Day 1 Story 2 of the Decameron is essentially a searing satirical critique of the Catholic Church in Rome. A Christian man, Jehannot, is trying to convert his Jewish friend to Christianity; the Jew, Abraham, decides to go to Rome and see the way of living of Catholic leaders such as the pope. It's taken as a given by Jehannot that their way of living is evil and not at all "holy":

When Jehannot heard this, he was greatly distressed, saying to himself: “ I thought to have converted him; but now I see that the pains which I took for so excellent a purpose are all in vain; for, if he goes to the court of Rome and sees the iniquitous and foul life which the clergy lead there, so far from turning Christian, had he been converted already, he would without doubt relapse into Judaism. ”

Indeed, this is what Abraham observes when he goes to Rome:

He said nothing to any one of the purpose for which he had come; but began circumspectly to acquaint himself with the ways of the Pope and the cardinals and the other prelates and all the courtiers; and from what he saw for himself, being a man of great intelligence, or learned from others, he discovered that without distinction of rank they were all sunk in the most disgraceful lewdness, sinning not only in the way of nature but after the manner of the men of Sodom, without any restraint of remorse or shame, in such sort that, when any great favour was to be procured, the influence of the courtesans and boys was of no small moment. Moreover he found them one and all gluttonous, wine-bibbers, drunkards, and next after lewdness, most addicted to the shameless service of the belly, like brute beasts. And, as he probed the matter still further, he perceived that they were all so greedy and avaricious that human, nay Christian blood, and things sacred of what kind soever, spiritualities no less than temporalities, they bought and sold for money; which traffic was greater and employed more brokers than the drapery trade and all the other trades of Paris put together; open simony and gluttonous excess being glosed under such specious terms as “ arrangement ” and “ moderate use of creature comforts, ” as if God could not penetrate the thoughts of even the most corrupt hearts, to say nothing of the signification of words, and would suffer Himself to be misled after the manner of men by the names of things.

Although the story has an unexpected twist ending, the portrayal of the Catholic Church and its high officials is unrelenting. I have two connected subquestions about this:

  1. Was this description intended to portray the era of a specific pope/dynasty, or just in general?
  2. Did Boccaccio suffer any backlash from the papacy or the Catholic Church for his portrayal?

I don't know much about the details of Italian or papal history, but I get the impression that the pope and the Catholic Church were extremely powerful in medieval/Renaissance Italy, and I'd have thought it wasn't a safe move to piss them off by writing stories featuring them as a bunch of disgusting sinners. I'm basically trying to get an idea of how daring Boccaccio was in doing so at that time.

1 Answer 1


This was intended to represent a general description of the contemporary Church: a critical and controversial portrayal which was in fact quite present in the Italian literary culture of Boccaccio's time.

In words of Professor Alberto Asor Rosa in his comment to this novella (you can find it at minute 24:58 of first part of episode 5 in the podcasts of "Ad alta voce" RAI radio program):

Abbiamo sentito quale sia la descrizione che Boccaccio dà della Roma papale e curiale. È una descrizione in cui potremmo dire che non se ne salva uno: tutti i religiosi rappresentanti, "dal maggiore infino al minore", dice Boccaccio, peccano in lussuria, sodomia, gola, ebrietà, avarizia, avidità di denaro, simonia... Potrebbe essere anche questo un elenco di peccati danteschi, così come ne avevamo discorso a proposito di Ser Ciappelletto. Naturalmente questo tipo di rappresentazione di questa Roma, che è secondo Boccaccio "una fucina di diaboliche operazioni", si ricollega a un elemento molto presente nella cultura letteraria italiana del tempo. Da questo punto di vista Boccaccio va affiancato decisamente a Dante e Petrarca, cioè, alla polemica contro le degenerazioni mondane della Chiesa contemporanea e al desiderio in sostanza che Boccaccio, sia pure molto laicamente, esprime di una riforma che è il tema, il grande tema su cui i grandi intellettuali italiani del tempo, religiosi e laici, sostanzialmente convergono.

My translation:

We have heard what Boccaccio's description of papal and curial Rome is. It is a description in which we could say that not one is saved: all the religious representatives, "dal maggiore infino al minore" ("without distinction of rank" in the translation you have quoted), says Boccaccio, sin in lust, sodomy, gluttony, drunkenness, avarice, greed for money, simony... This could also be a list of Dante's sins, just as we spoke about Ser Ciappelletto. Naturally this type of representation of Rome, which according to Boccaccio is "una fucina di diaboliche operazioni" (that is, "a forge of diabolical operations" or "a centre of diabolical rather than of divine activities" in the translation you have read), is linked to an element very present in the Italian literary culture of the time. From this point of view, Boccaccio must definitely be placed side by side with Dante and Petrarch, that is, with the controversy against the worldly degeneration of the contemporary Church and with the desire that Boccaccio, albeit very secularly, expresses for a reform which is the theme, the great theme on which the great Italian intellectuals of the time, religious and lay, essentially converged.

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