Out of the woods?

This is a slightly shortened version of a paper given as introductory talk on occasion of a celebration of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 700th birthday, organised by Dr Paola Nasti (Department of Modern Languages and European Studies).

Boccaccio’s Bucolicum carmen 5: ‘Silva cadens’ (‘Falling Wood’)

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Bucolicum carmen is a collection of sixteen poems, dating (mostly) to the third quarter of the Trecento – dark and full of allegories. In a number of ways, these poems can be related to Boccaccio’s own experiences and beliefs, in the best tradition of Dante, one of Boccaccio’s main influences here and elsewhere.

Poem 5, entitled Silva cadens, ‘Falling Wood’, is among the darker pieces of this collection. In the best tradition of bucolic poetry, this poem is a dialogue of two pastoral types, Caliopus and Pamphylus. Caliopus is the main interlocutor in this hexametric poem – a poem of 134 lines – and the majority of his lines report a lamento of a female, a female called Calcidia, who is described as Pamphylus’ amores. At line 3, she is represented as crying over a wretched forest.

Before that, however, the poem’s very opening lines –

Pamphyle, tu placidos tecum meditaris amores
Calcidie, viridi recubans in gramine solus

– constitute an almost verbatim allusion to, and invocation of, the iconic opening lines of Vergil’s first Eclogue:

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi,
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena.

This makes it fairly safe to assume that Boccaccio is up to something powerful in his text, invoking such a prominent authority.

Vergil’s first Eclogue is anything but a cheerful text, however: it is a dialogue between Meliboeus and Tityrus, two shepherds who suffered (in their own, individual ways) from the historical events, events that managed to creep from the cruel world of real politics and hard history into the idyllic pastoral world.

Whether or not one would like to attempt an allegorical reading of Vergil, it is striking that Meliboeus complains about his being denied access to his accustomed pastures, whereas Tityrus suggests that, having met a god-like young man in the big city, he is better off now – a story that resembles Vergil’s own experiences during the reign of Augustus, including the confiscation of his estate.

The allegorical reading was well-known from Late Antiquity onwards, and Boccaccio himself did not only know about this, but makes it very clear in a letter to Fra Martino da Signa (around 1374) that his Bucolicum 5 is to be taken allegorical as well. In that respect, an invocation of Vergil is bad news, for the first Eclogue is not a cheerful start and introduction to a world that should be carefree and jolly, a world where people can live in denial of the cruelties of city life.

But Boccaccio goes further than that. A lot further, in fact.

The poem is called Silva cadens, ‘Falling Wood’ – a title that is interesting for a number of reasons. Woods and forests, while part of the repertoire of loca amoena in ancient poetics, tend to be threatening and worrying in medieval literature . Boccaccio, however, is different – his allegorical wood – the dwelling place for his two interlocutors – is described as an analogy for the Kingdom of Naples.

Vergil’s slightly more cheerful shepherd, the one who lives under the tutelage of that god-like iuvenis, is called Tityrus – and there is a Tityrus (or, in fact: Tytirus) mentioned in Boccaccio, too, around lines 56 ff., to be precise.

Boccaccio’s Tityrus has long been explained as an allegory for Robert d’Angiò, king of Naples until 1343, the very ruler of Naples during Boccaccio’s youth.

And this is where things get interesting.

A Golden Age

Tytirus-Robert is described as follows in lines 57 ff.:

(…) Ast Tytirus ille est
qui primus pecori leges nemorique salubres
carmine cantavit, quarum nec clarior usquam
copia docta fuit legum nec prisca tulere    60
secula maiores, auro dum floruit etas
sanguine, si veri quicquam primeva vetustas
insculptum liquit fagis vel robore duro.

This Tityrus first sang laws to the sheep and the woods, salubrious laws, in fact, of copious learning and more outstanding than whatever was produced in the olden days. Boccaccio lets his interlocutor Caliopus use the phrase auro dum floruit etas / sangine, ‘while the age was flourishing from golden life-blood’ – just to drive home his point: the era of Tityrus was a golden age of justice, of song, of outstanding beauty, a golden age for the wood (i. e. the kingdom of Naples) and the woodland creatures.

The depiction of a Golden Age serves two main purposes: the first purpose of it is the obvious invocation of yet another Eclogue of Vergil’s – this time it is the fourth Eclogue, which is a post festum prophecy of the birth of Augustus (in its allegorical reading, anyway), announcing a Golden Age to come: Vergil’s fourth Eclogue is a bright text, full of hope and promise.

This heightens the position of Tytirus-Robert even further. Boccaccio, in turn, and this leads on to the second purpose, is that commonly Golden Ages, times of primordial, simplistic, idealised beauty in which everything just happens of its own accord, are commonly invoked when things are no longer quite as pleasant and desirable.

That things had gone wrong horribly for the poetic woods of Boccaccio’s had already become apparent at line 3. Pamphylus, the lover, after some banter, asks Caliopus to render what his Calcidia said:

Heu michi! quid vivo? iam tacte fulmine pinus,
et pecudes prostrasse canes, noctisque per umbram
ex septis ululare lupos audisse, nefandum 15
prodigium dederant. Sed dic, quas, obsecro, voces
illa dabat deflens? Tua presto stat tibi merces.

Bad omina all over – trees hit by lightning, dogs killing farm animals, howling wolves. So what can possibly go wrong…?

Caliopus’ main part opens at line 24, suggesting that Pamphylus’ love invoked the Fauns and Nymphs in vain, hitting herself in pain and grief, residing at the shore of the Bay of Naples (in litore … / Parthenopes), with a broken voice. What follows then is a fantastically detailed ekphrasis of  the allegorical woods. They are represented as a true locus amoenus, as a space of outstanding beauty, full of love, full of colourful, exciting wildlife and plants, truly second to none in Italy – even lions lived there (lines 47 f.), :

Nec fuit Ytalie que ferret silva leones
hanc preter. (…)

Following the ekphrasis, Boccaccio introduces Tytirus-Robert, whom we already encountered, as the ruler of the Golden Age. The female, in the reported speech reflects on her vivid memories of that time, reaching its high point at lines 67 f., where song and dance prevails – a high point from which things can only decline, a high point at the precise arithmetic middle of the poem, in fact.


The high point is a turning point, for things to get worse. They do get worse. A lot worse:

(…) Fortuna quidem, quos ante fovebat  75
leta nimis, pavidos secum revoluta fatigat.

Fate, previously smiling on this forest, is beginning to turn:

Plangite, silvani veteres, heu! plangite mecum.
Delapse quercus, grandes cecidere cupressus,
esculus exarsit summissis undique flammis,
pinus nulla sedet, virides albescere lauros,   80
heu! video, et bicolor passim iacet undique mirtus;
aret et omne solum pallens, arbustaque nuda
frondibus in nichilum tendunt. (…)

Plangite, the ancient gesture of beating one’s chest in mourning introduces the mourning for a forest that cannot be saved: the trees are falling, the woods are ablaze, everything is about to decay, to die, to change its previous colour.

In the following passage, the woodland creatures – the birds – are fleeing.

How is this deserved?

Quod meritum? quod triste nefas? quod crimen avitum
vel fortasse tuum potuit tot superis iras
iniecisse tua cum clade? (…)  90

Was there a sin, a nefas? Or a crime, crimen? What guilt has angered the gods and provoked this fire – a fire that is devastating, not purifying like a purgatory? What god can allow for this to happen, who could unleash such a hellish scenario?

What Boccaccio describes in the following line is an apocalyptic landscape, the remains of what used to be a locus amoenus, hit by a hellfire unleashed for no comprehensible reason, a fire that brought devastation and death to what used to be a place of outstanding beauty:

Omne decus periit, luctusque laborque supersunt.  115
Plangite, silvani veteres, heu! plangite mecum.
Silva decus nostrum periit, pereamus et ipsi.

Everything is lost, the forest has died, and everyone else is bound to die as well – time to start mourning.

The remaining few bits offer neither true hope nor true consolation nor, in fact, what would be most needed: an explanation for what has caused this poetic nightmare, the destruction of the silva by primordial forces, leaving behind nothing but dispair.

An Allegory – For What?

It is easy to follow the allegorical reading, proposed by Boccaccio himself, seeing this as a comment on the troubled times that followed the reign of King Robert. But perhaps we can give Boccaccio somewhat more credit than that, not just seeing him as a poet who barely conceals historical events behind an allegory.

Boccaccio’s silva is an unusual place, as it is non-threatening. It is a place full of life and creativity, and it is a place that is well looked-after by its lawgiver Tytirus, who brought about a Golden Age. Why does the Golden Age not last, why does it not out-last the age of Tytirus? It may be too easy to blame ominous, hellish forces that come out of nowhere, however prodigious those times were. Yes, hell had opened its gates – that much we understand. But why?

The most conspicuous absence in Boccaccio’s Bucolicum carmen 5 is that of an explanation for what has happened – the question does get asked, as was seen, but it does not find an answer.

This may suggest: perhaps the explanation is less important than one would like to think. Does it matter why the fury of Orcus has been unleashed? Could the real question be something else?

Perhaps it is worth asking a different question: what if the problem is not the impact of hellish forces upon a system that once was great and full of life, but the system’s utter incapability to cope with those destructive forces’ impact? How does historical analysis of how things went wrong, and why, help the misery of present, post-apocalyptic times?

The deeper truth is: this wood, this forest of creativity and beauty and justice, was not capable of defending itself, unable to recognise the need to protect itself against outside forces designed to obliterate it and do lasting, devastating damage. The birds flew away, the caves of the shepherds became derelict, everything fell into oblivion:

(…) abiere volucres
antraque pastorum video deiecta, recessus
incultos, muscoque putri pallescere fontes 85
et nitidos rivos turpi sordescere limo,
ac circum ripas calamos crevisse palustres.

What stands out from those lines is, that the sole response that this system had to the impact of destructive forces, was abandon, giving up. As is well-known, wood fires, however devastating, mean a lot of potential, too, for future well-being and prosperity – but here the response is giving-up, after not fighting back in the first instance: not even an attempt to contain the damage has been made.

Is this, perchance, the true lesson that Boccaccio wanted us to take away from this extraordinary poem?

Is there a lesson in it for other landscapes, metaphorical landscapes that we are aware of today, landscapes on fire, fire wrought upon us by hellish forces from all sides?

Would we give up cultivating these landscapes as well, defenseless, without a fight?

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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2 Responses to Out of the woods?

  1. paola nasti says:

    I was grateful to Peter for his illuminating, touching and learned talk at our student-event last night. Although our students do not read Latin they understood what Peter’s comments meant. They had read Boccaccio’s words on a real disaster: his most famous description of the black plague that killed almost half of Europe’s population in 1348. As in Carmen 5, what strikes us is not only the incredible precision with which Boccaccio was able to document the deadly events, but also, and perhaps most importantly, the inability of human communities and societies to react in with courage, solidarity and respect for what is most human. Boccaccio describes a world populated by men and women of little moral fibre. And today when we are mourning the death of moral man like Mandiba, we must not forget that Boccaccio’s warning is ageless. You must fight against the forces that threaten our woods, and those are the forces that, like a famous italian writer of the holocaust said, push us to forget what makes us forget ‘what is a man’.


  2. paola nasti says:

    errata corrige: push us to forget what ‘what is a man’


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