The Decameron: The hundred and first story

Pierre Hubert Subleyras (1699–1749), Brother Philippe's Geese (c 1745), oil on canvas, 29.5 x 21.9 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It’s generally held that Boccaccio’s Decameron consists of a hundred stories told ten each day for a total of ten days. But there’s a bonus, the hundred and first story which is buried in Filostrato’s introduction to the fourth day. In some ways, this is the best known of all the stories in the Decameron as it has made its way into the French language, through the intermediate of one of La Fontaine’s fables. It’s generally known as Brother Philippe’s Geese.

Filostrato claims that this is not a complete story, but only part of one.

Filippo Balducci was a good man, knowledgeable and deeply in love with his wife, who was equally in love with him. Sadly, she died young, when their only child, a son, was but two years old. Filippo was broken by this loss, and decided to withdraw from life to devote his remaining years to the service of God.

He therefore gave all his possessions to charity, and went to live in a cave on the slopes of Mount Asinaio with his young son. For many years, he kept his son in the cave, seeing only the walls around him, their meagre possessions, and his father. From time to time, Filippo travelled alone down to the city of Florence, where generous people gave him the small things that he needed to live, but his son always remained in their cave.

When Filippo’s son reached the age of eighteen, and his father was preparing to travel down to Florence again, the son asked his father if he could accompany him. He argued that the time would come when his father was no longer able to undertake the journey, so it was important that the younger man learned what to do.

Filippo agreed, and the two went down to the city together.

The son had never seen another living thing apart from his father, and was taken aback when he saw the crowded buildings and bustle of Florence. He repeatedly asked his father about the new things which he saw, and what each was called.

The pair then came across a group of beautiful young ladies who had just been to a wedding. The son asked his father what they were, but Filippo just told him to keep looking at the ground, as they were evil. His son was not content with that, and asked his father again what they were called. At a loss for words, Filippo said that they were goslings.

The son immediately lost interest in everything else in the city, and asked his father to get him one of those ‘goslings’. Filippo told him again that they were evil, to which his son said that he couldn’t see any evil in them, and pleaded again for them to take a gosling back so that he could pop things in its bill.

Filippo told his son that their bills are not where the son might think, and that they required a special diet – a very ribald remark which abruptly terminated Filostrato’s story.

La Fontaine’s fable, the first in his second book, is a faithful retelling of this abbreviated story, but omits the double entendre of the punchline, which is perhaps just as well given his readership when it was first published in 1668. As those fables became popular throughout France and Europe, they attracted the attention of artists, and this has been painted at least thrice now.

François Boucher (1703-1770), Brother Philippe’s Geese (c 1720-28), gouache, 21 x 42 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon, Besançon, France. The Athenaeum.

The first painting is this small gouache by François Boucher from about 1720-28, with its marked contrast in the dress between the reclusive pair and the goslings or geese.

Nicolas Lancret (1690–1743), Brother Philippe’s Geese (c 1736), oil on copper, 27..3 x 35.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Purchase, Walter and Leonore Annenberg and The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 2004), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Then in about 1736, Nicolas Lancret painted it in oil on copper, as one of a pair, among a larger group of his paintings of La Fontaine’s fables. The father is shown here dressed as a monk, which is more in keeping with La Fontaine’s account than Boccaccio’s original, but the facial expressions are marvellous, particularly that of the son.

Artist not known, Scene from Brother Philippe’s Geese (1745), Chinese painted porcelain plate, 22.9 cm diam, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Friends of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Gifts, 2016), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That became so popular that it was reproduced in prints, such as those by Nicolas de Larmessin (1684–1755) in which the image is naturally reversed, and here (not reversed) on a porcelain plate exported from China in 1745.

Pierre Hubert Subleyras (1699–1749), Brother Philippe’s Geese (c 1745), oil on canvas, 29.5 x 21.9 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

At the same time, Pierre Hubert Subleyras painted a different composition telling the story, short of its punchline of course. He restores a thoroughly rustic appearance to the father and son, but surprisingly the young man is not staring in wonder at the goslings or geese.

Artist not known, Brother Philippe’s Geese (date not known), hand-coloured etching and engraving, dimensions not known, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

And here’s an undated hand-coloured print apparently based on another composition altogether.

The phrase Brother Philippe’s geese, which in modern English might be best rendered as Philip’s birds, then entered French idiom as a reference to young and pretty women. Abbreviated further to geese, its origins have often been misunderstood as being derogatory. It certainly seems to have been well-understood by Paul Gauguin.

When Gauguin stayed at Le Pouldu in Brittany from 1889, he and others were accommodated by Marie Henry in her inn. Gauguin and his colleagues decorated the interior for her with their paintings. In 1893, when Marie Henry rented the building out, she removed as much as possible of the paintings which had been made there by Gauguin and others. But some were left behind. Over the years, they were covered with wallpaper and vanished, until rediscovered in 1924.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), The Goose (1889), tempera on plaster, 53 x 72 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper / Kemper, mirdi an Arzoù-Kaer, Quimper, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Among them is this wonderful painting of a goose, intended as a complement to Marie Henry, in its allusion to the fable of La Fontaine, and its original telling as the hundred and first story in Boccaccio’s Decameron.