Giovanni Boccaccio
The Downfall of the Famous

Translated by Louis B. Hall
with New Notes and Bibliography

Seventeenth-Century News/Neo-Latin News


Seventeenth-Century News/Neo-Latin News 77.3–4 (Fall-Winter 2019): 211

Presented here is a reprint of Louis Brewer Hall’s 1965 abridged translation of De casibus virorum illustrium by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). Today, of course, Boccaccio is known primarily as the author of the Decameron, but for two centuries after the completion of The Downfall around 1355, his reputation rested on his scholarly works in Latin. Like his friend Petrarch, Boccaccio’s work uses elements that we tend to label ‘medieval’ today, like the dream vision and a strong moralizing thrust, but these elements survived into Neo-Latin literature as well.

The Downfall presents over ninety biographies of famous men and women in nine books. The biographies begin with Adam and Eve and extend through people that Boccaccio knew from the court in Naples, but his primary examples were famous Romans. His main theme was that there is one moral principle governing the universe, that license and sin always end in punishment, even for the high and mighty. Appius Claudius’s efforts to seduce Virginia led to his downfall, and Mark Antony was a victim of feminine allure. There were defenses against vice and its ultimate punishment, among which were voluntary poverty and the country life as an alternative to urban corruption. Marcus Regulus, who sacrificed himself to the Carthaginians during the first Punic War, serves as one of Boccaccio’s positive examples. Boccaccio’s approach to history as a guide to virtue continued to prevail through humanist historiography, but he coupled it with a sophistication in the use of sources that set him apart from his medieval predecessors.

One might wonder initially about the need to reprint a transla- tion that is now more than fifty years old and not complete, especially since it is not difficult to get access to the 1965 edition. The answer, I think, is that Hall’s translation has become a classic in its own right and that we do not yet have an English translation of the complete work. The reprint also contains numerous historical, biographical, interpretive, and bibliographical notes that rest on scholarly advances of the last fifty years. This edition should therefore replace the original one, at least until someone publishes a complete translation.

— Craig Kallendorf, Texas A&M University





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