Boccaccio’s Jerusalem parody: swindlers, fakes, and fools

3 Sep

This blog has so far featured images, simply because it’s easier to display and then write about an image rather than a text. But the Holy Land was remembered, remediated and represented in texts, and here I want to consider a funny parody, by Giovanni Boccaccio (d. 1375), one of the most important medieval Italian poets (and one of Chaucer’s major sources).

Boccaccio’s Decameron is a collection of 100 tales told over 10 days, set in a frame (not unlike The Canterbury Tales), of a group of young Florentine men and women fleeing the plague. One story (Day VI, Novel X) contains an amusing parody of the Jerusalem pilgrimage, and shows how travel to Holy Land could offer rich pickings for comedy.

The story (available here in the original Italian and here in a rather formal old-fashioned English translation) involves a corrupt, silly friar called Frate Cippolla (his name is a bit like being called Brother Onions). He claims to have a relic – a feather left behind by the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation – which he touts around Italian towns in order to raise money as alms. However, some lads play a trick on him, and replace his feather with some coals. Smooth-talking Frate Cippolla says that these coals are, in fact, the coals on which St Lawrence was roasted!

Frate Cippolla describes a journey he went on, through the Mediterranean and then back to the Holy Land, and his account subtly shows the potential corruption of the Jerusalem pilgrimage in the later Middle Ages.

First, having set off from Venice, he goes the wrong way, first to Parione in Rome and then to Sardinia: travelling west rather than east, hinting at illicit enterprises. He then claims to have gone through the Bosphorus (the straits of St George or Giorgio) and on to places called ‘Truffia’ and ‘Buffia’ – these are nonsense places, and suggest swindling (It. truffa, fraud) and silliness (It. buffa, comic). He then claims, amongst other things, to have seen some minor ‘wonders’ (water running downwards!) and some ridiculous marvels (flying prune-hooks!). This is a parody of medieval travel literature, and the medieval taste for wonder, as seen in popular texts like those by Pliny, Marco Polo, and John Mandeville.

Frate Cippolla then says that, in the East, he could not find what he was looking for – again a hint of his ignoble desires, as all travel was supposed to be fixed on the telos or end-point of Jerusalem, not the curiositas of wanton wandering. So he turns to Jerusalem.

Having complained about the cost of bread there (too expensive in summer, and hot bread is unavailable), he says, ridiculously, that he found ‘Nonmiblasmetesvoipiace’, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. This is again a nonsense name, signalling the fiction and fantasy that could be invested in ‘holy’ pilgrimage. Then follows a hilarious litany of unimpressive or impossible relics: ‘the finger of the Holy Spirit’, a Seraph’s tuft, a Cherub’s nail, and some clothing, ‘some of the rays of the star that appeared to the Magi in the East’, St Michael’s sweat, and so on. And, of course, the coals on which St Lawrence was roasted.

Frate Cippolla is mocking his gullible audience here, whose appetite for relics and Eastern wonders allows him to get away with it. Not unlike Chaucer’s brilliant Pardoner’s Tale, Boccaccio’s story is an indictment of the belief in, and worship of, relics. But it’s also a critique of fantasies of Jerusalem – Frate Cippolla, and Boccaccio, suggest that people are too ready to believe in the Earthly Jerusalem, the bits and pieces of sacred archaeology, not the Heavenly Jerusalem.

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