On Famous Women
In 1362, Renaissance scholar Giovanni Boccaccio wrote Famous Women, in which he analyzed female characters from Classical texts. Other Italian scholars at the time devoted their efforts to studying male heroes and gods, but Boccaccio brought attention to these women who oftentimes existed solely to benefit the hero as romantic interests or appear as goddesses bestowing wisdom for a few lines before departing. Most notably is his analysis of Dido, the queen of Carthage from The Aeneid. His celebration of the queen, however, becomes instead a rigidly Christian perspective of her behavior in the text as Boccaccio views her through a Christian lens, and his portrayal of a mythological character from Roman loses its accuracy in favor of glorification. Boccaccio’s tone in his interpretation of Dido contradicts The Aeneid through his decision to disregard many of Dido’s actions in order to depict an idealized Christian image of the queen as a martyr of chastity.
In many Classical texts, women are almost never in positions of power, expected to be dutiful and submissive to men. At the beginning of his analysis, it seems as if Boccaccio deviates from that stereotype, beginning with praise of the queen: “O Dido, venerable and eternal model of unsullied womanhood!” (Boccaccio 1). However, Boccaccio does not dwell on her role as queen of Carthage, he instead uses Dido to push a Christian ideal of a woman’s behavior. “If they [Christian women] can, let them mediate upon how you shed your chaste blood – especially women for whom it is a trivial matter to drift into second, third, and even more marriages” (Boccaccio 1). In Boccaccio’s work, Dido is defined in terms of her widowhood. In The Aeneid, Dido is defined by her strength after fleeing from her murderous brother. “A woman leads. They landed at the place where now you see the citadels and high walls of new Carthage rising; and then they bought the land called Byrsa, “The Hide”, after the name of that transaction” (Virgil, 14, 516-520). The transaction refers to Dido’s craftiness as she marks out land for her people, a story Boccaccio does not to mention. Boccaccio does not acknowledge Dido’s skillfulness as queen. He speaks of Dido in abstraction, creating a stereotype of a chaste widow refusing to betray her husband with another man.
Boccaccio’s adherence to the Christian beliefs of a women’s modesty falters against The Aeneid with the relationship of Dido and Aeneas. Aeneas is the catalyst for the queen’s suicide, stirring up Dido’s psychosis with his departure. This relationship is absent from Boccaccio’s description. Aeneas is not mentioned. Boccaccio focuses on Dido’s reputation and how her chastity is an example to other women. He addresses her suicide with a calm tone, revering a martyr: “Rather than marry again, rather than break her holy resolve, she died by her own hand, steadfast in spirit, unshaken in determination” (Boccaccio 1). However, in The Aeneid, Dido’s suicide is far from peaceful. The act has a frantic, chaotic tone with Dido caught up in insanity over the disappearance of the man she has fallen for. “But Dido, desperate, beside herself with awful undertakings, eyes bloodshot and rolling, and her quivering cheeks flecked with stains and pale coming death, now bursts across the inner courtyards of her palace. She mounts in madness that high pyre, unsheathes the Dardan sword, a gift not sought for such an end” (Virgil, 101, 888-895). She is not the image of Boccaccio’s martyr with her flushed cheeks and desperation. Her “holy resolve” (Boccaccio 1) is shattered and she lashes out with a savagery that is very different from Boccaccio’s Dido who goes “to her death for the sake of fleeting reputation”(Boccaccio 1). “Goes to her death” implies an act of peaceful sacrifice in loyalty to her husband. However Dido does not go quietly in the original text bringing about frenzied, vengeful destruction. “‘I shall die unavenged but I shall die…May the savage Dardan drink with his own eyes this fire from the deep and take with him the omen of my death’” (Virgil, 101, 910-913). Her death triggers chaos, not Boccaccio’s reinforcement of chastity. “The blade is foaming with her blood, her hands are bloodstained…Shrieks of women sound through the houses; heavens echo mighty wailings” (Virgil, 101, 915-921)
Dido’s position is unique; she is queen who is equal to the hero, facing great adversity in forging new kingdoms. However ever, successes are short-lived as her passion drives her to suicide over Aeneas. In Famous Women, Giovanni Boccaccio’s views of Dido are completely misconstrued from the original text. He discusses Dido through a narrow Christian perspective, dwelling on her role as a widow not as a powerful queen. He reconceives her suicide as a martyrdom for chastity, as a woman who never falls prey to lust, although Dido’s suicide in The Aeneid occurs for the opposite reason – she stops thinking of her husband, she falls in love Aeneas who has left and is driven mad by her desire to the point of suicide. Boccaccio takes Dido’s insanity and paints over it with a tone of his own beliefs, using Dido as a mythological symbol of Christian ideology all while ignoring the actual context of her actions, reducing her a stereotype of an obedient widow rather than exploring the chaotic tone of her lunacy with the violence she produces with her suicide, caught in the throes of lusting madness.