|14th May 2006||#1|
Join Date: July 2005
Boccaccio 1370 (Medieval Beauty III)
In this, the third installment in our series examining full-figured feminine beauty in medieval literature, we come to Giovanni Boccaccio, one of the most celebrated writers of the Middle Ages.
Today, Boccaccio is best known for The Decameron, a collection of allegorical tales narrated by a group of fictional characters, which has influenced countless authors since it first appeared. Geoffrey Chaucer, Boccaccio's contemporary and the father of English literature, adopted the Decameron's anthology structure for The Canterbury Tales.
Cinema enthusiasts will also recognize the name "Boccaccio" from the title of the 1962 feature, Boccaccio '70. Ostensibly an update of Boccaccio for 1970, its Decameron-like anthology structure comprises three short films, the best-known of which, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio, was directed by Federico Fellini, and stars a generously-proportioned Anita Ekberg at the peak of her allure, fuller-figured than ever before in her career.
But although most of the film's viewers never realize this, it is linked to Boccaccio not only by name, but also by its specific presentation of feminine beauty. Anita Ekberg's opulent, blonde charms epitomize Boccaccio's medieval ideal of 1370 every bit as much as they represent Fellini's womanly ideal of 1970.
However, Boccaccio's most elaborate account of feminine beauty does not appear in the pages of the Decameron, but in his twelve-book chivalric epic titled the Teseida delle Nozze d'Emilia ("Theseid of the Nuptials of Emilia"), sometimes rendered into English as "The Book of Theseus," or simply the "Theseid."
Each of Emilia's physical characteristics is an attribute of timeless beauty, as handed down from the days of Classical Antiquity. Emilia's hair is "long and plentiful," and is twice called "gold," and "golden." Her features are "very fair," with a "white throat," and "white shoulders." Her neck is "round," and "full." She is buxom and "plump," and her arms are called "plump" as well.
In short, she is Helen of Troy, Lillian Russell, or Shannon Marie--the timeless ideal brought to life, in the 14th century.
One other passage in the Teseida also deserves our attention. This occurs in the Seventh Book, a point at which the noble knight Palaemon, who is in love with Emilia (and who can blame him?), sends a Prayer to Venus, the goddess of love, asking for her aid in winning Emilia's heart.
(The apple in Venus's hand is, of course, the prize that she had been awarded for winning . . . The Judgment of Paris.)
We see here how far medieval literature has advanced towards the Renaissance, by this stage. In the fifth century, the early Christian poet Prudentius had demonized the Classical goddess Venus as the vice of Indulgence. But in Boccaccio, she has been fully rehabilitated, and appears as a positive force in this Christian chivalric epic.
Note that Venus's garden is populated by "Voluptuousness," "Idleness" (whom we recently met in the Roman de la Rose), "Beauty" (perpetually gazing at her own loveliness in a mirror), and "Opulence." Because this garden is an externalization of Venus herself, all of these beings are aspects of the goddess's own personality.
Thus, Voluptuousness + Idleness + Beauty + Opulence together constitute ideal femininity.
Note also that dancing is the one activity that does take place in Venus's realm (dancing being a favoured pastime of the goddess of beauty), and that Venus's maidens have flowing hair, and dress "ungirded" (i.e., with no "shapewear" to constrict their full, natural curves).
But the most interesting detail in Boccaccio's description is his observation that Venus is attended by the goddess Ceres--"Ceres with her delicacies." Ceres is the classical goddess of the harvest, of the "fruits of the earth"--i.e., of food--and in Greek mythology, the insatiable Venus was perpetually kept well-fed by the goddess Ceres.
In fact, a well-known Roman maxim maintained that "Sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus" (literally, "Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes"). In other words, "Without generous quantities of food, Venus--the goddess of beauty--perishes."
We may have forgotten this lesson in our own day and age, but the Antique world knew very well that feminine beauty is contingent upon indulgence (or, as the modern slogan puts it, "Sexy girls have dessert"), and that food deprivation diminishes beauty.
This is the eternal knowledge of the Ancients--and we would do well to recover it.
- A depiction of the Venus/Ceres relationship
Last edited by HSG : 21st September 2006 at 00:59.
|15th May 2006||#2|
Join Date: July 2005
Re: Boccaccio 1370 (Medieval Beauty III)
I have to say, I find the Venus-Ceres association fascinating. The last link in the above post goes to a page at an online art gallery, which describes Ceres's role in satisfying "Venus's need for the assistance of food and drink for invigoration". It reminds me of the relationship that's described in the quote from Charlotte Bronte, in the "Proportionate Equality" essay on this forum, whereby the diminutive Lucy Snow always gives the full-figured beauty Ginevra Fanshawe the "lion's share" of her breakfast rolls, etc. That action always seemed like a tribute offered to a goddess, and I find it interesting that is has a mythological basis.
It makes it all the more incomprehensible how diet-starvation and exercise-torture ever became associated with female beauty, when the historic tradition is the exact opposite.
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