Courtesy Lost: Dante, Boccaccio, and the Literature of History

Courtesy Lost: Dante, Boccaccio, and the Literature of History

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By Kristina M. Olson
Toronto Italian Studies
University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division © 2015
World Rights
240 Pages
ISBN 9781442629264
Published Nov 2015
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ISBN 9781442647077
Published Oct 2014
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ebook (EPUB format)
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In Courtesy Lost, Kristina M. Olson analyses the literary impact of the social, political, and economic transformations of the fourteenth century through an exploration of Dante’s literary and political influence on Boccaccio. The book reveals how Boccaccio rewrote the past through the lens of the Commedia, torn between nostalgia for elite families in decline and the need to promote morality and magnanimity within the Florentine Republic.

By examining the passages in Boccaccio’s Decameron, De casibus, and Esposizioni in which the author rewrites moments in Florentine and Italian history that had also appeared in Dante’s Commedia, Olson illuminates the ways in which Boccaccio expressed his deep ambivalence towards the political and social changes of his era. She illustrates this through an analysis of Dante’s and Boccaccio’s treatments of the idea of courtesy, or cortesia, in an era when the chivalry of the declining aristocracy was being supplanted by the civility of the rising merchant classes.

Kristina M. Olson is an assistant professor of Italian in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University.


“Fateci dipingere la Cortesia”: Historicizing Cortesia

Chapter One
Boccaccio’s History of Cortesia: The Incivility and Greed of Elite Families

  1. Cortesia and the Florentine Elite from the Early Commune to the Age of Dante
  2. The Dantean cornice of Inf. 16 and “cortesia” lost:
    Decameron 1.8, 6.9 and Esposizioni 16
  3. The Greed of the Genoese (but not Florentine) Elite: Decameron 1.8, Guiglielmo Borsiere, and Ermino Grimaldi
  4. The Incivility of Cortesia:  Decameron 6.9, Betto Brunelleschi and Guido Cavalcanti

Chapter Two
The Politics of Cortesia: Historicizing the Elite and the gente nuova

  1. Florentine Politics and Economics from Dante to Boccaccio:
    The Older Elite Families and the gente nuova
  2. From Dantean Prophecy to Boccaccian Enactment: Florence from 1300-1302
  3. Figuring Florentine Conflict: Corso Donati (cortesia) versus Vieri de’ Cerchi (avarizia)
  4. The Elite and the popolo: The Case of Cisti and Geri Spini
  5. The Arno Runs Red:  Narrating Florentine Violence

Chapter Three
The Ethical (and Dantean) Framework of the Decameron:
The Avarice of Clerics and Merchants

  1. Cangrande della Scala: Dante’s Generous Host Experiences an Unusual, and Momentary, Affliction of Avarice
  2. Pope Boniface VIII: Figuring Avarice at the Beginning and End of the Decameron
  3. A Tempered “epopea dei mercatanti”: Musciatto Franzesi and the Avarice of the Merchant Class
  4. The Dantean cornice of Avarice: Esposizioni 1 and Decameron 10.3
  5. From Finance to Fowling: The Case of the Gianfigliazzi Family

Chapter Four
Constructing a Future for Cortesia in the Past:
Virility, Nobility, and the History of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines

  1. The Familial Court of Cortesia: The Civil Acts of the Malaspina Family
  2. Cortesia Was Chaste: The Virility of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines
  3. Virility as Nobility: Cortesia in Romagna


“In this invaluable study, Kristina Olson offers the first comprehensive treatment of the Decameron’s numerous, and strategically placed, ‘political’ novellas.  Olson persuasively reinscribes the merchant/aristocrat opposition through which the Decameron has long been read in terms of a more nuanced battle between ‘avarice’ and ‘cortesia,’ where partisan politics is ideally sublimated into personal ethics.  In its wise insistence upon the intersections of literary, political, and social history in the Decameron, Courtesy Lost points out genuinely new and important possibilities for developing our understanding of Boccaccio’s cultural project.”

Albert Russell Ascoli, Terrill Distinguished Professor of Italian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Courtesty Lost presents a compelling and novel account of how Boccaccio used Dante as the source material for his own formulation of Florentine and Italian political history. What is most satisfying about this study is the way the author ably and repeatedly moves between the three principal texts: Dante’s Commedia, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and his Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante.”

Jason Houston, Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, University of Oklahoma

‘An enjoyable and very informative work… This book would be an indispensable addition to any medievalist’s library.’

Alfred R. Crudale, Annali D’Italianistica vol 35:2016

‘Olson’s daring and intelligent book on the whole is stimulating and innovative.’

Roberta Morosini, Speculum vol 92:03:2017

“Employing a theoretically diverse methodology and careful attention to historical detail, Olson offers new insights on the relationship between Dante and Boccaccio, the social and literary culture of 14th-centuiry Italy, and the increasing tensions between the aristocracy and the rising middle class.”

D. Pesta, Choice

‘In this interesting study, Olson offers new insights on the relationship between Dante and Boccaccio, the social and literary culture of 14th-century Italy, and the increasing tensions between the aristocracy and the rising middle class.’

D.Pesta, Choice Magazine vol 52:09:2015