Boccaccio’s Realism

Mimesis on Trial: Legal and Literary Verisimilitude in Boccaccio’s Decameron

by Justin Steinberg

The essay begins:

Boccaccio is generally the least appreciated of the “Three Crowns” of the Italian literary canon (after Petrarch and Dante), yet his focus on the realistic, even gritty details of everyday life, everyday characters, and everyday language has no real precedent, at least not one of the scope of the Decameron. Studies of the novel typically identify Boccaccio’s masterpiece as an influential precursor in the development of modern literary realism, and Erich Auerbach devotes a critical chapter to the Decameron in his monumental history of Western mimesis. Although recent scholarship has called into question Boccaccio’s supposed modernity, underlining the allegorical aspects of the Decameron and its continued debt to medieval textual practices, it is difficult to deny that, at the very least, Boccaccio expands the frame of what can be legitimately represented in literature.

At the same time, something is inevitably lost when we view the Decameron from the end point of the modern novel. Our retrospective glance privileges a very specific conception of realism, a conception defined by its rejection of rhetorical notions of appropriateness and fittingness. (This unruly literary style befits a genre “in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever.”) Auerbach, for example, maintains that only once literature has freed itself from the rigid confines of classical decorum is it possible for authors to depict the world in its complex, particularistic entirety. Yet this version of realism does not admit the extent to which Boccaccio’s mimetic art remains preoccupied by rhetorical verisimilitude. While it’s true that Boccaccio incessantly interrogates the status of verisimilitude throughout the Decameron—what it means for something to “fit” in a given scenario—he does so by delving into the precise components of the circumstantiae (the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a case, deployed by an orator to enhance the “true-seemingness” of his argument). Even when exploring its inner contradictions, that is, Boccaccio innovates through, rather than from, rhetoric. Studies that neglect the influence of rhetorical verisimilitude on Boccaccio’s realism, preferring to imagine a seamless evolution from the plausible to the particular, miss this essential tension at the heart of the Decameron between competing notions of the real.

Rather than treating the Decameron as a stepping-stone on the path toward modern realism, I will argue that Boccaccio’s realistic style is a historically specific response to a historically specific crisis of verisimilitude. This crisis was propelled by a critical institutional innovation: the rise and spread of the medieval inquisitorial procedure. In the inquisitorial trial, judges were frequently called upon to estimate the likelihood of circumstantial evidence; this migration of notions about the probable from the rhetorical to the judicial sphere, from persuasion to evidence, is Boccaccio’s primary focus and concern. Through the many trial scenes in the Decameron, he illustrates the dangers that arise when judges, witnesses, and prosecutors are “trapped by a picture”—when the theater of justice becomes a self-fulfilling mimesis of the already known and always seen. The singular, remarkable details that eventually come to the fore in these trials (and that characterize the plot lines of Boccaccio’s novelle) reveal the disconnect between norms of likelihood and the particulars of a case.

Not only do the trials in the Decameron probe the legal uses of verisimilitude as evidence, they also raise questions about verisimilitude as a literary device. What is the relationship between an aesthetic principle of “fittingness” and the normative knowledge of “what happens for the most part”? What is the role of innovation in an art of the probable? How can a plausible account of the facts encompass historical contingency and singularity? These simultaneously legal and literary questions are exactly what the Decameron is wired to navigate: the degree to which the verisimilar picture must be open to the singular case, the structure open to the event.

My argument, then, is not simply that Boccaccio was influenced by rhetorical verisimilitude but also that he employs the numerous “procedural” tales in the Decameron to reflect critically on the nature of, and the increasing real-world power of, realistic narrative. Continually questioning the very realism he employs as a poet, he puts mimesis on trial. Continue reading …

In this essay Justin Steinberg argues that the celebrated realism of Boccaccio’s Decameron responds to the new prominence of verisimilitude in legal contexts in his time.

Justin Steinberg is Professor of Italian literature at the University of Chicago and editor-in-chief of Dante Studies. He is the author of Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy (Notre Dame, 2007) and Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago, 2015). He is currently writing a book on Boccaccio, representation, and the law.


Temptations of the Viewer: Looking at St. Anthony

Presence Through Absence: Thresholds and Mimesis in Painting

by Beate Fricke

The essay begins:

An aged and venerable man in a black habit is sitting in the country with a book in his hands. Slightly confused about whom this might be, but intrigued by the idyll, the viewer leans in to take a closer look at the label on the wall of the museum in Brussels where the painting hangs.  FrickeFig2Next to this exquisite painting he reads its attribution to the southern Flemish school of the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and its subject: “La tentation de saint Antoine” and on the line below that, “De bekoring van de heilige Antonius.” Still unsure whether the French “temptation” is in fact the same as the Flemish “enchantment,” the modern view returns his gaze to the painting. Analogies to other paintings that clearly depict Saint Anthony sweep away his initial doubt about whom the painting shows—it is Saint Anthony (and not another prophet or saint, for example, Job).

In the foreground, Anthony sits atop a small hill in a kind of garden with a variety of plants. Placed next to him are a shiny jar and a plate, probably both made of brass. Behind him a bright hillside undulates with lighter colored grass; at the bottom of the hill lies a body of water, possibly a pond or small creek. The bridge on the right side of the panel leads through a roofed gate; a herald is stepping through it. Through the opening of the gate and above the flowering hedge on either side of it we see an enclosed strip of lawn. Two trees, browsing animals, and the front side of a house at the edge of the forest all enclose the area against the darker background. An old picket fence leads the beholder to assume that a kitchen garden is located to the right side of the house. In the shadowed semidarkness to the left of the house a path leads into the forest.

What we see at first glance—this peaceful landscape and the silence of the reading or meditating hermit—appears on further inspection rather uncanny. Continue reading …

In this essay, through a close reading of a little-known painting of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, Beate Fricke proposes that every convening of images inspired by the viewing of a picture is a unique “event,” a transformation that occurs during the act of perception, in which various images can be seen as an assemblage generated by one picture. The analysis of such assemblages provides insight into the making and reception of the image, as well as the potential variance between the artist’s making and viewer’s reception. Further, such analysis reveals a structure of “thresholds” within the picture, a structure that refers to inherent principles of representation and mimesis.

BEATE FRICKE is Associate Professor of Medieval Art at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Fallen Idols, Risen Saints and co-editor of Bilder und Gemeinschaften, Studien zur Konvergenz von Politik und Ästhetik in Kunst, Literatur und Theorie, a volume on the contribution of images to the formation of communities from late antiquity to the twenty-first century, and The Public in the Picture, essays on the beholder in antique, Islamic, Byzantine, and Western medieval and Renaissance art. Currently she is preparing a monograph called Beautiful Genesis: Creation and Procreation in Medieval Art.