View of Naples painted 1472-3, Tavola Strozzi, Museo di San Martino.
Charmaine Lee (Salerno)


In the Decameron (III, 6, 4) Boccaccio describes Naples as “a very ancient city and as pleasant as any city in Italy, maybe more so”. He spent the rest of his life attempting to secure a position there, although his views gradually became less favourable, echoing Petrarch’s remarks in his letters on the decadence of Naples caused by the passage from the “glorious” reign of Robert the Wise to the chaos under his granddaughter Joanna I. Indeed Joanna’s succession to the Kingdom of Naples in 1343 marked the beginning of a dynastic crisis which was only to end with the accession of Alfonso of Aragon in 1442. This political turmoil, acted out against the background of the Great Schism, is reflected in the culture and literature of the time.

Under Robert the Wise disciplines such as law, science (especially medecine) and theology flourished, as well as some Humanistic studies mainly encouraged by Petrarch’s presence in Naples in 1341 and 1343. However, many of these early Humanists left Naples for Avignon or Rome after the assassination of Joanna’s husband Andrew of Hungary in 1345 and the ensuing invasion by his brother Louis the Great. Joanna’s reign thus opened the way for a return to the French courtly culture preferred by the early Angevin monarchs. Manuscripts of French chivalric romances and historical compilations continued to be copied and illuminated and when Louis of Taranto, Joanna’s second husband, founded the Order of the Holy Spirit in 1352 he had the Statutes written in French, probably by the all-powerful Grand Seneschal, Niccolò Acciaiuoli, a Florentine. French, however, slowly ceased to be used by Neapolitans and would only return as a language of prestige during the different incursions by the house of Valois-Anjou, though leaving little trace in the local literature. Rather the Neapolitan exiles in Avignon helped promote Humanism in France.

Native Neapolitans, meanwhile, were turning to the local vernacular as a means of expression, albeit heavily influenced by Tuscan. Joanna I is considered the first ‘native’ queen and the letters from her chancery testify to the use of Neapolitan for official purposes. Despite the breakdown of literary patronage under the Anjou-Durazzo monarchs some vernacular literature was produced: lyric poetry inspired by Petrarch, as well as the wider Tuscan tradition; popular forms of poetry, which seem to have had more success judging by their manuscript tradition; prose works that bear witness to the continued interest in chivalric romance and history, such as the Cronaca di Partenope, the first Neapolitan text to deal with the legends of Virgil the necromancer and protector of the city.

On the whole Naples does not stand out as an active literary centre in this period as it would later under the Aragonese kings, but it is rather an important “crossroads of culture”, receiving and passing on different trends from east to west, from south to north, as exemplified, for instance, by the influence of French and Italian art in Hungary or, as said before, the role of Neapolitan exiles in the development of Humanism in France, or even the legend of Queen Joanna in far-flung Sweden. 

To return to where we began, Boccaccio is a good example of the part played by Neapolitan culture at the time, both for what he brought to Naples and for what he took back to Florence. The Decameron (1349-51) would be inconceivable without the background of French literature he acquired in Naples, but several of his later works are also linked to the city: De mulieribus claris (1361-62) is dedicated to Andreina Acciaiuoli, Niccolò’s sister, and De Casibus to Mainardo Cavalcanti; the Corbaccio and the Genealogia deorum gentilium use material copied in his Zibaldoni while in Naples. At the same time Boccaccio probably introduced Dante studies to Naples and the study of Greek to Florence, as well as many classical manuscripts, famously removed from the library at Montecassino during his visits there. Thus if literature from this period in Angevin Naples appears fragmentary and ‘local’, the city’s lasting legacy must be sought in its wider impact on Italian and European culture.