The Decameron: Nastagio Degli Onesti, the penalty of the pure in body

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti I (date not known), tempera on panel, 83 x 138 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The stories told each day in Boccaccio’s Decameron follow a theme appointed by the ‘ruler’ of that day, as they decree when they are crowned with laurels at the end of the previous day’s storytelling. The theme chosen by the queen of the fifth day, Fiammetta, was the adventures of lovers who survived calamities or misfortunes and reached a state of happiness.

The eighth such story concerns the misfortunes of Nastagio degli Onesti, as told by Filomena. This appears to have been instantly successful, and by the early sixteenth century had been painted by both Botticelli and Ghirlandaio.

Nastagio degli Onesti was a young man from an old and noble family in Ravenna, who inherited a huge fortune, then fell in love with the daughter of a more noble family. His love for her was not returned, though, and she was persistently cruel towards him. This caused the young Nastagio so much grief that he even contemplated suicide.

He continued to try to win her over, and in the course of that expended much of his inheritance. Friends and relatives feared for him and his future, and tried to persuade him to leave the city for a while. He was very reluctant, but finally travelled to Classe, which is just three miles away, in May when the weather was fine.

Once there, he wandered off into the local pine woods, thinking as he always did about his cruel love. As he walked in the wood, he heard the screams of a woman in distress. He then caught sight of her running naked towards him. In hot pursuit was a pair of large mastiff dogs, and behind them was a mounted knight brandishing a sword and threatening to kill her.

Nastagio took up a tree branch in her defence, but the knight told him by name to keep out, and let him and his dogs give the sinful woman what she deserved. Nastagio challenged the knight, who dismounted and introduced himself as Guido degli Anastagi. He then explained that he had fallen deeply in love with this woman many years ago, but she too had rejected him cruelly. As a result, Guido had killed himself, and was condemned to eternal punishment for that sin.

The woman had died shortly afterwards, without repenting her cruelty, and she too was condemned to eternal punishment for her sin.

The punishment consisted of Guido having to hunt her down in the woods, kill her with the same sword with which he had committed suicide, then cut her back open and remove her stone cold heart. That and her other organs he then has to feed to his dogs. After a short break, she is magically restored, and his hunt of her has to resume.

Nastagio was horrified by this, stepped back, and watched the dead Guido kill the dead woman with his rapier, and go through the sequence of cutting out her heart and organs. A few moments later, after the ghostly dogs had eaten her organs, the dead woman jumped up and the hunt started again.

When he had recovered from the shock, Nastagio came up with a plan to deal with his own predicament. He summoned his friends and relatives, and agreed to stop trying to woo the woman that he loved on one condition. That was that she and her family should join him in the same place in the pine wood exactly one week later, for a magnificent breakfast banquet.

A week later, all her family were present at the meal in the wood, and Nastagio carefully seated the woman he loved so that she would get a grandstand view of the proceedings. No sooner had the last course been served, than they heard the dead woman’s screams, and she ran right in front of them.

Many of the guests tried to stop Guido from carrying out this punishment, so he explained to them what he had told Nastagio the week before. Eventually the ghostly couple rushed off again, and the guests talked avidly about what they had witnessed. But the person who was most affected by the spectacle was the cruel woman who Nastagio loved, who had perhaps already put herself in the position of the dead woman.

Nastagio’s plan paid off: the woman he loved soon sent him a servant to inform him that she would do anything he desired. She quickly consented to marriage, and they were wedded the following Sunday.

One perhaps unintended consequence of Nastagio’s breakfast demonstration was that, for some time to come, the women of Ravenna were so frightened of what could happen to them, that they were much more favourably responsive to the approaches of men.

Artist not known, The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (c 1450), manuscript copy, BNF MS Italien 63, fol. 186v, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The title page of this story in this illustrated manuscript copy of the Decameron from the fifteenth century features a small reminder of the grim human hunt scene at its head.

This gruesome story and ingenious reversal of conventional Christian values became popular and well-known through the fifteenth century, sufficient for it to be depicted in four tempera panels given on the occasion of the arranged marriage of Gianozzo Pucci and Lucretia Bini in 1483. The couple were particularly fortunate, in that one of those who made the arrangement, and who had this gift made for them, was Lorenzo de’ Medici, ‘the Magnificent’, who was also Botticelli’s patron at the time, and the ruler of the Florentine Republic.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti I (1482-83), tempera on panel, 83 x 138 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The first panel shows two figures of Nastagio, at the left, in the pine wood, with the naked woman running towards him, a mastiff ainking its teeth into her buttock. Behind them, at the right, is Guido, his sword in hand ready to kill the woman when he catches her. In the distance is a coastal landscape intended to locate this near Ravenna, which is close to the Adriatic, although I think that this is idealised rather than representative.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti II (1482-83), tempera on panel, 82 x 138 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Botticelli continues to tell the story using multiplex (‘continuous’) narrative in the second painting. The dead Guido has now caught the dead woman, killed her with his rapier, and with her lying on her face, he is cutting her back open to remove her cold heart. His dogs are already eating her organs at the right, and Nastagio is visibly distressed at the left.

Behind that composite scene is an earlier scene of Guido and his dogs still in pursuit of the woman, which precedes the image of the first painting in the series.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti III (1482-83), tempera on panel, 84 x 142 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In the third painting, Botticelli shows the breakfast banquet a week later, with the dead woman being attacked by Guido’s dogs, and Guido himself about to catch and kill her, in front of Nastagio’s guests.

Nastagio’s love is sitting at the table on the left, from which all the women are rising in distress at the sight, spilling their food in front of them.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti IV (1482-83), tempera on panel, 83 x 142 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The fourth and final panel shows Nastagio’s wedding, the bride and her women sitting to the left, and the men to the right, in formal symmetry. The groom is sat on the other side of the same table as the bride.

Botticelli’s series seems to have been quite celebrated, and not too long afterwards, Ghirlandaio, another Florentine master, was asked to paint not copies, but in the manner of Botticelli’s series. Two have survived, and are now both in the US.

Davide Ghirlandaio (David Bigordi) (1452–1525), Forest Scene from the Tale of Nastagio degli Onesti (after 1483), tempera on wood panel, 69.9 x 134.6 cm, Brooklyn Museum (A. Augustus Healy Fund and Carll H. de Silver Fund), New York, NY. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

Ghirlandaio’s first panel, now in the Brooklyn Museum, is based on Botticelli’s first, with the addition of an extra scene to its multiplex narrative. Up in the right, he adds the scene from Botticelli’s second panel, showing Guido cutting out the dead woman’s heart through her back.

Davide Ghirlandaio (David Bigordi) (1452–1525), Banquet Scene from the Tale of Nastagio degli Onesti (after 1483), tempera on wood panel, 70.2 x 135.9 cm, The Philadelphia Museum of Art (John G. Johnson Collection, 1917), Philadelphia, PA. Courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ghirlandaio’s second panel shows an almost identical breakfast banquet to that in Botticelli’s third panel. This is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I don’t know whether Ghirlandaio’s series extended to a third, completing the story with the marriage feast of Nastagio.

Boccaccio’s strange tale, twisted from source material by Dante, resulted in even more curious paintings. Today we might be only to happy to watch it in a horror movie, but seeing it come to life in a series of panels as a wedding gift? That has to be late Middle Ages.