Anonymous portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio, circa 1360
You want me to repent, here on my death-bed, Friar, you say I should abjure my Decameron or I will not be granted a pathway to Heaven, you whisper in my ear with a tongue that would rather be caressing a woman’s thighs, that tongue of yours warns me that the hundred tales told by my characters, those seven women and those three men on the hills of Fiesole as the plague raged below in the city, your tongue demands, Friar, that what their tongues and throats brought forth over those ten days should be consigned to flames so I be not cast into perdition when I depart for the other world. You accuse my stories of mocking the Church and promoting ribaldry and lechery and frivolous fun, you demand that I atone for suggesting to women that they should seek more freedom and less obedience, all of this you ask of me as I succumb to the Death who did not take me all those years ago. No, I am not referring to the plague. I was not in Firenze when it struck. Do not listen to what the rumors say, rumors I myself disseminated to make my work more popular among those who had survived that terror.
It was in a different form that Death came to me eleven years later—and it is because of that experience that I will not repent of what I have written.
It was the last night of the year 1360, and I could not sleep. Waiting in the house inherited from my father, listening for news from the streets of Firenze, knowing I would be alerted by the sounds of joy or the sounds of sorrow that would indicate what had happened to the conspiracy my friends were engaged in. Against my advice, even though I agreed with them that the Guelph government was on the road to tyranny, proscribing their rivals from public office, without a trial, able to destroy a man merely with ammonizione, admonitions. But a coup by a select few, no matter how well-intentioned, is not the way to do it, I had told Niccolò del Buono, I had told Pino Ricci, you must trust more in the people, the little people. But they were oh so sure of themselves and their just cause, and off they went with the others who were in the plot, off they went, and I wondered if I would ever see them again, I embraced them as if they were leaving for the scaffold. And my premonition was borne out: they were discovered and arrested. Pino would be exiled from his native city and Niccolò, il mio caro amico, he was executed, that head—oh, from those lips came such songs and jokes—that head was put on a spike.
As would have happened to me as well.
It was early dawn when I heard the soldiers marching down my street. I hoped they would pass my house by, I trembled when the feet stopped at my door, even more fearful when someone knocked loudly at that door. And yet, only one person mounted the stairs to the bedroom where I lay, fully clothed, as sleepless then as I had been all night long. Only one person: my friend Ludovico Cardoli, the rector Cardoli de Narnia, the famous judge who presided over our city.
He was a man of the Church as you are, Friar, but different in all the best ways. I had shared my stories with him and with him refined them, laughing with Ludovico at the follies of my characters, enjoying with Ludovico the seduction of women, the wiles of men, celebrating together the delights that flesh and wine and food and pranks can bring when the black scourge and other scourges roam the land.
And now Ludovico had come to save me. My best friends, he said, were in custody, having failed to take the reins of power in the city. A terrible fate was in store for them—and for me, if I did not leave sweet Firenze immediately. Even if I was not part of the plot, there were many who would use the occasion and my closeness to the conspirators to get rid of me once and for all. And then he said: if I have come to help, it is not only out of our old friendship, Giovanni. It is because you must live to finish your Decameron, you must work on it in the years to come until it is perfect, so it will be there for others when another plague comes. He said: and if ever anyone asks you to repent of what you have written, remember me. Remember that these stories of yours were your salvation and they will yet be the salvation of many, those who need to know that in the most terrible times we shall always have someone to imagine a different destiny. Remember me and my words when Death comes for you again.
And now is the time, Friar, now is the time. I will not repent. I will never abjure my work, I will not say I am sorry for what my seven women and three men recounted to each other on the hills above Firenze. I will not betray all those who, in some near or remote future, will confront another plague and weave their own tales, the stories that, as night falls, will allow them and their fellows to survive.
The actor Michael Aloni reads Ariel Dorfman’s story as part of a project reimagining Boccaccio’s Decameron for this moment, through which the author hopes to benefit the charity of his choice, Narrative4.