At the end of Day 1 of the Decameron, after the "crown" has been transferred from Pampinea to Filomena, they all have dinner together and then play music and dance. Emilia sings the following song:

So fain I am of my own loveliness,
I hope, nor think not e'er
The weight to feel of other amorousness.

When in the mirror I my face behold,
That see I there which doth my mind content,
Nor any present hap or memory old
May me deprive of such sweet ravishment.
Where else, then, should I find such blandishment
Of sight and sense that e'er
My heart should know another amorousness?

Nor need I fear lest the fair thing retreat,
When fain I am my solace to renew;
Rather, I know, 'twill me advance to meet,
To pleasure me, and shew so sweet a view
That speech or thought of none its semblance true
Paint or conceive may e'er,
Unless he burn with ev'n such amorousness.

Thereon as more intent I gaze, the fire
Waxeth within me hourly more and more,
Myself I yield thereto, myself entire,
And foretaste have of what it hath in store,
And hope of greater joyance than before,
Nay, such as ne'er
None knew; for ne'er was felt such amorousness.

The text calls this a "ballade, to which all heartily responded, albeit its words furnished much matter of thought to some". Is there any significance to this song, in relation to the characters as portrayed (but there seems to be not much individual characterisation thus far), or the stories of the first day? Why did it "furnish much matter of thought to some"?

2 Answers 2


In 2015 there was an excellent series of radio broadcasts produced by RAI and directed by Adolfo Moriconi devoted to the integral reading of Boccaccio's Decameron by professional Italian actors. In every episode, there was also an introduction and some comments by Professor Alberto Asor Rosa, an expert on history of Italian literature. You can find the podcasts of this radio program on the RAI website.

At minute 26:07 of the first part of episode 9, devoted to the Conclusion of the First Day, you can hear what Asor Rosa explains about the role of the poems present at the end of every Day of the Decameron in relation to the characterisation of the narrators of the novellas and, in particular, what this poem says about the identity of Emilia:

Intanto bisogna dire che quasi tutte queste poesie possono essere lette e interpretate come un riflesso del carattere del personaggio che le dice o le canta. In questo caso, ad esempio, Emilia la lusinghiera canta una canzone, una ballata il cui oggetto è l'esaltazione della sua propria bellezza. Questo evidentemente è un omaggio, una concessione a un tentativo di attribuire a questi personaggi narratori un'identità che altrimenti farebbe fatica ad emergere dal contesto narrativo del Decameron.

My translation:

It must be said that almost all of these poems can be read and interpreted as a reflection of the personality of the character who says or sings it. In this case, for instance, Emilia the flattering sings a song, a ballade whose object is the exaltation of her own beauty. This is obviously a tribute, a concession to an attempt to attribute to these narrator characters an identity that would otherwise struggle to emerge from the narrative context of the Decameron.

So, this song constitutes a resource of the author to construct a portrait of the personality of Emilia as someone in love with her own beauty.

This is also explained by Dino S. Cervigni in his article "The Decameron's Ballads and Emilia's Happy Song", in Annali d'Italianistica, 2013, Vol. 31, Boccaccio's "Decameron": Rewriting the Christian Middle Ages (2013), pp. 131-171:

First of all, the ten ballads constitute the lyrical, personal, subjective locus par excellence in which the ten young people express their passions about love — a concept emphasized by Claudio Giunta in his erudite and insightful study on medieval lyric poetry. In fact, Giunta also points out the artificiality and insincerity of the ballads written before Boccaccio, while emphasizing the Decameron's ballads' lyrical, introspective nature.

Referring specifically to the contents of Emilia's ballad, it's stated:

In summary, Emilia is happy, content and satisfied. In her singing she appears to be completely alone, immersed in the contemplation of her beauty, which satisfies her fully. She desires nothing else, for this beauty does not abandon her; but, rather, it grows more and more as she focuses on it further and she offers herself to it wholly, even hoping a greater joy in the future.

And then:

Therein may very well reside the problematic significance of this initial ballad, which, according to the Narrator's comments, make several members of the group think about its meaning. Boccaccio the Narrator situates these lofty ideals precisely at the beginning of the brigata's experience, on the one hand, to proclaim what is, at least theoretically and ideally, possible to humans, thereby enhancing even further the lifestyle based on reason proposed by Pampinea at the beginning of the day. On the other hand, the first ballad's lofty ideals provide the Decameron readers with a point of reference to judge the extent to which all the other lyrical and narrative moments of the masterpiece portray a reality which falls short of the ballad's initial goals of conduct and aspirations.

If one is willing to accept this reading, one can also understand the reasons the personage called Emilia has been selected by Boccaccio to fulfill this task. She has a rather limited prehistory in Boccaccio's works, and consequently she can be molded to carry out this function in the masterpiece. Because of her middle position in age, being younger than the three oldest ladies and older than the three youngest, Emilia may be best suited for this programmatic, yet controversial, role. Furthermore, Emilia, who is chosen to sing the first evening ballad, is also selected to rule over the ninth day, unburdening all from a fixed topic of storytelling. Most importantly, at the end of her rule, in passing the crown to Panfilo, she invites him to emendate her own defects and those of everybody else. One can certainly argue that the person who understands virtue, can also understand defects and may wish to amend them.

And yet, even though Boccaccio has Emilia foreground and present to the entire group those lofty ideals, he does not create a feminine character à la Beatrice or à la Laura. Emilia is a human being who, in her tales, describes human vices and virtues, indeed, more vices than virtues, like all the other members of the group. In fact, just because of her initial proclamation of lofty ideals, Emilia's world of tales bears out the tension which is inherent to the entire enterprise of the brigata's storytelling, and which is created by two opposite tendencies: the lofty ideals of her evening song and the defective reality of her world of tales. Some kind of moral resolution will occur only in her last tale in Day Ten — a resolution, however, which remedies only in part defective human reality, and never attains the impossible ideals of Emilia's initial song.

  • Great info, thanks! I'm interested in learning more about the personalities of the characters - so far, I'm not really seeing much to distinguish them, but maybe I'll notice more (e.g. patterns in the types of stories they tell?) as I go further through the days. My first two Decameron questions were both character-analysis questions trying to understand the natures of the characters constructed, and both still unanswered.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 21, 2021 at 22:33

A key phrase in the song is "which doth my mind content". In the Italian text, the relevant line is (quoted from Decameron on Wikisource)

quel ben che fa contento lo ’ntelletto:

Wayne A. Rebhorn (The Decameron, Norton, 2016) points out in his translation that Dante uses some of the same words in the Divine Comedy, for example in Canto 3 of Purgatorio (emphasis added):

Noi siam venuti al loco ov’i’ t’ ho detto
che tu vedrai le genti dolorose
c’ hanno perduto il ben de l’intelletto.

Longfellow translated this as follows:

We to the place have come, where I have told thee
⁠Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
⁠Who have foregone the good of intellect.

Contentment is also mentioned in Dante's Paradiso, more specifically in Canto 26 ofParadiso (emphasis added):

Io dissi: «Al suo piacere e tosto e tardo
vegna remedio a li occhi, che fuor porte
quand’ ella entrò col foco ond’ io sempr’ ardo.

Lo ben che fa contenta questa corte,
Alfa e O è di quanta scrittura
mi legge Amore o lievemente o forte».

In Longfellow's translation:

I said: "As pleaseth her, or soon or late
Let the cure come to eyes that portals were
When she with fire I ever burn with entered.

The Good, that gives contentment to this Court,
The Alpha and Omega is of all
The writing that love reads me low or loud."

In the context of the last quote, the "Good" is God. Rebhorn points out that according to some critics, "That (…) which doth my mind content" (as Rigg translates it), refers to "God, who is contained within the beauty she sees in the mirror" (page 44). Also according to Rebhorn,

Dante took this concept from Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethis 6.2, for whom the "good of the intellect" meant the truth the intellect has as its proper object; Dante then redefined it as the truth that is the proper object of all human striving and knowing—namely, God. Other critics, however, have imagined the good which Emilia sings as wisdom or one of the liberal arts.

(On my first reading of the song, the first stanza reminded me of something totally different. A number of chronicles of the plague epidemic in Italy had reported that the plague seemed almost magically attracted to the beauty of young women. Young people, especially young women, died quicker than old people; and young women seemed to die faster the more beautiful they were. (See Klaus Bergdolt: Der schwarze Tod in Europa. Die große Pest und das Ende des Mittelalters. Beck, 2011; page 49.) If you die young, you will obviously never feel "other amorousness".)

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