Boccaccio's Sicily



On the road from the airport to Palermo
The hundred stories that comprise Bocaccio's Decamerontake place in a wide variety of geographies, some of which are more frequently employed than others. Florence is featured in 25 stories which makes it the location most often used. This is only natural given the story-tellers have escaped from Florence and are themselves imbrued in the politics of the city (we learn in the seventh story of day 10 that one of the ladies is a ghibelline). Among the other locations most often referred to we find Paris, Genoa, Alexandria in Egypt and, naturally, Naples, where Boccaccio himself spent his youth attached to the court as a poet. Sicily features in eight of the stories, and is also referenced in a ninth, but not in a way that affects the story in any significant way. In these eight stories, Sicily is included in different ways, sometimes merely by an inclusion of a character of Sicilian origin, and other times it serves at the geographical setting. In this paper I argue that these eight stories can be categorised into to two overarching themes which show us how Boccaccio presents Italy to his audience. These themes are perhaps informed by Boccaccio's own experiences, he might have been informed by the prejudices of his time, or he might have been aware of the expectations his - largely Tuscan - audience had of Sicily.
The first grand theme I will present is the capricious nature of Sicilians, whom Boccaccio - drawing perhaps on established cultural stereotypes - seems not to have valued very highly. This theme informs five of the eight stories featuring Sicily, and it meets us already in the first story where Sicily mentioned in the Decameron, namely the fifth story of the second day. The subject for this day is people who meet with unexpected fortunes following a series of hardships and unfortunate events. The story in question is set in Naples and follows the misfortunes of Andreuccio, from his fall into a latrine until the delightful conclusion to his adventurers as a grave-robber. However, the catalyst of these misfortunes is a young Sicilian woman, described as very pretty and willing to be genteel towards anyone who would offer a small montary recompense. She, aided by an elderly Sicilian woman, pretends to be Andreuccio's half-sister in order to rob him for his money.
A very similar expression of the capriciousness of Sicilians can be found in the last story of day eight, a day whose subject is the tricks humans play on each other. The trickster is here another Sicilian woman, described by the narrator as just like the other Sicilian ladies, who can hardly be called friends of virtue. This woman robs a merchant of his wares and casts him into calamity, only to be fooled by him in return.  
From the monastery of St John in the Desert, Palermo
However, the capricious nature of Sicilians is also expressed in other ways than pure con-artistry. On the sixth story of the fifth day - a day whose subject is lovers who undergo hardships before attaining happiness - we are told of a Neapolitan girl who is abducted by a group of Sicilian merchants. Because they cannot decide which of them should have her as mistress, and because they fear the jealousy of each other, they give the girl to King Frederick II. This is more of a romance than a picaresque story, but the catalyst is once more the capriciousness of Sicilians. A similar kind of capriciousness is crucial to one of the most iconic tragedies in the Decameron, namely the fifth story of day four, a day whose subject is unhappiness in love. This is the story of the girl who keeps the head of her lover in a pot of basil, a story set in Messina. Her lover has been brutally murdered by the girl's brothers, and she waters the basil with her tears every day. 
Isabella, or The Pot of BasilWilliam Holman Hunt after Keats, inspired by BoccaccioCourtesy of Wikimedia
The fifth story to portray the capricious nature of Sicilians is one which combines the two grand themes concerning Sicily in the Decameron. This is the sixth story of day two and thus follows the story of Andreuccio. The historical background of the story is the end of the Hohenstaufen reign of Sicily by the defeat of King Manfred, the son of Frederick II. The story's protagonist is Beritola, the wife of King Manfred's viceregent in Sicily. Upon learning the news of King Manfred's defeat, Beritola's husband prepares to flee the island because he does not trust the dubious faithfulness of the Sicilians. His fears are well-founded, and this sets off a chain of events cast in the tradition of romance, and the story bears resemblance to such examples of the genre as Apollonius of Tyre and the Middle English romance Octavian. Beritola herself becomes a castaway, and in this way we meet with the second grand theme concerning Sicily in the Decameron. This second grand theme is Sicily as a frontier zone - both culturally and geographically - between Latin Christendom, the Muslim world and the Levant. This theme informs informs four of the eight stories, all of which - like the story of Beritola - are heavily indebted to the romance tradition.
The next story of this kind is told as the fourth story of day four and precedes the tragic tale of the head in the basil pot. We are here told of a Sicilian prince and a Tunisian princess who fall in love with each other through rumour, but without ever having met. This story is a tragedy, and the tragedy is facilitated by the fact that the Sicilian prince, in order to find his beloved, breaks a peace treaty with the kingdom of Tunis which his grandfather the king of Sicily has accepted. In this way, the theme of Sicily as a frontier zone is of crucial importance to the story, because it allows the prince and the princess to learn about each other, fall in love with each other and ultimately it brings about their deaths.
The monastery of St John in the Desert, Palermo
The next story of this kind is told as the fourth story of day four and precedes the tragic tale of the head in the basil pot. We are here told of a Sicilian prince and a Tunisian princess who fall in love with each other through rumour, but without ever having met. This story is a tragedy, and the tragedy is facilitated by the fact that the Sicilian prince, in order to find his beloved, breaks a peace treaty with the kingdom of Tunis which his grandfather the king of Sicily has accepted. In this way, the theme of Sicily as a frontier zone is of crucial importance to the story, because it allows the prince and the princess to learn about each other, fall in love with each other and ultimately it brings about their deaths.

The last story in which Sicily as a frontier zone is of importance, is the seventh story of the fifth day. This story tells about an Armenian boy who impregnates the daughter of his master and is sentenced to hang, only to be recognised by his father and saved. The crucial twist to this story is this topos of the reunion of estranged parent and child - one often employed by Boccaccio - and this twist is facilitated by Sicily's role as a trade centre. The Armenian boy is enslaved by Genoese pirates and sold to master Amerigo, a testament to Sicily's position on the frontier between east and west. 
From the Norman palatine chapel in Palermo
To conclude, although the eight stories in which Sicily is a crucial part are very diverse - containing immense tragedy, fantastic serendipity and human trickery - they nonetheless can be catalogued under these two main themes: the capricious nature of Sicilians and the place of Sicily as a frontier zone. The importance of these themes in the stories I've mentioned, suggest that it is no accident that Boccaccio employs Sicily in these ways. Rather, I suggest that these two themes allow us to understand Sicily's place in Boccaccio's worldview, or at least in the worldview of his Tuscan audience. To Boccaccio, Sicily was an exotic place, a frontierland where cultures met and sometimes clashed, but also a place where pirates docked and a place whose people - be they abducting merchants, homicidal brothers or untrustworthy women - could not be relied upon. These features, or themes, make Sicily a good backdrop for a story, but on the other hand there is little in these stories to recommend Sicily as a place for a holiday.
The Mediterranean seen from Cefalú