined for Boccaccio. My study will transform the way we think about Boccaccio by re-situating him as a primary cultural figure in the Renaissance, of equal stature to Dante and Petrarch.

Historians of the Italian language acknowledge the general outlines of the role played by the 'Decameron' as a model for vernacular prose writing in Italian, but my project will be the first comprehensive study of this relationship which is rooted in print culture. My methodology is innovative because it involves analysing bibliographic data relating to sixteenth-century editions. I will be able to focus on the precise material and paratextual mechanisms by which the 'Decameron' functioned as a linguistic exemplar. For example, I will consider the format of the edition, the mise-en-page of the text and its decorative features, as well written material added by printers and editors such as letters and biographies of the author. I will analyse the extent to which explicitly linguistic paratexts, such as lists of vocabulary and epithets, relate to dictionaries and grammars from the same period, as well as consider the ways in which more generic paratexts commonly found in Renaissance editions, such as editorial prefaces and dedications, also contributed to developments in literary debates.

This new methodology will allow me to challenge the image of Boccaccio presented by a small but powerful cultural elite, whose writings form the basis of our current understanding of the period, to build a more complex picture of the wide range of reading publics who had access to Boccaccio across the century. I will show how diverse trends in editorial style and printing practice witnessed by 'Decameron' editions correspond to the demands of complementary reading publics, not all of whom were reading Boccaccio in order to improve their personal writing style. These largely unexplored 'non-linguistic' reading publics anticipate, I will argue, the work's continued popularity into the twenty-first century, among non-academic audiences as well as academic ones.

I have already captured much of the primary bibliographic data. During the Fellowship I will analyse this and write up the results in a monograph, as well as make short trips to libraries in the UK and Italy in order to confirm the data and research findings. I will broaden my understanding of the context for this study and develop my academic leadership skills by establishing an international network of scholars working on the early modern book. My data will be made publicly available through a website, which I aim to develop as a key international digital resource for the study of the history of the book and Boccaccio. I will also develop a network among non-academic businesses (e.g. bookshops) and the creative community through a public lecture series, which will enable future collaborative possibilities.

Planned Impact

This project aims to deepen understanding of the 'Decameron' during a key stage of its reception history and at the same time to develop knowledge of key issues and methodologies relating to early modern book culture. There will be a range of different non-academic beneficiaries who will gain cultural enrichment and commercial benefit from these outputs.

1) Professional library staff such as curators and conservators working within major research collections will have the opportunity to use the bibliographic dataset created by my research. This has the potential to change the way in which they think about a specific area of their collections by giving it greater prominence and offering access to a broad spectrum of statistical data which contextualizes individual books. This data could be used to change the way in which the library's holdings are presented to its public and academic user groups, in printed or digital cataloguing material, which in turn has the potential to influence visitor figures and the ways in which library users access the holdings.

2) Producers of digital media who are interested in exploring new book forms and reading experiences for commercial or cultural applications will also be able to use my dataset. Presenting the data in an open-form digital resource will facilitate the development of commercially viable products such as smartphone apps, as well as pedagogical tools, or creative ways of thinking about narrative which are culturally enriching.

3) Auction houses, such as Christie's and Sotheby's, and businesses and members of the public who collect rare books, will be approached to gauge their interest in an online interactive tutorial which identifies and explains the construction of the early modern printed book, in order to increase knowledge of early printed books. This has the potential to influence purchasing and sales decisions.

4) The project will also facilitate two-way knowledge exchange between galleries and shops who exhibit and sell fine printing and letterpress editions, artists' books, and graphic novels, and members of the public and collectors who buy from them, as well as book artists and book makers, to explore broadly different forms and uses for book-objects, with the aim of developing further projects which will be culturally enriching, and in some cases, also commercially viable.


10 25 50
Description 1) Significant new knowledge generated
My research demonstrates crucial stages in the process by which the historical author becomes synonymous with his fictional narrators, which in turn lead to the popular image which persists today of Boccaccio as an author who is synonymous with pleasure and freedom from social constraints. I show how the merging of historical and fictional roles is promoted to audiences in unprecedented numbers through printed editions of the Decameron. It is only by studying the presentation of the text in the context of print culture that we see the process played out through the addition of supplementary texts, e.g. biographies, addresses to the reader, in which editors shape and give voice to the historical author using elements of the fictional text. The layout of text on the page, and the combination of written and visual elements (e.g. biographies accompanied by portraits of authors and characters) which are brought together to frame the authorial text provide key information which has not attracted attention in previous studies which tend to cover either the literary text or a single element (biographies; portraits) divorced from its publishing context.

My research on the interconnections between production and reading contribute to a field currently attracting much new research: the relationship between print and orality. This is frequently discussed in relation to Ariosto; my research shows that similar issues concerning the hybridity of written and oral culture concern both the production and consumption of the Decameron. Thus, the Decameron is marketed and sold by printer-performers who align editions visually, e.g. through title-pages, with cheap printed pamphlets which would have been performed in the streets as well as sold in bookshops.

My emphasis on the publishing trajectory of a single text across a century has led to new knowledge in the field of early print culture. Taking a macro-analytical view of the Decameron's tradition has enabled me not only to identify the moments at which paratexts appear and disappear, but also to consider the locations in which paratexts are placed at different points in the development of print, both of which contribute to a larger argument about the way in which paratexts are used to authorize the work of particular printing houses and contribute to their brand identity. Methodologically, therefore, my research emphasizes how and why paratexts are a significant area of study. By focusing on the relationship between text, paratext, and the publishing context, I have been able to distinguish the influence of the commercial pressures on the presentation of authors and texts, and therefore illustrate the dangers of interpreting (para)texts extracted from their originating context.

The bibliographic data that I have collected from primary sources is the most up-to-date and comprehensive data currently available for printed editions of the Decameron. I have been able to rectify errors and incomplete records in other online and printed catalogues.

2) important new research questions opened up
As this project develops, so I have increasingly begun to draw connections with the reception of other authors, such as Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto. Equally, I conceive production and consumption contexts in terms of sociological networks. A major new research question which has been prompted by the comparison of these methodologies is the role played by networks of 'material elements' (e.g. woodblocks, typefaces), as well as book design understood more broadly, in connecting both producers and consumers. I am working on a theory of 'intermateriality', which complements 'intertexuality', and will provide a model for drawing connections between texts and authors which go unnoticed within conventional literary history.

3) new research networks/collaborations
I have built and developed networks with both academic and non-academic partners (e.g. bookbinders, Letterpress printers), focusing on connections within Bristol and building outwards. I have organized a half-day conference aimed at researchers in the Faculty of Arts, a more focused workshop with selected participants, and two one-day international conferences, using these to develop and contextualize aspects of my own research in different linguistic, historical, and generic contexts. I also presented my work at the Sixteenth Century Conference (Vancouver, 2015) and from this developed contacts which has led to a proposal for another panel on Renaissance paratexts (SCS, Bruges, August 2016). I have also been building relationships with library staff: in Bristol, Special Collections I have invited librarians and archivists to present aspects of their work on books, and we have worked together to organize a public workshop and exhibition using Bristol's rare books collections. I have also had one-to-one meetings with librarians in Oxford and Cardiff to discuss my research findings and the potential for collaboration. This has begun to lead to new outcomes, such as a draft catalogue of Italian Renaissance books held in Bristol, and some early discussions about a funding bid involving academics and librarians in a number of UK Universities. I was also invited to the Jubilee library in Brighton to discuss their rare books, which has since led to an invited public lecture.
Exploitation Route My project has generated a significant quantity of primary bibliographic data relating to book forms and paratexts which has not previously been accessible in digital form and brought together in the context of bibliographic work on Boccaccio. There will be scope for me to use this as a platform for a more technologically ambitious project. For example, by using software plug-ins which would allow me to create visualizations of different combinations of bibliographic elements. This has the potential to enhance intellectual understanding of the relationships which can be created between individual editions or individual paratexts, thereby leading to new research questions. At a pedagogical level, the data will also underpin my undergraduate and postgraduate teaching in the history of the book, allowing students to access detailed primary material from their mobile devices. Where I have identified errors and absences in established online catalogues (e.g. EDIT16 and USTC), I am able to advise the catalogue managers. Professional library staff may also wish to incorporate my dataset into existing catalogues and bibliographic records, and there is scope in the first instance to add digital facsimiles of the sixteenth-century Decameron held in Bristol.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description It is very early within the lifecycle of my project to be able to measure impact. I have initiated a series of 'pathways' to impact which include one-to-one meetings and discussions with librarians, archivists, and professionals working within book culture, such as printers and bookbinders, as well as formal public presentations of my research. Knowledge of my research led directly to an invitation from Brighton Jubilee Library to advise on the cataloguing of their rare books, and I have been asked to write in support of the Jubilee collections and their public outreach programmes in the context of large-scale restructuring. Public engagement events (one of which had an entrance fee) have been very well attended and feedback from questionnaires has been overwhelmingly positive with many people commenting that they will now read (or re-read) Boccaccio's Decameron, and that their knowledge of early Italian print culture has increased significantly.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

Title Renaissance Decameron 
Description This is a database containing bibliographic data corresponding to the primary data set for my project: a corpus of approx. fifty editions of Boccaccio's Decameron printed between 1470 and 1597. The data has been collected from editions held in several libraries in the UK and Italy (notably, the John Rylands Manchester, British Library, Bodleian Oxford, Cardiff University Library, Brighton Jubilee Library, Biblioteca Laurenziana Florence) and is not available in other published sources, either printed or digital. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The database is not yet made public as it forms the basis of my ongoing research. It is planned that the database will be freely accessible online. 
Description Inside Arts workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Members of the public, including pupils from Bristol Grammar School, attended a workshop held in Bristol Special Collections which involved the presentation of rare books printed in Italy during the Renaissance. The aim was to publicize methodologies linked to book historical research to a non-academic audience and raise awareness of Bristol's Italian Renaissance collections. The audience listened to four formal presentations and were then free to examine a wide range of books themselves and ask questions informally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Public lecture (Brighton Jubilee Library) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave an hour-long lecture in Brighton public library, advertised to members of the public, which was attended by 22 people. There were questions and discussion afterwards and an opportunity to look at a selection of rare books held in the library. Feedback on questionnaires was overwhelmingly positive with almost all participants reporting that they were inspired to go away and read Boccaccio's Decameron as a result. This also gave me an opportunity to write in support of the importance of this collection which is currently at risk of being sold into private ownership.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016