For Boccaccio, the concept of compassion is clearly a key theme of his masterwork the Decameron, made evident by the fact that he introduces his work with a meditation on compassion. Hence, Boccaccio writes in the preface of the text the following: “to have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.” (62) Boccaccio therefore begins by establishing the universalism of compassion: it is a quality that should be shared by all. However, this statement takes the form of a desire, almost in a utopian sense: with this phrasing Boccaccio makes the fairly common sense notion that some people are compassionate for others, and some are not. In this sense, there is a clear conflict in human existence for Boccaccio: the conflict between an egotism, which is a rejection for the thought of others, and compassion, understood therefore as the opposite. In this regard, it can be suggested that Boccaccio’s Decameron is based on this very conflict. This becomes clear in the dedication of the stories: Boccaccio dedicates these tales to women, particularly “ladies in love” (64), as for Boccaccio, in the preface to be compassionate is to essentially be “aflame beyond all measure with a most exalted and noble love.” (62) In this regard, we can understand why the story takes place amidst the setting of the plague: the plague, in its indiscriminate taking of human life, is the very opposite of compassion. The stories in the Decameron to the extent that they invoke compassion are meant to stand as a certain bulwark against an egotism that is given a metaphor in the plague.

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But the way the Decameron invokes compassion is often through the form of critique. For example, in the story of the “Monk and the Abott”, the exact reverse of compassion is displayed, in the form of a critique of the church institution. A monk attempts to woo a woman; he fears the abbot will find about this, but it is the case that the abbot himself has sexual relations with this same woman. The decision of the senior abbot is therefore to pardon the monk and “charging him keep silence of that which he had seen” (Boccaccio, 1987, p. 97) The Church, which is supposed to be of compassion and love, instead becomes a hypocritical institution, where holy figures break their own vows.

But the Decameron does not portray an entirely negative view of religion. For example, in the Tale of the Three Rings, a Sultan asks a Jew which is the true faith of the major monotheistic religions, in an attempt to find a justification to seize the Jew’s fortune. But the Jew tells a parable of a wealthy man who gives three rings to his sons, only one of which is valuable: he does not tell them which ring is rich, and this serves as a metaphor for religious tolerance between religions, as each may “deemeth itself to have his inheritance.” (Boccacio, 1987, p. 94) The crucial point is therefore to the extent that tolerance here between the faiths reflects the tolerance of compassion: religion is not necessarily an uncompassionate institution.

Boccaccio shifts the analysis of the concept of compassion from the institution of the Church to the institution of the family in the stories of Balducci and his son and Tancredi and Guismunda. In the case of the former, a hermit leaves a mountain top where he has lived with his son, who has never seen the city: the son falls in love with the women of the city, of which the father is regretful, understanding that “nature was stronger than his wit.” (Boccaccio, 1987, p. 120) This is a story which tells the ambiguity of compassion: for example, the father could be read as being selfish for isolating his son.

Nevertheless, the point becomes how human existence is defined in terms of relationships, of which compassion is a form of relation. The second story follows the same principle: Tancredi a prince has her daughter’s lover killed, after which Ghismonda the daughter takes her own life, leaving this “life of woe.” (Boccaccio, 1987, p. 132) Here, the familial institution clearly does not manifest compassion, but instead cruelty, much as in the case of the Church: a common thread between these two institutions is that they are commonly understood to be the very manifestation of compassion. Yet this is not always reality: Boccaccio thus critiques a lack of compassion in human existence within institutions that should be the epitome of such compassion.

Thus, as the Decameron tales convey, there is clear contrast between what human beings claim to be or do and their actions. For Boccaccio, he approaches this hypocrisy through the concept of compassion. It is in moments when this compassion is lacking that inhumane and egotistical acts are carried out.

  • Boccaccio. (1987). “Stories from the Decameron.” In J.C. Bonadella & M. Musa (eds.) The Italian Renaissance Reader. New York: Meridian. pp. 60-163.