NEARLY 700 YEARS after the century that produced the “three crowns” of Italian literature — Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio — the images they created and the sentiments they described still hold powerful sway on our own understanding of love. Consider the recent Californication TV show starring David Duchovny as Hank Moody: the broody, meandering, womanizing writer who is the protagonist of the seven-season serial. Moody is in love with Karen, with whom he is parenting a child. And while the two can never quite seem to make it work, the story presents an intoxicating mix that draws from a number of canonical archetypes: woman as nobility-inspiring moral agent (think Dante’s Beatrice in the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy); woman as unattainably beautiful muse (Petrarch’s Canzoniere); and woman as subversive, sexual co-conspirator, able to see — and even experience — God from a different vantage point. Cue Boccaccio, with his disruptive storytelling.

Guido Ruggiero’s latest book explores the realms of love, sex, and relationships in Boccaccio, in all their historical and literary nuances. Before we delve into Love and Sex in the Time of Plague, though, let’s take a step back and paint a finer picture. Boccaccio really was disruptive, and to appreciate just how thoroughly disruptive he was, it’s important to understand the traditions he was part of.

If the “three crowns” were all to put up dating app profiles, Dante (c.1265–1321) would be the guy looking for moral purity. He would first search your eyes: Do they reflect the glory of God? Can you see the wholeness of the universe shining through them? Dante first saw Beatrice when they were only nine years old. Even before the Divine Comedy, he wrote a book for her, the Vita Nuova, filled with verse and prose. But the book wasn’t really about her: it was about him, and how she figured into his poetic and spiritual development.

In his profile, Petrarch (1304–1374) would say:

You should message me if … you want to hear about the woman I’ve been in love with. She is the bomb, really, and there is no way you will ever come close. By the time our first date is over, you will know how the light reflects on her hair and all about the tone of her skin. We will get along if you are a good listener, but also if you appreciate the nuances of diction, and the way I describe my love in hundreds of similar, yet slightly different ways.

Boccaccio (1313–1375) is a different story. More prosaically, he might be the guy saying: “Let’s enjoy the moment. Why worry about tomorrow when we can appreciate the now? Meet for coffee? Please be good, giving, and game.”

These three authors lived within decades of each other, yet their output was vastly different. Over the course of a few brief years, something dramatic had happened: one of those shifts that create a rift — a new world, a new way of thinking. It was a move from certainty to doubt, from steadfast love for God to a more murky and complicated love for human beings and all their soiled transactions.

Let’s place Petrarch aside, in this case, not because he is less significant, but for the sake of staying focused on the transitions in social structures and religious beliefs, which are more evident in the contrast between Dante and Boccaccio. What had happened in between these two? Well, everything had happened. As Ruggiero explains, in the years prior to Dante and Boccaccio, the population of Florence had expanded, steadily, over a period of several decades, as more and more peasants and farmers found their way from the countryside into the city, and climbed their way up the social ladder. Some developed trades, others became merchants.

Then, amid all these complex societal transformations, the Black Death struck — several waves of it, in fact. The 1348 wave swept through Europe with unprecedented ferocity: once it had passed through, close to half of the population was dead. It is difficult to overestimate its impact on the social landscape of Italian cities like Florence, Genova, and Milan. Boccaccio’s Decameron finds its beginning amid mayhem and stench. The book is mostly fiction, yet the description of the plague in the prologue ring especially true; Boccaccio was an attentive observer of social mores, and his pages are vivid with detail.

What is most remarkable, however, is how thoroughly perspectives changed between the two authors. In Dante: A world in which every character finds their proper place; an architecturally precise depiction of heaven, hell, and purgatory; a meticulously described moral taxonomy; a clear structure of authority culminating with God, the source of creativity and the giver of all life. Boccaccio is something entirely different — stylistically, of course, given the multiple novellas loosely held together by a frame rather than a unified whole. But Boccaccio is also different in terms of perspective: the stories he tells, the way he tells them, the breadth of his tableaux, are a world apart from Dante.

Merchants occupied a prominent role in the public life of the time. In the Decameron, they become the heroes of the story: the doers, the makers, the ones with ingenuity. The clerical order is mocked relentlessly — everywhere. No matter the evidence of sometimes profound misogyny elsewhere in Boccaccio’s writing, in the Decameron, women play a central role. They are fully formed characters, sometimes virtuous, sometimes clever, finding ways to satisfy their desires, carnal and otherwise.

Ruggiero, with the seasoned cultural historian’s trained eye, reconstructs all these scenes, retelling some of the most evocative of the Decameron’s novellas and describing how they work in the context of 14th-century culture. To a first-time reader, many of these stories might at first appear bizarre, or perhaps simply outrageous, provocative, violent, or entertaining. Hence Ruggiero is careful to retrieve the context, explicating important Renaissance ideas around virtù and fortuna, and relaying a detailed picture of the relationships between social classes. Why does love have the potential to act as a civilizing force in some cases, while leading to ridicule in others? The story of Cimone, an initially uncouth lad who becomes urban and refined after his encounter with a young woman, and the stories of Calandrino, a gullible character who is the victim of pranks by his friends, provide some clues. In a darker chapter titled “Violence,” the book exposes us to the many ways love, sex, betrayal, and revenge were thought about in the early Renaissance. The equally moving third chapter (“Sorrow”) explores the story of Lisabetta, whose lover Lorenzo had been murdered by her brothers. In the fifth (“Power”), Ruggiero examines ideals of loyalty through the perplexing story of Griselda, who is mercilessly mistreated by her husband, only to display unwavering goodwill toward him.

One of the most provocative and intriguing threads in Ruggiero’s writing, though, is the link he makes between a 14th-century sexual revolution of sorts, and some of the more apocalyptic scenarios that had taken shape in popular culture in medieval Italy. One such popular heretical line of thought had been developed by Gioacchino da Fiore (1135–1202), who believed the world was moving through three stages: the Age of the Father; the Age of the Son; and, finally, the Age of the Spirit. According to this trinitary structure, the Old Testament represented the First Age, the Second Age had been ushered in by Jesus Christ and the New Testament, and the Third Age would be the Age of the Spirit, manifesting itself in universal love, the dissolution of institutions, and a period of sustained peace.

Enter Boccaccio with the 10th novella of the third day — the story of the young pagan woman Alibech, who ventures into the desert in search of holiness. There, she runs there into several hermits, none of whom is willing to grant her hospitality because of her attractiveness; they are concerned they might fall into temptation. At last, Alibech finds the young hermit Rustico, who agrees to instruct her in the holy ways. Soon, though, Rustico too becomes tempted. But he devises a plan: he shows her his erection, a variety of physical expression she had never witnessed, and tells her that it is the devil, and that the devil is both painful and persistent. Yet there is a way, he assures her, to “put him back into Hell,” and if she were willing to participate, it would be a wonderful service to God. You can imagine the rest. Alibech finds that serving God by putting the devil back in hell is a remarkably pleasurable activity. She wishes to be of service to God as often as possible. After serving God in this manner for a while, Alibech returns to her wealthy family with her newly acquired knowledge. She is soon married to a wealthy man, and presumably lives happily ever after.

Pages and pages have been written about this novella — about its blasphemy, its playfulness with language (a “resurrection of the flesh,” Boccaccio calls Rustico’s erection), its depiction of the exchange between Christian theology and pagan thought, as well as its happy endings. Here is where Ruggiero’s interpretation takes matters a step further, linking the story to the popular movements seeking to usher in the “Age of the Spirit.” He invites us to imagine Alibech as a

simple, innocent woman, who in her pleasure in sex and her service to the Christian God, at least in Boccaccio’s fiction / prophecy, promised to open a new, last age of love and the spiritual pleasures of the flesh: a last age where her followers would serve God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit in a new earthly paradise, putting the Devil back in Hell.

To support this view, Ruggiero points out that commentaries to Boccaccio often forget to notice that there is a shift in geography after the second day of storytelling. Neifile, the queen of the third day, “moved the youthful band of storytellers to a new special garden before the storytelling resumed — a garden that seemed a paradise on earth reborn.” Precisely the kind of setting to signal the introduction of new possibilities.

Ruggiero’s chapter about the politics and theology of pleasure (the fourth chapter) is the most daring, and it’s also the one he seems to be most invested in, as he returns to its themes in the book’s conclusion. Always a careful historian, grounded in evidence, he is well aware that while what he suggests may be plausible, given the heretical and apocalyptic movements at play in and around Florence during those decades, it is likely that Alibech, as “a new savior,” is “almost certainly too big a claim. […] But it is a way of seeing the novella that is fun to imagine.”

It’s not completely clear why he thinks this is “fun to imagine.” One reason that comes to mind — this is my speculation, Ruggiero doesn’t go in this direction — is that sex and the end of history are heady stuff. Such a leap evokes some of the tenets of the sexual revolution and the Free Love movement of the 1960s — in its early, untainted days, before HIV showed up to sour the party — the intuition, and hope, that perhaps the ills of the world, cultural, geopolitical, and otherwise, might be done away with by a good shag. With all the caveats one might wish to place around such a hippie-sounding statement, I don’t mean it dismissively, and neither, it is clear, does Ruggiero ever suggest that Boccaccio was simply a lightweight, frivolous provocateur, entertaining, yet lacking the moral gravitas of, say, a Dante or a Petrarch.

Yet Ruggiero only hints at this direction. Indeed, he is not talking about lust for lust’s sake. He makes this very clear throughout the book, and then again in one of those gems one occasionally finds in a book’s acknowledgments, where we discover that the idea for the fourth chapter (“Transcendence”) and the commentary on the story of Alibech and Rustico came to him all the way back in the 1970s, when Ruggiero was teaching his first class on Boccaccio at the University of Cincinnati. Intent on convincing his students that love, rather than lust, was Boccaccio’s driving concern, he pulled an all-nighter to write a lecture, resulting in “an early form of the central discussion of transcendent love in Chapter 4.”

Ruggiero’s invitation, evident on every page of his well-researched volume, is to fully appreciate the historical and theological context that shaped these stories, and in turn how they prompted new ways of imagining the world. Hence the continued and profound significance of an author like Boccaccio today. For all his cisgender, white, heterosexual framings, he invites us to explore possibilities, play with orthodoxies, and imagine new realities at the intersection of relationships, religion, social class, order, and political vision.

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Dan Turello is a writer and cultural historian based in Washington, DC, and the creator of the Alternative DC Portraits Project: www.piemonteseingiro.com/portraits.