This painting, by the German artist Theodor Baierl (c. 1881-1932), brings to life the framework story of The Decameron, a masterpiece of literature written by the Florentine author, Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1313-1375). The Decameron was set in 1348, when the Black Death was rampaging across Europe. To escape the plague, a group of ten people found shelter in an abandoned villa, where they were able to ride out the epidemic in luxury. So as to not be overcome by boredom during their isolation, the group of ten decided to occupy their time by telling each other stories. As all ten members of the group told a story every day, they would go on to cumulatively narrate a hundred tales once their tenth day in the villa was over. Giovanni Boccaccio described the group’s situation through dialogue spoken by a character named Pampinea, who proposed the storytelling scheme to her companions in their hideaway mansion, saying:
“For the moment, it would surely be foolish of us to venture abroad, this being such a cool and pleasant spot in which to linger. Besides, as you will observe, there are chessboards and other games here, and so we are free to amuse ourselves in whatever way we please. But if you were to follow my advice, this hotter part of the day would be spent, not in playing games (which inevitably bring anxiety to one of the players, without offering very much pleasure either to his opponent or to the spectators), but in telling stories—an activity that may afford some amusement both to the narrator and to the company at large” (The Decameron, introduction).
Such is the reason for why the group of ten was spending time together in an abandoned villa. As for the content of Theodor Baierl’s particular painting, he seemed to ponder on what kind of tomfoolery was going on in the villa as the residents were loitering between storytelling sessions. The ten storytellers are seen spread out in groups of two, with each pair enjoying each other’s company in different intimate ways. Such flirtations and dalliances are in keeping with the Decameron’s character, as the book is filled with bawdy romance stories, many of which are quite explicit. Yet, it should be said that the painting is not accurate in its depiction of the storytellers’ male-to-female ratio. Instead of an equal five and five, the storytelling group in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was made up of seven women and three men.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by G. H. McWilliam. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.