Boccaccio’s Story Never Included in the Decameron

James Gallant

Myril, a handsome young lutenist of Flanders, is riding a palfrey to Verona, where he is to perform at the masquerade of the fabulously wealthy, fun-loving merchant-prince Can della Scala.

This should be right down Boccaccio’s alley, with ample opportunities for skullduggery, mistaken identities, and hanky-panky. What specifically will happen, though? Between a good idea for a story and its realization, there is many a slip between cup and lip. The motto overhead on the wall of his workspace reads:

 Svegliati!Far si che le cose accadano![1]

One must start somewhere. Confident of his imaginative fertility, he will proceed improvisationally, so Myril, the handsome young lutenist of Flanders bound for Verona, falls in with thirteen monks on donkeys claiming to be en route to  Rome for a meeting with the Pope.

“Why?” Myril asks.

The monks are unresponsive, and Boccaccio has no idea why.

One member of the monkish crew, ostensibly the Abbot, is a slender, smooth-faced, rosy-cheeked youth dressed in white—a most un-Abbot-like figure. He sometimes rides ahead of the others, sometimes behind, but increasingly alongside the handsome young lutenist of Flanders. “How, pray tell, does one your age become an Abbot?” Myril asks.

The Abbot just bats the long eyelashes of big, liquid brown eyes, stirring in Myril feelings he associates with dissonance in music. This, and certain other peculiarities of the monks (Boccaccio doesn’t know what these are, but he will back and fill them later), lead Myril to suspect these fellows are only pretending to be monks. What Boccaccio knows, although Myril does not, is that the “Abbot” is actually a young woman who has fallen in love with the lutenist.

Boccaccio, having envisioned this scenario, draws up short: if a relationship between the “Abbot” and Myril were to be pursued, what of the masquerade at Verona? Well, he hasn’t invested a lot of time and energy imagining the masquerade, so if he were to abandon it…

No, he must not abandon the masquerade’s many possibilities. So when the entourage reaches a fork in the road where there are two signs—VERONA>>> and ROME>>>—Myril bids farewell to the monks. As his palfrey disappears over a rise, the big, brown eyes of the “Abbot,” which remind Boccaccio of a chipmunk he’d once seen at close range, pour tears.

It occurs to Boccaccio that Myril’s meeting with the “Abbot” might perhaps be coordinated somehow with the masquerade in Verona, but he hasn’t any idea how that might be achieved at the moment, and it is time for lunch.

He rises from his desk and walks over to Mangio Tutto[2], where he downs a dingy vegetable mishmash with indeterminate meat chunks. The idea of returning to work on a story without a definite outline is unappealing, and he lingers at Mangio,shooting the breeze with Giuseppe and drinking more wine than usual. As he plods back to his workspace with a growling stomach, he is slightly dizzy.

Svegliati!Far si che le cose accadano!

Myril is on the road to Verona.

Picaresque fiction—and then, and then, and then—is an author’s excuse for not having a plot, in Boccaccio’s view. Still, better a mobile character than a stationary one, and the beauty of life on the road is that anything can happen there. Oedipus was on the road home from Delphi after learning from the oracle that he will kill his father when, conveniently for Sophocles, he encounters Laius at a crossroads and knocks him off posthaste.

Myril, on the road to Verona, comes to the road sign, FORTUITO>>>. He’s hungry and decides to go there for eats. A reader would certainly not be surprised if something of interest were to happen at a place called Fortuito.

As Myril is making his way there, Boccaccio contemplates the routine human preoccupation with where the next meal is to come from—a concern shared with dogs and rats and flies that is necessary if the ball of life is to be kept rolling, as God clearly intends. However, food rarely interests fictional characters who busy themselves with matters that, considered in a certain light, are frivolous compared with digestion. If food makes an appearance in literature, it is usually symbolism, and you can’t eat symbols.

Similarly, while actual humans are very attentive from day to day to the quality of their sleep, aware of its influence on the quality of waking life, fictional characters usually appear untroubledly wide awake as they bustle about their affairs. One would never imagine they spend a great portion of their existence more or less unconscious in bed.

Fortuito: Myril discovers it to be a village of muddy streets and thatched huts leaning from the perpendicular. The proprietor of a slanting eatery places before him, on a tilting table, a runny potpourri of boiled garbanzos, poppies, squash, apples, honey, wild spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, purple potatoes, nettles, rose petals, and dandelions.

Boccaccio belches sourly.

“You expect me to eat this cacca?” Myril says to the proprietor, a sleepy-eyed, blubbery fellow who shrugs and enters the kitchen. There are sounds of things breaking. The cook howls.

Myril takes the bowl of food outside. The palfrey eats some of the potpourri, whinnies, farts loudly, and lies down.

Boccaccio can see that scene in Fortuito is a compositional dead end. He crosses it out and puts his character back on the road to Verona and the masquerade, uncomfortably aware as he does so that he is only temporizing.

***

Near Verona, a comely wench with yellow hair is gathering herbs in a field.

A virile young monk calls to her from the roadside. “Hey! What herbs are you gathering?”

The comely wench is mourning her lover, killed in the recent fighting at Pisa, and ignores him.

“Word is, there are more hens than cocks around here!” the monk yells.

The comely wench moves farther into the distance.

A pebble in the monk’s sandal bites sharply, and he has removed the sandal when Myril comes walking down the road.

“Peace be with you, my son,” the monk says.

“Are you a penitent?” Myril asks.

“Why do you ask?”

“This road is rough, and you wear only one shoe.”

“I have two shoes, but I removed one.”

“Why did you do so?”

(Boccaccio crosses out this stupid dialogue.)

“The comely yellow-haired wench has gone,” the monk says sadly, gazing into the herb field.

“Who?”

“The wench who was gathering herbs over there. She’s from Denmark, they say.”

“I didn’t see her.”

“She’s really something.”

“My attention was on yon great tower as I approached,” Myril says, pointing a finger.

“The Torre dei Lamberti,” the monk says. “It is said to have been built by the Lamberti’s, who are said to have once been a wealthy family here.”

“People say a lot of things,” Myril observes.

(Boccaccio suspects the quantity of wine he drank at lunch accounts for this insipid, inconsequential chatter. He will persevere, and his head may clear. Throwing in a few sexually provocative remarks or images often perks up both an author and his characters.)

“Women with yellow hair have great appeal for us dark-haired Italians,” the monk remarks.

Myril nods. “Opposites attract.”

“I wonder if the wench has yellow pubic hair?”

“You would find this interesting?”

“Yes, I would.”

Boccaccio recalls his friend, Ernst, in Flanders, who has silver hair, a brown beard, and red pubic hair.

“In Flanders, I once saw a blond woman with orange pubic hair,” Myril says.

“That would have been quite an experience.”

“I just happened to look through a window lacking a blind.”

“You are of Flanders?”

“Yes.”

“Your dark yellow Northern hair is unusual here.”

“It is very common in Flanders.”

(Far si che le cose accadano!)

“You’ve come here hoping to meet dark-haired women?”

“I would not mind if that were to happen”—something at least would have!—“but I am a lutenist come to perform at the masquerade of Can della Scala.”

“Your fine head of flowing, curly golden hair and your Northern codpiece will appeal greatly to dark-haired Italian beauties, and your being a musician will be an advantage. Women fancy musicians, irrespective of hair color—even bald ones.”

(Boccaccio wonders if he should take a nap. No! His authorial code valorizes stubbornness. He must persevere.)

“The yellow-haired wench has disappeared,” the monk says sadly.

(Boccaccio wonders why her appearance had been necessary.)

“Travelers have tales to tell,” the monk remarks. “If we sat in the shade of yon sycamore, you could tell me one of yours.”

“When I left home, I certainly anticipated having tales to tell later, but it has just been clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, for miles on end.”

“You once had a horse, then?”

(Good question. What’s become of Myril’s horse?)

“My horse died from eating bad food.”

Boccaccio is about to rip up the paper on which he has been writing when Myril notices a cloud of dust in the distance. A galloping steed pulling a carriage comes his way bearing the merchant Musciatto and Lord Landeos, brother to the king of France.

“You’re certainly a Northern-looking lad, with your codpiece and French bonnet,”  Lord Landeos remarks to Myril. “What brings you to the outskirts of Verona?”

“He hopes to invade the in-skirts,” the monk says.

Myril explains his reason for being in town.

Mosciatto, with the encouragement of Boccaccio, who feels his workday has been a bust, says, perversely, “You didn’t know Scala has canceled the masquerade?”

Myril’s heart sinks, as does Boccaccio’s. Both men have come all this way for nothing.

“Why did Scala cancel the masquerade?” the monk asks.

“Scala is notoriously absentminded,” Musciatto says. “He realized belatedly that the date of the masquerade conflicts with the marriage celebration of his old friend Judge Chinrice.”

“Chinrice is marrying?!” the monk exclaims. “Good lord, he’s seventy years old if he’s a day. Who’s he marrying?”

“Lucia, daughter of Lotta Guelandi.”

“Lucia, the vibrant teenager?!”

“Yes, that’s she. Her parents arranged the marriage.”

The monk is laughing. “That will be a January-May coupling if there ever was one! Does Lucia know whom she’s to marry?”

“Apparently, she does,” Musciatto says. “She’s said to weep incessantly.”

“We just passed a schooner docked in the river Adige,” Lord Landeos puts in. “The tumblers and jugglers who were to perform at the masquerade are boarding, and we understand that among the passengers, there is a lovely fourteen-year-old Veronese girl bound for the Egyptian desert.”

The monk is laughing. “The Egyptian desert? Why?”

“They say she had heard of the wonderful benefits of Christianity in the afterlife and asked a priest how she might serve God. He told her she must deny herself worldly pleasures, as desert hermits in Egypt do. She interpreted this to mean she should studywith the hermits.”

The monk guffaws.

Boccaccio feels tempted to drop his rambling narrative and focus on the wonderful comic possibilities of meetings between the girl and the monks. A desert hermit might, for example, mistake her for a startlingly fleshy devil sent to seduce him.

“A wag has suggested the wedding should have been scheduled during the masquerade,” Mosciatto remarks. “That way, Lucia could have been kept in the dark about her husband-to-be until the masks come off.”

“And the pants,” Lord Landeos adds.

Boccaccio experiences an o altitudo! What if the masquerade hasn’t been canceled, and the wedding of the Judge and Lucia were to occur during it? And what if Myril were to notice in the streets of Verona the men dressed like monks he’d abandoned at the fork in the road who, it would turn out, hadn’t actually been bound for Rome but were in costume for the masquerade in Verona? The chipmunk-eyed Abbot who’d fallen in love with Myril would be among them, of course. Myril would see the Abbot, but she wouldn’t recognize him in the gorilla costume supplied by Scala. However, during a concert preceding the nuptials, she would be enthralled by the gorilla’s lively performance of a gigue. The great crowd of guests comes to Verona for the masquerade, and the wedding must often double up in the beds at Scala’s palace. The gorilla and the Abbot would find themselves sleeping together, and the Abbot would turn out, somehow, to be the vibrant young dark-haired teenager Lucia. One thing would lead to the next, and Myril and Lucia would ride off together on Myril’s palfrey that hadn’t actually been dead but only comatose after eating the potpourri at Fortuito.

Boccaccio can see that developing this labyrinthine plot will take work, but it is work of a kind in which he is skilled. However, it will be work for the morrow, when he is fresh, not now, with the sun is low in the afternoon sky.

However, invigorated by the breakthrough he has just experienced after a long day of what had seemed a futile struggle, he feels inspired to let his imagination roam a bit further and to speculate what might have happened to yellow-haired Myril if the masquerade had been canceled. What if he were to meet a dark-haired Italian woman?

***

Horseless, Myril wanders in the narrow, winding streets of Verona, wondering what to do with himself now that the masquerade has been called off when he notices a lovely black-haired damsel on the balcony of an elegant townhouse. She is weeping. Sometimes a pretty girl is like a melody, sometimes a dirge.

The damsel is the young widow Magdalena. She is accustomed to being serviced seven or eight times during visits by the lusty Marquis Zippo and had anticipated his arrival that afternoon. Alas, he had been called away to Venice by a snafu in his business dealings, leaving Magdalena in a state of acute longing when she spies Myril beneath her balcony. At first, she takes him for a hunchback; but no, she sees now that the swelling on his shoulder is a lute-bag! He is a musician—a musician with yellow hair!

Magdalena drops a perfumed pink handkerchief from her balcony. Ordinarily, Boccaccio would want to make something of this, but he hasn’t the energy to pursue it just now, and he really should have quit while he was ahead. So when Magdalena’s hankie, exuding a scent of roses, flutters down past Myril’s nose and lands at his feet on the cobblestones, he takes it to be an exotic giant moth of the Southern clime that has perished and goes on his way, and Boccaccio caps his ink bottle and trashes some papers.
————————–

[1] Wake up! Make things happen!

[2] Eat Everything


About the Author

James Gallant’s essay on UFOs in the Fortnightly Review is to be found at Angels of the singularity.