The Elegia di madonna Fiammetta is a tragic account of the title character’s extramarital love affair with Panfilo, who, having succeeded in seducing Fiammetta, returns to his native Florence, leaving her with nothing but empty promises of his return. Composed between 1343 and 1345, the Elegia is one of only two narratives produced by Boccaccio in which the narrator is also the protagonist. The second of these first-person narratives, the Corbaccio — a contentious dream narrative, in which the unnamed protagonist is visited by the ghost of his love-object’s deceased husband, who lectures him about the faults of women — shares many similarities with the Elegia: both tales are recounted by melancholic would-be lovers and concern themselves with the psychological effects of unrequited love, both narrators are suicidal at times. However, what sets the Elegia apart, not only from the Corbaccio, but from the whole of Boccaccio’s corpus, is the perspective from which it is written: Boccaccio authors the text from the point of view of ‘Fiammetta’, a pseudonymous adulteress, abandoned by her illegitimate lover, to whom she attributes the name ‘Panfilo’.
Boccaccio’s use of female narrators is not exclusive to the Elegia: seven out of the Decameron’s ten fictional brigata are also women, and the seventy stories told by these women also raise questions pertaining to gendered discourse. However, within the Elegia (unlike the Decameron) there is no omniscient narrator to offer an objective overview of the tale: we must rely solely upon the account of Fiammetta, who quickly proves herself to be a most unreliable witness. Littered with allusions to classical sources, especially Ovid’s epistolary Heroides, the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta raises many contentious questions regarding the gendering of testimonies, and forces us to ponder a voice wherein the author completely subsumes his masculine authority by employing a female narrator: this is the very point upon which this article will focus.
Whilst the expected problems arising from a male-authored female narrative exist, the Elegia also presents issues ranging from authorial intentions to Boccaccio’s engagement with his textual predecessors. Many scholars have commented upon Boccaccio’s use of the character ‘Fiammetta’ as a senhal — a rhetorical figure, usually used to represent the object of a poet’s desire — yet what sets Fiammetta’s role in the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta aside from these other texts is that she is given a voice: Boccaccio no longer presents her as an object of male desire, but as a lover, a reader, an individual capable of experiencing real emotion, and, most importantly, he presents her as a woman able to tell her own story.
Perhaps the most important issue to arise from Fiammetta’s melancholic tale is the question of her own (albeit fictitious) motivation for composing her account. Whilst she states in her prologue that within her testimony “non troverete favole greche ornate di molte bugie, né troiane battaglie sozze per molto sangue” [you will find no Greek myths embellished with many lies, nor Trojan battles soiled with much blood] her reliance upon such sources is overwhelmingly apparent almost from the very beginning of her narrative. Suzanne C. Hagedorn suggests that Fiammetta’s account of misery and abandonment is, in fact, intended to add to the very genre of literature to which she turns in her moments of lovelorn despair, literature addressed to “sympathetic (female) readers who sustain themselves by reading about her miseries, much as she has been comforted by reading about others’ sorrows”. Considering her unambiguous denial that she might manipulate mythological and classical sources in the narration of her experiences, one must consider the impact the character of Fiammetta wished to achieve: is the recitation of her account a cathartic exercise, “an acceptable compromise between declaring her feelings openly and hiding them completely”, or, as Francesco Erbani intimates when he comments that “[l]a propria storia è superiore alle altre non solo per lo strazio che procura, ma perché è meglio raccontata”[her own story is better than the others, not only because of the torture she endures, but because it is told in a better way], a method of exploring the theme of literary composition?
In order to gain a better understanding of Boccaccio’s authorial intentions, and those he assigns Fiammetta, this study will address several issues. First of all, I will consider the function of the text for Fiammetta as a character, by questioning her purpose in narrating her experiences, and what she hopes to achieve from this story-telling, before discussing the implications of gender in terms of this narrative, and how employing a first-person female protagonist, created by a male author, impacts upon the messages portrayed within the Elegia. Whilst acknowledging the difficulties surrounding Boccaccian texts with regard to latent meanings and notoriously ambiguous imagery and phrasing, such as puns and the veiled use of satire, I aim to cast new light upon what has been described, albeit problematically, as “the first psychological novel in a modern language”.
Fiammetta as Narrator: A Web of Fiction
As a character, Fiammetta is complex. She invokes many literary issues, such as the “proper” use of rhetorical devices; how intertextual references can be manipulated within narratives; and the role of gender within texts which ensue from both masculine and feminine voices. In this section, I examine the function of the text for Fiammetta: by comparing her character to the abandoned heroines of classical literature, I will show that she transgresses the established conventions of gender-appropriate literature through her manipulation of literary sources.
In works of literature any author must stand at one remove from his characters, since the characters are presented by a narrator who is, in turn, a work of fiction created by the author. As the title character, Fiammetta’s role in the Elegia is obviously pivotal. Whilst her voice is the only medium through which her account is given, what renders her character most problematic is her own confession that, in order to protect her own virtuous reputation, details – including the ‘real’ names of the characters – have been deliberately concealed. ‘Fiammetta’, therefore, is a fictional veil created by a fictional character, and Boccaccio has successfully distanced himself even further from the ‘fiction’ he has created. The information provided within a text is something determined only by the author, yet in the case of the Elegia, we must question the extent to which this comment is true.  Boccaccio, as the text’s author, is the sole creator of the narrative: his characters and their accounts are fictional. Yet Boccaccio is also allowing Fiammetta to possess a certain sense of autonomy, not only by giving her a voice, but also by allowing her character to ‘make choices’ regarding the accuracy of the information she provides within her testimony. There is, however, one crucial difference between Boccaccio as the author of the Elegia and Fiammetta as the author of her own account, as Eugenio Giusti quite rightly notes: “by choosing to become an elegiac heroine and to reject finally her nurse’s pragmatic advice, Fiammetta falls into a literary trap from which she cannot escape. She actually has no choice, for, unlike her readers, she cannot choose between words and actions because she is a product of fiction”. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the reasons for Boccaccio’s use of Fiammetta in such a way as to almost deny his own responsibility for the construction of her narrative. In order to better understand the ways in which the text reflects upon the position of women within narratives, especially within amatory tragedies, the likes of which Fiammetta’s character claims to read in order to find “le altrui miserie, e quelle alle mie conformando, quasi accompagnata sentendomi, con meno noia il tempo passava” [other people’s miseries, and by comparing them to my own, I felt as if I had company, and so the time passed less tediously] (Elegia, III, 11, 2), it is necessary to first and foremost consider the character of Fiammetta and how this character facilitates the multiple interpretations of the Elegia.
‘Fiammetta’ first appears as a character in the Filocolo, but characters with this name also play significant roles in many of Boccaccio’s other works, such as the Teseida, Comedia delle Ninfe, and the Amorosa Visione. Although frequently compared to stereotypical figures of the beloved, notably Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, Fiammetta does not appear to fulfil identical purposes in all of her narrative appearances. “Cara Fiamma”, or Maria, to whom Boccaccio addresses the introductory sonnets of the Amorosa Visione, is often thought to represent the poet’s carnal urges; whilst in the Comedia delle Ninfe, Boccaccio uses the character as a goddess. Yet Fiammetta’s role in the Elegia deviates significantly from the submissive, objectified, and deified Fiammettas of these two works: here she is a woman scorned; a married woman consumed by her unrequited and adulterous love for Panfilo.
Despite her extramarital dalliances, Fiammetta is keen to present herself in a pure and chaste light. In the fourth chapter of Ovid’s Heroides, Phaedra explains how her failure to experience love prior to her affair with her stepson, Hippolytus, had left her with a kind of virginity, clearly evoked in her self-description as having always lived life “in innocent purity” (IV; 43). Although Phaedra is married and (presumably) not a virgin, the way in which she describes having lived a life of purity suggests otherwise and Boccaccio allows his protagonist this same virginal virtue as found within Heroides IV. Speaking after making love to Panfilo, Fiammetta’s speech parallels Phaedra’s rhetoric. She almost claims, despite her married status, to have only just lost her virginity (“dopo cotale avenimento, da me avanti non che saputo, ma pure pensato” [after such an event, which in the past I had never experienced before, but which I had imagined, Elegia,1. 25. 4]), raising questions regarding the reliability of her testimony. Although the Elegia’s protagonist has made it clear that the names she uses within her account are fictional, this sentence prompts the text’s readers to question the verity of the other information she provides; nominally, is she really all she claims to be? Does her husband really exist? And finally, can we really trust a narrator who describes her own writing as “meno onesta che vaga” [less honourable than graceful] (Elegia, 1, 24, 2).
Perhaps the section of narrative in which most allusions are made to Fiammetta’s pure and chaste nature is the dream sequence (Elegia, 1, 3), which prefigures her unrequited love for Panfilo. The sequence, which opens with Fiammetta “sola fra verdi erbette era avviso sedere in uno prato, dal cielo difeso e da’ suoi lumi da diverse ombre d’àlbori vestiti di nuove frondi”[sitting alone amid the tender green grass in a field protected from the brightness of the sky by the many shadows of the newly-leafed trees] (Elegia, 1.3.1), is steeped in sexual imagery; indeed, the very “newly leafed trees”, which Fiammetta states are protecting her from the brightness of the sky, appear to show a childlike vulnerability, consistent with the awakening of sexual desire. The snake (“serpe”, Elegia,1.3.3), which bites Fiammetta’s breast, is a multifaceted figure: not only does it evoke Eden-like imagery, thus pre-empting Fiammetta’s ‘Fall’ from virtue, but it is also an obvious phallic symbol. This very sexual reading of this sequence is made all the stronger by the description Fiammetta provides of drawing the snake towards her bosom, “imaginando lei dovere, col beneficio del caldo del proprio petto, rendere a me più benigna” [imagining that by offering it the warmth of my chest, I would make it kinder towards me] (Elegia,1.3.3), which served only to render the beast “più sicura […] e più fiera” [bolder and fiercer] (Elegia, 1.3.4). Fiammetta’s dream-persona appears to have innocently (or not?) awoken the sexual appetite in the snake, which then, without her consent, penetrates her (“al dato morso raggiunse la iniqua bocca, e dopo lungo spazio, avendo molto del nostro sangue bevuto; mi parea che, me renitente, uscendo del mio seno” [it fastened its ungodly mouth onto the bite it had given, and after a long time, having swallowed much of our blood, it seemed to leave my bosom against my will, Elegia,1.3.4]). The presence of blood here — “nostro sangue” [our blood] is symbolic of her loss of virginity or purity, although Boccaccio’s use of the plural pronoun, “nostro”, remains perplexing. Furthermore, the way in which she describes the wound left by the snake “piena rimasa del veleno vipereo” [full of the snake’s venom], and the way “tutto il corpo con enfiatura sozzissima pareva che occupasse” (the whole body was taken over by a dreadful swelling’, Elegia,1.3.7), leaves the reader with one grim question: has the ‘snake’ impregnated Fiammetta Despite the lack of obvious reference to an unborn child within the narrative, Boccaccio appears to have written the text in such an ambiguous way so as to facilitate this reading; be this impregnation the conception of a baby, or the beginnings (‘foetus’) of her own self-destruction.
Although the Ovidian allusions within the Elegia suggest that Boccaccio intended Fiammetta to represent a ‘classical’ literary woman, her character within the narrative often blurs characteristics of several mythological women and cannot be exclusively identified with one specific legendary figure. From the Heroides, the characters of Phyllis (a princess who addresses Demophoon, with whom she has had a sexual relationship, II) and Phaedra (IV) appear to have been drawn upon during the composition of Boccaccio’s narrator. However, in order to investigate other attributes of Fiammetta’s character, we need look no further than Boccaccio’s own De mulieribus claris. The De mulieribus claris is the first collection of biographies in Western literature devoted exclusively to women, which can but reinforce the somewhat proto-feminist impression of the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta, wherein Fiammetta recalls how Tisiphone, in the guise of the Goddess Venus, states “non si fa loro ingiuria, se per quella legge, che essi trattano altrui, sono trattati essi; a loro niuna prerogativa più che alle donne è conceduta” [it doesn’t harm them (men) if they are treated how they treat others; they are not given more privileges than women] (Elegia,1.17.24). Boccaccio allows his characters to overtly express the opinion that men and women should be treated equally. However, it is not only within the feminist ideals that similarities can be drawn between the Elegia and the De mulieribus claris, as Boccaccio also draws upon the biography of Lucretia (De. mul., XLVIII) within Fiammetta’s narrative. After being considered the most chaste wife of Collatinus’s companions, Lucretia was stripped of her virtue by Sextus, the son of Superbus, who raped her under the threat of not only her own death, but also that of one of her male servants, vowing to tarnish Lucretia’s unblemished reputation by publicly claiming that the pair had committed adultery. Not wanting to die without clearing her name, Lucretia submitted her body to her attacker and subsequently killed herself immediately after telling her father and husband of the rape. In Michael A. Calabrese’s article, ‘Feminism and the Packaging of Boccaccio’s Fiammetta’, the author draws parallels between Lucretia and Fiammetta:
Boccaccio has imagined a woman who imagines date rape, who tries to free herself of responsibility by depicting herself as the victim of male deceit and male force. When we inspect Fiammetta’s initial description of her and Panfilo’s love-making, we see that she makes clear that the sex is consensual, mutual, and joyous.
Fiammetta initially speaks of her sexual relationship as such: “con più ardire che ingegno, ebbe da me quel che io, sì come egli, bene che del contrario infignessimi, disiava” [with more boldness than intelligence, he found a convenient time and place and obtained from me that which I wanted just as much as he did, although I feigned to the contrary] (Elegia,1, 25, 2); yet after the departure of Panfilo and her realisation that he will not return, our protagonist does, indeed, cry rape, claiming that her lover “me presa nella tacita notte sicura dormendo, sì come colui che altre volte eri uso d’ingannare, prima nelle braccia m’avesti e quasi la mia pudicizia violate, che io appena fossi dal sonno interamente sviluppata” [took me in the night-time while I was soundly sleeping, like someone who had been so deceptive many times before; firstly you took me in your arms and virtually violated my chastity, almost before I was even awake] (Elegia,5, 5, 12). Fiammetta, well-versed as she has proven herself to be in mythological characters, uses the weapon of language to contort the truth within her account, drawing upon established models of female virtue to enhance the promulgation of her own virtue.
Calabrese further comments that the Elegia “is not about rape; it is about a woman using language to change the rules of an Ovidian game […] to summon a rape out of the vasty [sic.] deep of her own bitterness”; Fiammetta’s cries of rape serve as little more than an exploration of the use of language, and how it can distort meaning. In doing thus, Fiammetta (and, consequently, Boccaccio) not only draws upon the Lucretia episode, but also upon the Latin poem, Pamphilus, de Amore, considered “one of the most influential and important of all the many pseudo-Ovidian productions concerning the ‘arts of love’”. Not only does Boccaccio mirror this dramatic poem in the naming of Fiammetta’s lover, Panfilo, but the protagonist also addresses the Goddess, Venus. Yet what is perhaps most striking about the Pamphilus, de Amore, considering the extent to which Boccaccio — and, presumably Fiammetta, as his narrator — is aware of this anonymous work, is the violent rape scene, which occupies the final verses of the poem (vv. 681-96). Galathea, the focus of the protagonist’s love, strongly objects to Pamphilus’s advances, crying, “Pamphile, nostra tuo cur pectore pectora ledis? │ Quod sic me tractas, est scelus atque nephas” [Pamphilus, you are hurting my breasts with yours; │ It is a crime and a sin; why handle me so?] (Pamphilus, vv. 687-88), but these protestations are met with disdain, and the character continues to rape the young woman, heeding the advice given to him by Venus: “Pulcrius esse putat ui perdere uirginitatem, │ Quam dicat: ‘De me fac modo uelle tuum!’” [To lose her virginity by force, she deems nobler │ Than to say “do with me as you desire!”] (Pamphilus, vv. 113-14). This advice plays upon the belief held by Calabrese that, “a woman cannot say yes to sex, lest she compromise her honor, and she cannot say no and be believed. So the only answer is ‘no’ and its only meaning is ‘yes’”; a view which Fiammetta only too willingly manipulates in her own testimony.
Despite previously declaring her joy at experiencing a sexual relationship with Panfilo, once abandoned, Fiammetta accuses her lover of despoiling her virtue without her consent. However, Fiammetta has already proved herself as an unreliable narrator, whose sole objective appears to be to recount her tale in such a way as to outclass the misery found within any of the “diversi libri” [various books] she reads for consolation. It should not, then, seem inconceivable that she should invent a rape scene retrospectively, since, as Erbani argues, she does not live her own story so much as recount itin an attempt to create an account of the pains of love superior to that of Galathea within the Pamphilus.
The Elegia’s Fiammetta is complex: not only does she take on the role of both lover and scorned love-object, but she speaks to us from the very beginning to the very end, with the sole exception of the rubrics preceding each of the chapters. Our dependence upon her within the story is important: her objective in narrating the Elegia is, as she states in the Proemio, to elicit sympathy from her intended audience of women readers; she therefore has a clear objective to fulfil, which renders her narrative necessarily biased. To say that she is an untrustworthy story-teller would be a gross understatement. Various traits of her character are borrowed from the literature she reads to alleviate her misery, yet as hers is the only voice we hear throughout the entire narrative, the verity of such traits is dubious.
Voicing and Reception of Gendered Discourse
In the prologue to the Elegia, Fiammetta quite clearly states her intention that her account should be read by “pietose” [compassionate ladies] and that “[n]é m’è cura perché il mio parlare agli uomini non pervenga, anzi, in quanto io posso, del tutto il niego loro” [I do not care if my account does not reach men; in fact, if I could, I would keep it from them entirely] (Prologo, 1). However, as twenty-first-century readers, we must bear in mind the problems associated with this dedication: although no exact figures are known, female literacy rates in Trecento Italy were extremely low. This alone raises questions regarding why Boccaccio chose to nominally address a female audience when composing the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta. I will argue that this use of a fictional audience further distances the author from the fictional veil of his fictional character. I will also consider the possibility that Boccaccio used his fictional female audience — a community of depressed, loveless women — in such a way as to be erotically appealing to his (presumably) male readership.
Many studies have analysed the problems of gendering with direct regard to the voicing of fictional narratives, yet what remains striking is the distinct lack of attention the intended audience — and the problems of gender associated with this audience — has incurred. In her 1995 study, Ventriloquized Voices: Feminist Theory and English Renaissance Texts, Elizabeth D. Harvey discusses the problems which arise from gendered speech, and argues that “woman’s voice or tongue […] is seen to be imbricated with female sexuality, just as silence is ‘bound up’ with sexual continence”. Harvey’s suggestion — that female garrulity is linked to loss of virtue — is striking when one considers the implications of this statement in terms of the Elegia, as the character, Fiammetta, in choosing to ‘voice’ or narrate her testimony, has almost inevitably given herself up to a more sinful existence. Danielle Clarke elaborates on this theory, by stating that any male author who assumes a female voice risks “not only the display of the female body (as wronged, lamenting, greiving) but (male) rhetorical mastery of this body and the language which inscribes and describes it”. When considering the arguments of both Harvey and Clarke, one must also reflect upon the following: is the male author — in adopting a female persona and ‘inscribing’ his own words upon her — metaphorically ‘raping’ his narrator, since female voice is linked to sexuality? This is especially pertinent when one notes that the male author is able to inhabit a female voice, because he ‘owns’ that voice: the woman he chooses to portray is objectified and is used as little more than a device by which he is able to achieve (literary) satisfaction.
Fiammetta’s character insinuates her recognition of this link between voicing (or writing) and sexuality within the concluding chapter of the Elegia. Addressing her “picciolo mio libretto” [dear little book of mine] directly (Elegia, IX, 1), Fiammetta describes her narrative as an extension of her own body; she gives it human attributes, such as “isparte chiome” [uncombed hair] (Elegia, IX, 5) and the ability to bear mockery with humility (Elegia, IX, 10), and bids it to avoid the hands of those who “per forza ti tenga” [hold you by force] (Elegia, IX, 14). Fiammetta’s reference to being held “by force” displays a fear that this account — a part of herself — be violated should it fall into the wrong hands; that is, Panfilo’s hands. This section of the narrative is directed at her former lover, and she seems concerned that her testimony will fall into his possession when she bids her book that, “se a colui che de’ nostri mali è radice pervieni, sgridalo dalla lunghi, e di’: ‘O tu, più rigido che alcuna quercia, fuggi di qui, e noi con le tue mani non violare’” [if you should happen to reach the one who is the root of our miseries, shout to him from afar: ‘O you who are more rigid than any oak tree, go away from here and do not violate us with your hands’] (Elegia, IX, 16). Fiammetta’s use of the first person plural, ‘noi’ — to refer to both her body and her narrative — corroborates Clarke’s argument that women’s speech is negated by means of a close association with the body; Fiammetta, in allowing her narrative to be sent into the world, is again rendering a part of herself vulnerable to the same mistreatment of which she accuses Panfilo. She will allow her story to be ‘taken’ by certain (female) readers, on the condition that they treat it gently and do not abuse their privileged position: “se tu alcuna troverrai che, leggendoti, li suoi occhi asciutti non tenga, ma dolente e pietosa de’ nostri mali con le sue lagrime multiplichi le tue macchie, quelle in te sì come santissime con le mie raccogli” [if you should come across another woman who fails to keep her eyes dry as she reads, but is sad and full of compassion for our misfortunes and, with her tears, multiplies your smudges and marks, collect them with my own, and consider them holy] (Elegia, IX, 11). It is difficult to read such an order without reading it as a direct metaphor for her own physical form: Fiammetta makes the book-object embody herself and, therefore, wishes to be treated with the same respect and care she asks for her text.
The intended audience to whom she refers in this final chapter is also telling: she does not simply envisage one group of readers, but gives orders according to the possible hands in which her testimony might find itself, including those who laugh and mock Fiammetta’s sorrows and offer chastisement for her unstable state (Elegia, IX, 10). Boccaccio, through Fiammetta, acknowledges that, despite his own wishes, once he has released his narrative into the hands of the public, he is unable to control its reception. This, too, appears to echo how Fiammetta feels about female sexuality: once a woman has ‘given herself up’ to a man, she has very little control over how she is ‘used’, or the extent to which her reputation will be despoiled. In this respect, not only is Boccaccio likening female sexuality to female voice, but he is also, more generally, relating sexuality to literature: once an author has allowed his literary corpus — body — to be handled by his readers, he has rendered himself vulnerable and has very little control over the way in which this corpus is ‘handled’, not only in terms of its textual reception, but also, quite literally, in the physical sense.
Although Boccaccio certainly did attract female readers, there are signifiers within the text — aside from low female literacy rates — which suggest that the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta was not, as Fiammetta claims, actually intended for an audience of love-lorn women. It has been previously noted that Boccaccio’s Decameron, which, although post-dating the Fiammetta by almost a decade, is also dedicated to women (“dilicate donne […] che queste leggeranno, parimente diletto sollazzevoli cose in quelle mostrate e utile consiglio potranno pigliare” [delicate women […] who will read this for enjoyment and entertainment and, equally, so that they may take some useful advice from what they are shown]), and contains an explicitly sexual atmosphere. Capitolo V of the Fiammetta is similarly replete with suggestive imagery. Fiammetta, speaking of the remote destination to which her husband took her in order to attempt to dispel her melancholia, describes how:
in alcuna parte cosa carissima agli occhi de’ giovani n’appariva: ciò erano vaghissime giovani in giuebbe di zendado spogliate, iscalze e isbracciate nell’acqua andanti delle dure pietre levando le marine conche; e a tale uficio bassandosi, sovente le nascose delizie dello uberifero petto mostravano.
[In some places an extremely desirable sight appeared before the young men’s eyes: beautiful women covered by sheer, silky tunics, barefooted, and with bare arms, walking in the water, picking sea shells from the hard rocks, and as they bent in their task they revealed the hidden delights of their ripe bosoms] (Elegia, V, 26, 8).
This sexualized landscape, full of beautiful, semi-nude women, is, as Fiammetta also states, abundant with remote rocks and “caverne, nelli monti dalla natura medesima fatte, essendo esse e per ombra e per li venti recentissime, cercavamo” [caverns fashioned into the mountains by Nature herself, and most inviting with their shade and fresh air] (Elegia, V, 26, 2), a symbolic landscape not uncommon within Boccaccio’s works. Clearly this trope of paralleling physical terrain to the highly-sexualized terrain of the female body was familiar to Boccaccio. In his article ‘The Language of Gardens: Boccaccio’s “Valle delle Donne”’, Thomas C. Stillinger discusses the idyllic valley to which the seven female members of the Decameron’s brigata escape at the end of Day VI, and comments that “[a] Valley of Ladies might be a valley in which ladies are found […] Alternatively, it might be (in a reversal of the synecdoche) a valley found in ladies”;  in the same volume, Guyda Armstrong, speaking of the problematic Corbaccio, argues that:
Boccaccio […] invites us to visualize the woman laid out in a recumbent pornographic pose. His prose map of the terrain creates two metaphorical landscapes; first an unhealthily fertile coastal wilderness, situated at the delta of several foul rivers, and then the “borgo di Malpertugio”, the malign settlement at the foot of the gigantic mountains.
Multiple levels of meaning can be generated by a single text, depending on the presumed readership, and this not only raises question regarding authorial intention, but also regarding gender. Considering the low female literacy rates, the most likely readership of Boccaccio’s work would have been a predominantly male audience; his depictions of scantily dressed, love-lorn women, consoling one another in remote areas, therefore function to fuel male desire and fantasy. If, by (mis)directing his text to a gender-specific readership, Boccaccio is able to alter the meaning of Fiammetta’s narrative, then we must also consider the extent to which the gender of the author/narrator impacts upon the reception of the Elegia.
Furthermore, Boccaccio presents his principal character as one so consumed by depression that she contemplates suicide: “Dunque, se minore male è il mio amante tenere, com’io già tenni, che insieme col corpo uccidere l’anima trista, sì come io credo, torni e rendamisi” [Therefore, if the lesser evil is to keep my lover, as I already had him, rather than kill the body which houses the depressed soul, as I believe it is, then allow him to return and give him back to me] (Elegia, V, 35, 7). This suicide motif is commonplace amongst medieval narratives regarding turbulent love affairs, and we need look no further than Dante’s Vita nuova to find what is perhaps the most resonant example of this trope. Dante’s protagonist, alone and in a solitary space, calls upon death to descend upon him: “Dolcissima Morte, vieni a me, e non m’essere villana, però che tu dei essere gentile, in tal parte se’ stata! Or vieni a me, che molto ti disidero; e tu lo vedi, ché io porto già lo tuo colore” [Come to me, Sweet Death, and don’t be wicked to me, but be gentle insomuch as you come! Now come to me, for I desire you greatly; and you will see that I am already clothed in your colours]; a scene which is almost exactly mirrored in the Corbaccio, more than half a century later. The subject of suicidal ideation is also prevalent within many of the Heroides’ letters, noticeably Heroides II, in which Ovid’s portrayal of Phyllis culminates in the taking of her own life; and VII, Dido’s address to Aeneas (Heroides, VII), which Ovid concludes with the couplet:
praebuit aeneas et causam mortis et ensem.
ipsa sua Dido concidit usa manu.
[From Aeneus came a knife and the cause of death,
From Dido herself came the blow that left her dead]
Within the Middle Ages, depression became synonymous with scholarship, and was “an elite ‘illness’ that afflicted men precisely as the sign of their exceptionality, and the inscription of genius within them”. It is therefore, especially important that Boccaccio should not only provide his female narrator with rhetorical skills, but that he should also attribute to her this sign of masculine ‘genius’: depression. However, in considering these two personality traits, we are left with one overriding question: has Boccaccio given his protagonist masculine characteristics to make her more appealing to a male audience? Or is Fiammetta’s character – with her effeminized masculinity and her masculine femininity – intended to be purposefully repulsive (or, indeed, attractive?) to both men and women for precisely this reason; ostensibly because she is an unnatural mix of features consistent with both genders? In what could be termed a ‘hermaphrodite’ text – as one which is both male and female; issuing, as it does, from both a male pen and a female voice – could Fiammetta be the ultimate ‘hermaphrodite’ character, taking on both male and female perspectives?
Bearing these questions in mind, the text’s dedication to women is nothing if not problematic, and certainly raises many of the same issues which again become relevant within the Proemio to the Decameron. Within these introductory pages, Boccaccio, speaking in the first-person, explains that, after having been made to overcome the misery of unrequited love, he wishes to dedicate his “cento novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie” [one hundred stories, or parables, or histories] (Dec., Proemio, 13) to women, because, unlike men, who “se alcuna malinconia o gravezza di pensieri gli afflige, hanno molti modi da alleggiare o da passar quello” [have many ways of distracting themselves if they become afflicted by depression or disturbing thoughts] (Dec., Proemio, 12), women are often unable to distract themselves through their pastimes. He offers literature to ladies as a method of consolation, a way of reducing boredom, and reaffirms in the Conclusione dell’Autore, that these one hundred tales were “scritte per cacciar la malinconia delle femine” [written to chase away female melancholia] (Dec., Epilogue, 23).
Whilst acknowledging the problems associated with using the Decameron as a tool to interpret the earlier Elegia di madonna Fiammetta, it is important to recognise that the same themes are present within both works. Whilst Boccaccio himself does not speak within the Elegia, his senhal, Fiammetta, frequently references other literary works, and explains how she is able to draw comfort from reading about the unhappiness of others. However, although Fiammetta appears to be using literature as a consolatory device — as Boccaccio himself suggests within the Decameron — her method of reading is so extreme that she actually causes harm to her emotional state. Through her obsessive citation of the tales she reads, Fiammetta is the epitome of the ‘bad’ reader: she surpasses the levels of consolation Boccaccio envisages, and becomes absolutely engulfed in the literary world. Suzanne C. Hagedorn also argues that “Fiammetta’s obsessional citation of her classical models turns into a competition with them: she no longer reads to find models for, or companions in, her suffering, but to outdo them”; Fiammetta is reading stories not, as Boccaccio intended, to find comfort, but to learn how to augment her misery.
In terms of gender, the implications of this observation are vast: whilst “to read oneself in others’ stories has often been considered to be the lot of women”, it is rare to come across stories authored by women in Trecento Italy. Although the Elegia does not fall into this latter category, the female protagonist has — unusually — been allowed a voice. However, this voice has been misused and, through her selfishness, Fiammetta has betrayed the trust put into her by Boccaccio (although Boccaccio has, himself, caused this betrayal of trust): she writes for no other reason than “so that she may have her own audience of sympathetic (female) readers who sustain themselves by reading about her misery, much as she has been comforted by reading about others’ sorrows”. In what is considered to be Boccaccio’s last fictional work, the Corbaccio, the female protagonist is lambasted by the deceased soul of her husband for her reading habits, “i suoi orazioni e paternostri sono i romanzi franceschi e le canzone latine” [her prayers and Paternosters are French romances and Latin songs], and, as Jon Usher notes in ‘Boccaccio on Readers and Reading’, her reading is “essentially pornographic, in that she confuses her own feelings with those of the literary characters, and employs literature selfishly as a tool for physical arousal”. The Corbaccio’s unnamed protagonist, like Fiammetta, appears to adopt the types of ‘bad reading’ Janet Levarie Smarr refers to in Boccaccio and Fiammetta, although many studies have sought to argue for a satirical reading of the Corbaccio. If we are to believe that Boccaccio intended Fiammetta, like the Corbaccio’s protagonist, to embody literary vice — as can clearly be seen in her improper use of rhetoric and incessant employment of intertexuality — are we to understand that his view on females employing the faculty of rhetoric was somewhat antifeminist? And furthermore, does Boccaccio’s opinion of women even matter insofar as the interpretation of the Elegia is concerned?
As twenty-first-century readers, it is perilous to back-project our own cultural ideals when reading medieval narratives, yet each reader must bring something of themselves to their interpretation of any given text. To read a female-narrated, male-authored narrative, which deals with important questions of gender expectations, it is almost impossible to avoid applying one’s own experiences and opinions when attempting to decipher the true authorial intention of a literary piece, whilst also acknowledging that this ‘true authorial intention’ can never be accurately known. Furthermore, as Marina Scordilis Brownlee quite correctly states, the Elegia’s author is “explicitly enunciating one thing on the semantic level, thereafter blatantly contradicting it on the syntactic level in order to expose of the mechanisms of deception inherent in language”. While Boccaccio uses such complex devices to expose his linguistic understanding and ability, it is almost impossible to draw only one conclusion from his texts.
The problems which arise from gendered discourse, particularly in a text where the only voice belongs to a fictional female protagonist whom we know to be wholly unreliable, have proved numerous and mostly unresolved. Perhaps the main reason for this lack of clarity is Boccaccio himself, an author whose texts are notoriously ambiguous and challenging. The impact of this ‘hermaphrodite’, trans-voiced text, as has been shown, is clear: the messages portrayed within the Elegia – be those cultural observations regarding the roles of men and women in the Middle Ages, or simply an “insight” into the female psyche – are continually undermined by issues of voicing, and many questions must unavoidably remain unanswered. Why, for example, does Boccaccio choose to write as a woman? Is he doing so in order to distance himself, as author, from the issues he is raising within the text? Or is he simply demonstrating his literary abilities by assuming the voice of the opposite gender? Certainly, Fiammetta’s account is convincing and plausible, but does this sympathetic portrayal of a woman in love merely function to cement the previously established gender roles of medieval society? Fiammetta may have a literary voice, but this voice is completely controlled by Boccaccio, who, as a man, has the power to silence her whenever he so wishes.
In her article, ‘The “Double Voice” of Renaissance Equity and the Literary Voices of Women’, Lorna Hutson similarly poses several questions pertaining to gendered discourse. She asks, for example, “What does it mean to write like a woman?” However, in relation to the Elegia, perhaps the question we should really be asking is “what does it mean to write for a woman?” The way in which Boccaccio authors the text, and, through Fiammetta, clearly sets out his (misdirected?) female audience, sends clear signals regarding the intended genre of the Elegia. Literate women “learned how to feel from the medieval equivalent of what some today may deem ‘chick-lit’”; like Fiammetta, who uses mythological and classical tales of abandoned and scorned women as models for her own behaviour, the average female reader in the Middle Ages was not expected to stray beyond the ‘appropriate’ literary genre of romance.
In Fiammetta’s dedication of her narrative to compassionate women, then, Boccaccio is immediately constructing reader expectations of a romance narrative: the text is supposedly intended for a female readership, so will include only subject matter which is ‘female-friendly’, yet we have seen this to be untrue. Boccaccio evidently realised, through his knowledge of literature, the elements of narrative which function successfully, and has adorned his protagonist with such characteristics. It is not by chance that Fiammetta is endowed with the talent of rhetoric: Boccaccio knows that she must show male characteristics, because, for a proto-humanist audience, these very characteristics are those which render a text successful. Yet, as has been shown, Fiammetta’s character misuses these traditionally male devices in her over-employment of intertextuality, which inevitably force her to become an inferior version of the classical heroines whose tales she cites; inferior because, as a fictional construct, she does not have the ability to perform the most tragic act of loveless despair and commit suicide. If she were to do this, we would have no text whatsoever, as she is narrating past events, and so her fictional status renders her necessarily substandard as a literary heroine.
Through the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta, and the way in which Fiammetta’s account functions on many levels, Boccaccio cements himself as the medieval master of multiple-readings. Boccaccio uses the text as a way in which to explore therapeutic storytelling; something upon which he would place such a high importance in his later Decameron. The description of the text as “the first psychological novel in a modern language” is, indeed, problematic — not least because this description is essentially reductive to the multifaceted nature of the text — yet Fiammetta’s account certainly serves as a tool for better understanding the psychological processes which accompany disorders, such as grief, depression, obsessions, and suicide ideation. Yet what this study has shown is that, aside from being an insight into the psyche of the protagonist; aside from being a declaration of the healing powers of literature, Boccaccio is using the platform of the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta to put forward his feelings regarding the dissemination of any given author’s work. By imbuing Fiammetta with both male and female characteristics — the “masculine” skill of rhetoric and the “feminine” hysteria which accompanies the grief she endures after being abandoned by her lover — her narrative voice becomes almost hermaphroditic. This offers the perfect vehicle for the author to express his own reservations, fears, and opinions regarding the potential mistreatment of his literary corpus; reservations and fears cleverly veiled by Fiammetta’s language when she warns the physical copy of her “picciolo mio libretto” [dear little book of mine] to avoid being held by force, and to learn how to bear mockery with humility. Whilst Fiammetta’s speech at this point may signal that she is again referring to the “rape” she claims to have endured, Boccaccio’s writing — notoriously ambiguous as it is — allows us to read these commands as a reflection on his own anxieties regarding the publication of work, since, after it leaves the author’s hand, he has no control over its reception.
Through the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta, we are led through the psychological processes which govern not only abandoned women, and the grief and rejection they may experience; but we are also shown the psychological processes experienced by authors. It seems apt to use the same term corpus to describe a body of literature and a physical entity, since, as Boccaccio shows, texts are often a mere extension of an author’s being.
Sarah J. Todd is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, where she is writing a thesis entitled ‘The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: Visions, Prophecies, and Revelations in Boccaccio and Petrarch’, which discusses the presence of dream visions within medieval Italian literature. Her research interests include memory, imagination, and dreams; the gendering of narratives; and the material culture of texts and text-production.
Heroides and (Anti-)Heroines: Gendered Discourse in Boccaccio’s Elegia di madonna Fiammetta by Sarah J. Todd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
 For a summary of the argument regarding the dating of the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta, see Carlo Delcorno’s introduction in Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, in which he states that “come di gran parte delle opere giovanili del Boccaccio, non è certa la data di composizione” [as with a good deal of Boccaccio’s earlier works, we cannot be sure of the date of composition], but that the most likely dating is between 1343 and 1344. Carlo Delcorno, ‘Introduzione’, Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, ed. by Carlo Delcorno, in Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, III, 1-21 (p. 1).↩
 Eugenio Giusti, ‘Boccaccio’s Elegia di madonna Fiammetta: First Signs of an Ideological Shift’, in Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism, ed. by Thomas C. Stillinger and F. Regina Psaki (Chapel Hill: Annali d’Italianistica, 2006), pp. 69-82 (p. 69).↩
 For a full analysis of the problems associated with gendered narratives, see Danielle Clarke and Elizabeth Clarke (eds.), This Double Voice: Gendered Writing in Early Modern England (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).↩
 For a comprehensive discussion about the varying forms of Fiammetta in Boccaccio’s works, see especially Janet Levarie Smarr, Boccaccio and Fiammetta: The Narrator as Lover (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); and Victoria Kirkham, ‘Maria a.k.a. Fiammetta: The Men Behind the Women’, in Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism, pp. 29-38.↩
 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta will be taken from the following version: Elegia di madonna Fiammetta, ed. by Carlo Delcorno, in Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, III, 23–189; translations mine.↩
 Suzanne C. Hagedorn,Abandoned Women: Rewriting the Classics in Dante, Boccaccio & Chaucer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), p. 126.↩
 For a detailed argument regarding the inherent ambiguities of Boccaccian texts, see especially Nancy E. F. Minicozzi, ‘Sources of Comedy in Boccaccio’s “Decameron”: The Tale of Frate Cipolla’, Pacific Coast Philology, 25 (1990), 106-115; Emma Campbell, ‘Sexual Poetics and the Politics of Translation in the Tale of Griselda’, Comparative Literature, 55 (2003), 191-216; Robert Hollander, Boccaccio’s Dante and the Shaping Force of Satire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).↩
 Mariangela Causa-Steindler, ‘Introduction’, in Giovanni Boccaccio, The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta, ed. and trans. by Mariangela Causa-Steindler and Thomas Mauch (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. xi-xxvi (p. xvii).↩
 See Smarr, Boccaccio and Fiammetta, in which the author dedicates chapters to the presence of this character in many of Boccaccio’s minor works, alongside a discussion of Fiammetta in the Decameron’s brigata, and selected Rime; see also Kirkham ‘Maria a.k.a. Fiammetta’, in Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism.↩
 It must, however, be mentioned that it is unclear whether Fiammetta’s allusions to her loss of purity at experiencing something “I had never experienced before, but which I had imagined” refer simply to sex or, conversely, to sex in a loving relationship.↩
 For further suggestive references to Fiammetta’s possible ‘impregnation’, see Elegia, 1.8.2-3, in which Fiammetta exclaims that “quanto male per me nel mondo venne sì fatto giorno” [how much harm came into the world that day because of me]. The harm which came into the world, to which she refers here, appears to allude to an illegitimate child and she states that such actions can be “molto più agevolmente biasimare che emendare” [are much more easily regretted than altered], suggesting that she is unable to ‘undo’ the pregnancy. See also Elegia,5.15.2, in which Fiammetta states that she explained her melancholy to her husband as such: “Io li rispondea lo stomaco averne colpa, il quale, non sappiendo io per qual cagione guastatomisi” [I responded that the blame lied with my stomach, which for some unknown reason had gone bad]. Such phrasing may easily be interpreted as the protagonist suffering from nausea gravidarum (morning sickness), typically associated with pregnancy.↩
 Michael A. Calabreses, ‘Feminism and the Packaging of Boccaccio’s Fiammetta’, Italica, 74; 1 (1997), 20-42 ↩
 Thomas Jay Garbaty, ‘Pamphilus, de Amore: An Introduction and Translation’, The Chaucer Review, 2; 2 (1967), pp. 108-34 (p. 108). Carlo Delcorno, in his ‘Introduzione’ to the Elegia, suggests a possible link between these two texts, particularly concerning the naming of the male characters; Carlo Delcorno, ‘Introduzione’, Elegia di madonna Fiammetta, in Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, pp. 1-21 (p. 7).↩
 Renato Barilli, ‘La Retorica nella Narrativa del Boccaccio L’Elegia di madonna Fiammetta’, Quaderni d’italianistica, 6. 2 (1985), 241-48 (p. 245).↩
 See especially Luisa Miglio, Governare l’alfabeto: Donne, Scritture e Libri nel Medioevo (Rome: Viella, 2008), in which Miglio states that, for women “lo spazio riservato ai libri, che non fossero di devozione e preghiera, alla penna, alla carta era poco o nullo e le donne o almeno la stragrande maggioranza di loro, quelle non privilegiato da uno stato sociale di particolare prestigio, erano condannate al silenzio” [very little or no space at all was given to books or writings which did not fulfil a prayer or devotional role, and women – or at least the vast majority of them, those who were not privileged to hold a particularly prestigious social status, were condemned to silence], p. 58.↩
 Smarr, in Boccaccio and Fiammetta: The Narrator as Lover, also comments on the multiple intended audiences addressed by the protagonist, stating ‘there are two different audiences each addressed by one of her roles: Panfilo she hopes to seduce, other women she hopes to want away from enslavement to passion’ (p. 131).↩
 See especially Stephen J. Milner, ‘Coming Together: Consolation and the Rhetoric of Insinuation in Boccaccio’s Decameron’, in The Erotics of Consolation: Desire and Distance in the Late Middle Ages, ed. by Stephen J. Milner and Catherine E. Léglu (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 95-113, in which Milner explores the relationship between suffering and desire, commenting that, through the construction of a vulnerable female audience, Boccaccio is able to pose the question of what it means to be available to minister to women’s pleasures.↩
 The traditional dating of the Corbaccio is widely accepted to be around 1355, although many scholars still argue for a much later dating; see the Introduction to Anthony K. Cassell’s 1975 translation of the text: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Corbaccio, ed. and trans. by Anthony K. Cassell (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), p. xxvi. The text’s protagonist echoes Dante’s call in the Vita nuova, by exclaiming: ‘estimai che molto meno dovesse essere grave la morte che cotal vita; e quella con sommo desiderio cominciai a chiamare’ (I guessed that death would have been much less grievous than this life, and I began to call upon it with the greatest of desires) Corbaccio, ed. by Giorgio Padoan, in Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, 12 vols, ed. by Vittore Branca, (Milan: Mondadori, 1964) V (ii), (1994), pp. 413-614.↩
 Juliana Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbols of Loss in Renaissance Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 7.↩
 Frances Teague, in her article on John Milton’s ‘Of Education’, also coins the term ‘hermaphroditical’ to refer to a text which “is sometimes constructed as male, sometimes female, for an audience that includes both men and women”. Frances Teague, ‘A Voice for Hermaphroditical Education’, in This Double Voice: Gendered Writing in Early Modern England, pp. 249-69 (p.249).↩
 Efrossini Spentzou, Readers and Writers in Ovid’s Heroides: Transgressions of Genre and Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 5. ↩
 Jon Usher, ‘Boccaccio on Readers and Reading’, Heliotropia 1.1 (2003), p. 4 [accessed 26/08/11]; although this article deals primarily with Boccaccio’s Decameron, references are also made to the opere minori.↩
 Smarr, Boccaccio and Fiammetta, p. 158.↩
 For arguments regarding the possible authorial intention of the Corbaccio see especially Robert Hollander, Boccaccio’s Last Fiction ‘Il Corbaccio’ (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), in which Hollander states: ‘I would not consider Boccaccio […] an ironic medieval writer’ (p. 24); whilst the opposing view, namely that of a satirical intention, is argued in the introduction to Anthony K. Cassell’s 1975 translation of the text, wherein Cassell speaks of the ‘Corbaccio’s satirical antifeminist bias’ (p. xviii).↩
 Lorna Hutson, ‘The “Double Voice” of Renaissance Equity and the Literary Voices of Women’, in This Double Voice: Gendered Writing in Early Modern England, ed. by Danielle Clarke and Elizabeth Clarke (London: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 142-63 (p. 143).↩
 Stephanie Lynn Volf, A “medicyne of words”: Women, Prayer, and Healing in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth- Century England (Arizona: Arizona State University, 2008), p. 181.↩