Dante And Boccaccio: Consumption Of The Human Heart And Other Food Symbolism In Decameron

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Food is a key component and defining factor of all cultures. It connects people in ways that sometimes even language cannot, or even facilitates communication between people by bringing them together over the dining table. Although physical food and its role in daily life is clearly significant, is it possible for food to take on deeper, metaphorical meaning? Throughout the semester, our class has engaged with various texts that have used food imagery and symbolism to convey complex ideas regarding social status, sexual desire, and even emotion. Food not only adds flavor to our lives through the actual eating of it, but also enriches our reading and writing. Using it as a motif, or recurring symbol, in literature makes reading even more appetizing. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, both Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio used food symbolism to add deeper meaning to their writing, sometimes in very peculiar and unusual ways. The consumption of the human heart, as well as the presence of culturally significant herbs such as basil, symbolize and convey intense emotions in Dante’s La Vita Nuova and Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

Dante’s La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”) was published in 1294 and revolves around the medieval genre of courtly love. It is important to note that the concept of courtly love began in twelfth-century France and that it was mostly seen in literature and not in actual marriages of the time period. Courtly love typically involved a love triangle that included the woman and her lover, outside of her marriage with her husband. The key features of the concept were that it was adulterous, secretive, and not easily obtained. The woman was typically seen as “dangier,” meaning she was demure and polite. Throughout the course of the semester, we have read many texts that feature the theme of courtly love, but it is especially relevant to La Vita Nuova and the excerpt our class read, titled, “Eating the Beloved’s Heart.”

La Vita Nuova was written by Dante in honor of his beloved, Bice Portinari. Although both were married to other people, and their relationship was never consummated, Bice was Dante’s muse and had a profound impact on his life, his virtue, and the way he lived. She died from the plague in 1290, and Dante was extremely grief-stricken by her death. He tried to find solace in philosophy and wrote La Vita Nuova from 1290-1294 as an expression of his love for her. The excerpt, titled “Eating the Beloved’s Heart,” features a dream that Dante has of Beatrice (the fictional version of Bice), who returns to him in Cupid’s arms and consumes his heart:

And thinking of her a sweet sleep overcame me, in which a marvellous vision appeared to me: … It seemed to me he held a figure sleeping in his arms, naked except that it seemed to me to be covered lightly with a crimson cloth: gazing at it very intently I realized it was the lady of the greeting, she who has deigned to greet me before that day. And in one of his hands it seemed to me that he held something completely on fire, and he seemed to say to me these words: ‘Vide cor tuum: Look upon your heart. And when he had stood for a while, he seemed to wake her who slept: and by his art was so forceful that he made her eat the thing that burned in her hand, which she ate hesitantly. (Alighieri Paragraph 2-3)

This passage shows the immense emotional hold that Beatrice has on Dante. She is holding his heart in her hands, which shows that she has complete control over him due to his love for her. The flames mentioned in the excerpt, as well as his burning heart, are also significant because they symbolize his burning desire for her. However, Beatrice eating Dante’s heart is the most significant symbol of all because it suggests that she is incorporating him into her body, destroying his heart and rejecting him, and possibly taking his happiness and love away with her forever. She is also forced to eat the heart by Cupid, which symbolizes her own obedience to courtly love as well as the god of love, who seems to have complete control over her.

Once his heart is eaten, Cupid ascends back into Heaven with Beatrice, leaving an emotionally distraught Dante behind (Alighieri Paragraph 4). For example, “…he gathered that lady in his arms, and it seemed to me that he ascended with her towards heaven: from which I experienced such anguish that my light sleep could not endure it, and so was broken, and was dispersed,” (Alighieri Paragraph 4). The appearance of his heart, Beatrice’s consumption of it, her ascent back into heaven, and Dante’s distraught state after the dream convey intense emotion. The dream sequence suggests that, through the eating of his heart, Beatrice forever removed Dante’s happiness and love when she died.

Similar to Dante, Boccaccio also uses food imagery, particularly the human heart and culturally significant herbs such as basil, to convey and symbolize intense emotion in The Decameron. Boccaccio’s The Decameron is considered to be part of the “frame-tale collection” genre. This allowed Boccaccio to take many stories of varying genres and place them into one work. The genre was also beneficial in allowing him to present food metaphors differently in each of his stories. However, although the presentation of food symbolism differs from story to story, much of it seems to revolve around conveying intense human emotion to his readers in tales of courtly love. In the ninth story from the fourth day (IV.9) of The Decameron, the consumption of a human heart is symbolic of a women’s devotion to her lover, as well as her enormous grief in learning that he was murdered by her vengeful husband. In the fifth story from the fourth day (IV.5) of The Decameron, a growing potted basil plant also symbolizes Lisabetta’s heartbreak, sadness, and grief over the loss of her lover, who was brutally murdered by her brothers. In both stories, the presence of food, and the consumption of food itself, symbolize the character’s tremendous grief over the loss of their beloveds.

In Boccaccio’s The Decameron, story IV.9 tells a tale of friendship, courtly lovers, and loss. The tale takes place in medieval France and revolves around two knights who are good friends: Guillaume de Roussillon and Guillaume de Cabestaing. Guillaume de Roussillon has a beautiful wife, and Guillaume de Cabestaing eventually falls in love with her. The two begin an affair but become careless, and Guillaume de Roussillon catches them in the adulterous act (Boccaccio 303). He vows to kill his comrade for committing such a treacherous act against their friendship, and Guillaume de Roussillon proceeds to murder Guillaume de Cabestaing, even going so far as to cut out his heart (Boccaccio 303).

As the story progresses, the reader learns that Guillaume de Cabestaing’s heart is taken by Guillaume de Roussillon to his chef to prepare: “Roussillon dismounted, sent for his cook, and told him: ‘Here’s a boar’s heart: take it and turn it into the most delectable and savoury dish you can,” (Boccaccio 304). Guillaume de Roussillon presenting his former-friend’s heart as a boar’s is symbolic of his hatred and distaste for him by lowering his status to that of an animal. After the cook prepares Guillaume de Cabestaing’s heart in a delectable manner, it is fed to his lover, Guillaume de Roussillon’s wife, who finds it delicious (Boccaccio 304). After it is revealed that she just ate her lover’s heart, who died by the hand of her barbaric husband, she is very distressed:

There is no need to ask whether the lady was distressed when she heard this about the man she loved above all things. After a while she said: ‘You behaved as one would expect of a devious and mean-spirited knight: if I gave him my heart when he placed me under no obligation to do so, and in this way affronted you, it was I rather than he who should have been punished. But God forbid that any other food should follow after a morsel as noble as the heart of a brave and gallant knight, for such was Guillaume de Cabestaing!’ (Boccaccio 304-305)

This passage is significant for several reasons. After her speech, she throws herself out of the window behind her, “without a second thought,” (Boccaccio 305). After realizing the horrible deed of her husband, that her lover is dead, and that she just consumed his heart, she is so distraught that she commits suicide. The last line of her speech, before hurling her body out of the window, suggests that eating the heart of Guillaume de Cabestaing is the best food she will ever consume, and vows never to eat a single morsel ever again. The eating of her lover’s heart, which precedes her death, is not only symbolic of her grief and distress over her loss, but also of her undying devotion and emotional connection to him. She would rather die than consume another bite of food after consuming her lover’s heart. Her finding Guillaume de Cabestaing’s heart delicious is also symbolic of her intense love for him. After her death, she and Guillaume de Cabestaing are placed in a single tomb together, and this combined with her consumption of his heart, symbolize their intense emotional/physical connection in life, and coming together as one even in death.

Story IV.5 in The Decameron is similar to story IV.9, as well as Dante’s, “Eating the Beloved’s Heart,” in that the theme of courtly love is present and food is utilized to symbolize a character’s sorrow, misery, and longing for their lover. However, this food is not consumed by the character, Lisabetta, and it is also not a human heart. In this story, Boccaccio uses the culturally significant herb, basil, to convey Lisabetta’s emotions to his readers. It is important to note that, just as the use of the human heart was not meaningless in Dante’s and Boccaccio’s other works, the use of basil in story IV.5 has a specific purpose as well. Part of the mint family, basil was, and still is, an essential herb in Italian cooking. It was also used in ancient Egypt as an embalming and preserving herb, given as a gift in Portugal to a beloved, and a symbol of mourning in Greece. All of basil’s roles play a key aspect in understanding Lisabetta’s emotions. In other words, Boccaccio’s use of basil in Lisabetta’s story was not arbitrary.

In Lisabetta’s story (IV.5 in The Decameron), we learn that she is very beautiful young woman and has three merchant brothers who are very protective of her and her virtue (Boccaccio 283). She ends up falling in love with one of her brothers’ employees, Lorenzo, and they begin an affair (Boccaccio 284). Unfortunately for the lovers, one of Lisabetta’s brothers catches the two of them together intimately, and vows to avenge her tainted honor by murdering him (Boccaccio 284). The brothers take Lorenzo on a “business trip,” and end his life. After weeping over his disappearance for “ages,” Lisabetta cries herself to sleep and Lorenzo appears to her in a dream, telling her where to find his body (Boccaccio 285). When she finds his body, she proceeds to cut his head off and places it in a pot of basil (Boccaccio 285-286). She waters his head and the basil using “only…her tears,” and makes a habit of sitting next to this pot and shedding her tears until the basil is fully watered, “making it the fondest object of her desires, as it was the repository of her Lorenzo,” (Boccaccio 286). His decomposing head, along with her tears, allow the basil leaves to grow as, “fragrant and beautiful as could be,” (Boccaccio 286).

The growing and thriving basil plant is symbolic of Lisabetta’s mourning and ever-growing grief. The more she mourns, is in despair, and cries over the plant, the more it grows. Just as basil was seen as a symbol of mourning in Greece, it is a symbol of Lisabetta’s loss and anguish. Basil was also known to be given as a gift in Portugal to a beloved, so the edible herb in the story could also be seen as a symbol of Lisabetta’s devotion to, and everlasting love for, Lorenzo; planting his head in the basil’s soil is her final gift to him, her beloved. Finally, basil was used in ancient Egypt as an embalming/preserving herb. Viewed through this cultural lens, planting Lorenzo’s decapitated head in a basil pot could be seen as symbolic of Lisabetta trying to preserve her intense feelings of love, despite Lorenzo being dead. Although Lisabetta does not consume the basil plant, its presence in the story effectively symbolizes her grief, just as the consumption of the human heart did in the first two stories presented.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, both Dante and Boccaccio used food symbolism to expand on complex emotional ideas in their writings. Although peculiar, the consumption of the human heart in both La Vita Nuova and The Decameron allowed Dante and Boccaccio to effectively symbolize and convey intense emotions. Dante’s use of the eating of a heart in La Vita Nuova conveyed his despair and sorrow at the loss of his beloved, Beatrice (Bice). Her eating his heart symbolized the removal of his happiness, and ability to love, upon her death. Boccaccio’s use of the human heart as food in The Decameron symbolized Guillaume de Roussillon’s wife’s undying devotion, and emotional connection, to her lover. After realizing that she had eaten his heart, she proclaimed that no morsel should ever follow behind his gallant remains and threw herself out of a window to her death. Boccaccio also used the presence of basil, and its many cultural roles, in Lisabetta’s story, to convey her grief as well as symbolize her mourning, loss, and anguish. Using food imagery, Dante and Boccaccio added layers of deeper meaning to their stories as well as effectively portrayed their character’s emotional states.

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