It wasn’t my idea to start reading The Decameron during the pandemic, and if our version of the deadly pestilence had proven a little briefer, I wouldn’t have finished it. But there are worse ways to avoid a plague than in the company of 10 youthful 14th-century nobles whose self-imposed exile is as pleasant as the circumstances they have fled are grim.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s book is set in Tuscany during the Black Death, when those with country estates could pass the time eating, drinking, dancing, strolling in beautiful gardens and telling stories, even as millions died elsewhere. Each noble becomes king or queen for a day and decrees a theme; everyone in turn then tells a tale.
The stories are sometimes mean, occasionally funny and usually startlingly rude: adultery, rape and other forms of cruelty abound. The priests are devils and the women chattels, if frequently chattels with a mind of their own.
Three elements of the book struck chords with me: the escapism, the focus on friendship and, of course, wine
The book is as puzzling as you’d expect, at a remove of nearly 700 years, but three elements struck chords with me. One was the escapism: these people are fiddling while Rome burns, or rather chattering while Florence perishes of plague. This isn’t insouciance but its opposite. The plague killed Boccaccio’s stepmother, and all that cavorting in the sumptuous landscape – those umber hilltop villages, olive trees and vines that seem not to have changed between then and now – is a carefully crafted distraction from horror that is still effective today.
The second was the book’s focus on friendship. “In my anguish,” writes our narrator, “I have on occasion derived much relief from the agreeable conversation and admirable expressions of sympathy offered by friends, without which I am firmly convinced that I should have perished.” Who among us, after a year of isolation, can fail to empathise with that?
There were ghostly echoes of those companionable young Italians in the handful of middle-aged Brits who gathered on Zoom to drink wine, discuss our lives and occasionally remember to mention the book we were reading. We, too, were telling one another stories, less for the sake of the story than for the very human act of communication that the telling involved.
The third element that resonated with me was, of course, wine. The Decameron is sprinkled with references to fine wines and enjoyable drinking. In 2019, I visited Tuscany’s Maremma, the coastal strip famous since the 1970s for the Super-Tuscans, the rule-breaking reds featuring Bordeaux varieties that were first marketed by the Antinori family and quickly attained Bordeaux levels of prestige and price. I stayed at Tenuta di Biserno, an Antinori property, in a room painted with birds and trees, looking over the vineyards, in which the Decameron ladies might well have felt at home.
The Antinoris were first mentioned as winemakers in 1385, just 10 years after Boccaccio’s death, and whenever I read about those nobles gathering to eat and drink, I pictured dinner at beautiful Biserno, and a jovial lunch at a nearby wine bar that sold legendary Super-Tuscans such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia by the glass. I recall wonderful local dishes, exceptional wines and an animated discussion about grape varieties (“Cabernet Francs are just happy here”) with Biserno’s winemaker, Helena Lindberg.
What a contrast with my plague-year Zoom conversation with Natalie Oliveros of La Fiorita, further inland in Montalcino, or the online tasting held by Clara Gentili of Fattoria le Pupille, of Morellino di Scansano. Both women were extremely interesting about their very different expressions of Sangiovese (called Morellino in the hillier southern part of the Maremma and Brunello farther inland near Montalcino) and Clara also showed a Super-Tuscan, Saffredi, and a Syrah, Le Pupille. The wines were excellent – but was there any of the convivial warmth that wine is intended for, as we squinted into our screens? Inevitably, no.
Boccaccio’s storytellers eat and drink marvellously well and so do many of their protagonists. Although, the man forced to bribe an inquisitor after his blasphemous comment that he owned a wine so delicious Christ himself would have drunk it may have wished he had kept his good fortune to himself.
Wine, then as now, was comfort, seduction technique and tool for social advancement. Even the dead drank it – or at any rate, foolish husbands, persuaded by abbots with an eye for their wives that they have died and are now in Purgatory (and complained that the wine was substandard – which is surely exactly what the inhabitants of Purgatory should drink). But where were those wines made and what did they taste like? We are never told. And so, like storytellers or winemakers, we blend fact and imagination into something new.
I had wanted to talk to Oliveros because, before she began making Brunello di Montalcino, she was an Italian-American inspired by her nonna, who dried handmade pasta on their clothes line and made wine in the basement. This all sounded pleasingly Boccaccian, even before I discovered that Natalie’s first career was in the adult entertainment industry. Her Brunellos are good and getting better, and she is one of several women effortfully reversing the region’s ingrained sexism.
Piero Antinori had assumed that, having no son, he was without an heir, until his three daughters pointed out that they could run the ancient family business. Only Clara is the second female generation: her mother, Elisabetta Geppetti, has been a Morellino di Scansano legend since the 1980s.
Perhaps Boccaccio, who also wrote a treatise on famous women (De Claris Mulieribus), would have admired their achievements. It’s nicely ironic that the Maremma, in his time an uncultivable malarial swamp, was therefore land historically bequeathed to daughters.
At any rate, I’m glad to have whiled away the pandemic reading his stories and spinning my own, in marvellous company both dead and living, with the modern expressions of his native soil. It’s a reminder that progress, while not linear, is no figment of my imagination, either.