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Old 14th May 2006   #1
HSG
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Default 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.

Anita Ekberg, publicity photo

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."

Boccaccio saves his description of Emilia (the eponymous heroine of the work) until the very last book of the poem, but when he finally does paint her portrait in words, his ardour and passion are overwhelming.

Regrettably, no poetic translation of the Teseida is available, and prose renderings (such as the one quoted here) invariably reduce ornate diction to bare description. However, even in this prosaic translation, readers will immediately notice that Boccaccio's Emilia embodies the same ideal of mediveal beauty--timeless beauty--that inspired his predecessors Matthew of Vendôme and Guillame de Lorris:

XII.53
The maiden was tall of person and fittingly erect, and if the ancient texts speak truly, she was very fair and charming. The hair beneath her crown was long and plentiful and could truly be described as golden. Her bearing was modest and her movement chaste and noble.

Kelsey Olson modelling for The Bon-Ton, Summer 2006

XII.54
I saw that her hair seemed to be of gold, and it was not worn tightly in braids but loose and well combed so that there was not a snag in it as it fell discreetly on her white shoulders, and more beautiful hair has never been seen before or since; and she wore nothing else on it than a crown she held very dear.

XII.60
Her throat was white and round . . .

Kelsey Olson modelling for Torrid; click image to view product page

XII.61
Her neck was full and long and well set upon her white and sloping shoulders, yet it was not too thin, but smooth and well able to withstand joyous embraces; and then her bosom was somewhat raised revealing lovely round breasts that were so firm that they strove to reveal their contours beneath her robe.

XII.62
Her arms were plump and supple . . .

Lillian Russell

XII.63
She was plump and perfectly formed in the hips, and her feet were tiny . . .


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 knight's Prayer is personified (as are most abstract concepts in medieval allegory). In other words, she (the Prayer) is embodied as a separate character in the poem, and much of Book Seven describes the Prayer's journey through the garden of Venus, culminating in her meeting with the love goddess herself.

But note the personifications whom this Prayer encounters in Venus's garden:

VII.54
Among the shrubs on the side of a fountain she saw Cupid with his bow placed at his feet, making arrows. Those which his daughter Voluptuousness selected she tempered in the waters; and the Prayer saw Idleness seated beside them; and she saw that with Memory he barbed the shafts which she first tempered.

Megan Garcia in ‘'Figure'‘ magazine

VII.56
Next she saw Beauty pass near by, without any adornment and gazing at herself. And she saw Charm walking with her, and each one was praising the other. Then she saw lithe and lovely Youth standing near them, making merry . . .

Kim Novak

VII.57
In the center she saw a temple with tall copper columns, and she saw youths and ladies dancing before it; the latter were either beautiful in their persons or comely because of their attire. They were ungirded and barefoot, with hair and gowns flowing, and they passed the whole day in this way . . .

Charlotte Coyle; test image

VII.63
When she did not see Venus, she was told--she did not know by whom--"She takes her delight in the most secret part of the temple. If you want her, enter through that quiet door." So without any other regards, for she was humbly garbed, the Prayer drew near to enter there to fulfill the mission entrusted to her.

VII.64
When she first approached, she found Opulence guarding the door, at which she marveled greatly. When she was permitted by Opulence to enter, she saw that the place was dark when she first went in. As she remained there, however, she found that there was a little light, and she saw Her reclining naked on a huge bed that was very beautiful to see.

Shannon Marie modelling for Addition-Elle

VII.65
She had golden curls, unbraided and bound about her head. Her countenanced was such that those who have been most praised have no beauty to compare with hers. Her arms and her bosom and her elevated breasts were completely visible, and the rest of her body was covered by a robe so flimsy that it scarcely concealed anything.

Louise (Hughes Models, U.K.); test image

VII.66
The place was scented with a thousand perfumes. Bacchus sat on one side of her, and Ceres with her delicacies on the other. She held Lust by the hand, and she also held the apple which she had won in the Idaean vale when she was chosen over her sisters . . .

(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

.................

References:

Boccaccio. The Book of Theseus. Trans. Bernadette Marie McCoy. New York: Medieval Text Assoc., 1974. Trans. of Teseida delle Nozze d'Emilia. c.1340.

Boccaccio. Theseid of the Nuptials of Emilia. Trans. Vincenzo Traversa. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Trans. of Teseida delle Nozze d'Emilia. c.1340. (McCoy’s translation, above, is the superior edition.)


Last edited by HSG : 20th September 2006 at 23:59.
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Old 15th May 2006   #2
Emily
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Default 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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