The Decameron: Temptation of a faithful wife

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo (1889), watercolour and gouache on paper mounted on panel, 72.4 × 102.9 cm, Private collection. Image courtesy of Julian Hartnoll, Pre‑Raphaelite Inc., via Wikimedia Commons.

On the tenth and last day of stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the theme is set by Panfilo, the ‘king of the day’, as those who have performed liberal or munificent deeds in the cause of love, or for other reasons. Emilia is called on to tell the fifth of the day’s stories, which concerns Messer Andsaldo and Madonna Dianora. Messer was a contemporary title for a gentleman who wasn’t quite nobility.

This is set in the town of Udine, in Friuli, which is in the north-east of Italy, not far from the borders with Austria and Slovenia. It is set in January, a time when that part of Italy is frosty and snowy.

Madonna Dianora was the noble and faithful wife of an exceedingly rich man, Gilberto. Another nobleman, Messer Ansaldo, who was renowned for his courtesy, fell deeply in love with Dianora, sending her incessant messages in the hope that she would return his love. Dianora became fed up with this badgering, so decided to set Ansaldo an impossible task.

She gave Ansaldo’s messenger a reply, that she would return his love only if he demonstrated it by providing her with a garden near Udine in which there were plants, trees, and flowers as if it were the month of May, rather than January. If he was unable to do that, then he should desist from troubling her again.

When Ansaldo heard of this demand, he realised that Dianora was trying to be rid of his attentions by setting him an essentially impossible task. However, making enquiries he located a magician who said that he could pull this off, provided that Ansaldo would pay him a great price. Ansaldo agreed, and waited for it all to happen.

The weather grew bitterly cold at the start of January, but the magician transformed a meadow next to Udine into a miraculous garden, with trees in full leaf, abundant vegetation, flowers, and rich fruit – all amid the surrounding snow. Ansaldo invited Dianora to visit, reminding her of the pledge that she had made.

Dianora had already heard reports of this enchanted garden, and went to visit it in the company of other ladies.

As far as I know, there are only two paintings showing the enchanted garden of Messer Ansaldo, the first by Marie Spartali Stillman, and the second painted over twenty-five years later by John William Waterhouse, shortly before he died.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo (1889), watercolour and gouache on paper mounted on panel, 72.4 × 102.9 cm, Private collection. Image courtesy of Julian Hartnoll, Pre‑Raphaelite Inc., via Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Spartali Stillman’s earlier The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo (1889) condenses the story slightly to include both Dianora’s viewing of the garden in company, and her subsequent meeting with Ansaldo. Surrounded by his enchanted blooming garden, and with snow on the ground outside, Ansaldo (at the right) is welcoming Dianora (just right of centre) and the other ladies to see. Dianora is torn between her honour as a married woman, and her promise.

Stillman painted this when in London, and exhibited it at the New Gallery later in 1889 with a written explanation of the scene. Failing to sell it in the UK, she took it with her to the USA in 1900, where it was bought in Boston by a distant relative of her husband. The painting then disappeared until its re-discovery in the 1980s.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Enchanted Garden (1916-17), oil on canvas, 115.5 x 160 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse’s The Enchanted Garden was painted at the end of his career, between 1916-17. Although it shows influence from Stillman’s painting, which he may well have seen over twenty-five years before when it was hanging in the New Gallery, and both share a very similar look, their composition and details are quite different.

Ansaldo is again at the right, and Dianora on the left, with her ladies marvelling at the garden between them. Dianora doesn’t look in despair by any means, just puzzled and slightly fearful of consequences.

When Dianora had confirmed that Ansaldo had achieved the impossible, she was thrown into the depths of despair, realising that she had to honour her promise. At first her husband was unable to discover what was the matter, but eventually she confessed the full story to him. He was angry, but told her that her errors were from the purest of motives. He told her to go to Messer Ansaldo and do everything she could to get out of her obligation. However, if she couldn’t escape it, she could give him her body, but not her heart.

Dianora burst into tears at this, but the next morning at dawn, followed her husband’s instructions and went to Ansaldo.

Messer Ansaldo asked her why she had come, and she explained that it wasn’t out of love, but her obligation to stick to her word, and that her husband had told her to do so.

Ansaldo told her that he never intended to hurt her or harm her reputation, and that he would treat her as a sister, not a lover. Dianora was delighted, and returned to her husband full of praise for Ansaldo’s manners. Her husband Gilberto and Messer Ansaldo became lifelong friends as a result.

Even the magician waived his fee, and despite Ansaldo’s every attempt to get him to take his money, the magician insisted that he too had to be generous in the circumstances.

Thereafter, Messer Ansaldo got over his love for Dianora, which he replaced with a deep and proper affection.