This Painting, by the English artist Thomas Stothard (c. 1755-1834), 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 seven women and three men 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 had cumulatively narrated a hundred tales once their tenth day in the villa was over. Giovanni Boccaccio described the scene when one of the refugees in the manor, a woman named Pampinea, first proposed this storytelling scheme to her companions in their hideaway mansion:
“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 the title of the artwork states, the artist chose to depict the storytellers on their tenth and final day in their villa. That morning, the group gathered to lounge by the compound’s gardens and share in each other’s company over some refreshments. As told by Giovanni Boccaccio, “Gathering round the fountain, they had some glasses rinsed in its limpid waters, and those among them who were thirsty drank their fill; after which they roamed freely through the garden, savoring its delectable shade, until the hour of breakfast” (The Decameron, introduction to the Tenth Day). It should be said that the painting is not quite accurate in its depiction of the storytellers’ numbers and male-to-female ratio. The storytelling group in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was made up of ten people (seven women and three men), whereas the painting contains eleven people (seven women and four men). One can imagine, however, that the extra man could be an attendant.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by G. H. McWilliam. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.