The last story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and the final article in this series, is the tenth of the tenth day, told by Dioneo. For the modern reader, it is a strange conclusion which praises submission and obedience in marriage. It is a re-telling of the folk story of Griselda, which was taken up by Chaucer in the Clerk’s Tale, by Charles Perrault in his stories in the seventeenth century, and by many others even into the twentieth century – as far as I can see, exclusively told by men.
Dioneo does condemn Griselda’s husband for his “senseless brutality”, but the persistence of this folk tale is ominous.
Gualtieri inherited the title of Marquis of Saluzzo, and was soon being urged to marry so that he in turn would have an heir. He resisted, but had recently noticed a beautiful young girl from a neighbouring village, so decided to marry her. His friends were delighted, and arranged a splendid wedding for the pair of them.
Henry Steimer’s illustration for an edition of the stories of Charles Perrault from the early twentieth century shows Griselda spinning by hand by the side of a river, as Gualtieri watches from his horse. Steimer was also an early cartoonist.
Early on the day of the wedding, Gualtieri rode forth with all those friends to fetch his bride Griselda. When he had met her father and confirmed with his bride that she would always try to please him, would never be upset by anything he said or did, and would obey him, Gualtieri proceeded with the ceremony. He then took Griselda outside, stripped her naked, and had her dressed in her new clothes and shoes, with a crown upon her head.
Gualtieri and Griselda were married there, and went back to celebrate and feast in his house.
Between 1445-50, Francesco Pesellino painted panels telling the story of Griselda. This is a composite, using multiplex narrative, in which Gualtieri prepares to leave his house, at the left, rides to Griselda’s (centre), where he strips her naked prior to dressing her in fine clothes and marrying her (right).
Mary Eliza Haweis’ illustration of Griselda’s Marriage from 1882 was made for her book Chaucer for Children, so avoids its full detail.
Griselda was transformed by her marriage, and proved a dutiful and obedient wife, winning the hearts of all those who knew her. Shortly, she became pregnant, and was duly delivered of a daughter. Following this, her husband started to make her life a misery. He first pretended to be angry, and accused her of falling to a lowly condition now that she had a child. She accepted his rebukes, and told him that she would be content with whatever he decided to do to her.
Gualtieri then instructed one of his servants to go to his wife and take their daughter away and murder her. Griselda was again entirely compliant, accepting her husband’s will. In fact he didn’t have the infant killed, but spirited her away to be brought up by relatives elsewhere.
Mary Eliza Haweis’ illustration shows Griselda’s Sorrow (1882) in very stoical terms.
Griselda again fell pregnant, this time giving birth to a boy. Her husband repeated his verbal abuse of her afterwards, then had the baby taken away to be ‘killed’ (as far as Griselda was told), when in fact the child was sent away to the same relatives.
Some years later, Gualtieri decided to put Griselda to a final test. He told others that he could no longer stand his wife, and would obtain Papal dispensation to divorce her so that he could marry another. Griselda was filled with despair at this, as she would have to return to her father and work for him as a shepherdess again, but she did not voice those thoughts, only prepared herself for what seemed inevitable.
Gualtieri arranged for forged letters from Rome to support his claim that he had been granted dispensation for a divorce. Griselda accepted her distressing situation, returned her wedding ring, and was cast out of Gualtieri’s house barefoot, wearing nothing but a shift.
Gualtieri then announced that he would be marrying the daughter of a Count. He sent for Griselda, and told her to put his house in order ready for her to arrive for their wedding. She did so wearing her coarse woollen clothes from the country, cleaning all the rooms and making them ready. She then sent out invitations to all the ladies in the area to the marriage feast, and on the appointed day of the wedding welcomed them all.
Gualtieri arranged for Griselda’s children, then flourishing at the ages of twelve and six, to be brought to his house. As Griselda was welcoming guests to the wedding, Gualtieri decided that the time had come to reveal the truth to her, and to stop making her suffer. He told her what he had done, introduced their children to her, embraced and kissed Griselda, who was weeping with joy.
The ladies who had been invited to the sham wedding took Griselda away and dressed her up as the queen that she deserved. Gualtieri ensured that his father-in-law was set up in comfort. And Gualtieri and Griselda lived happily ever after.
The following day, the ten young fugitives from the plague in Florence returned to the city.
The finest series of paintings showing this story are the Spalliera Panels in London’s National Gallery, painted in 1494.
The first appears to have been inspired by Pesellino’s earlier panels, and tells the story of Gualtieri and Griselda’s wedding, again using multiplex narrative. At the far left, Gualtieri is hunting prior to his decision to marry. He then sets out on horseback to ride to Griselda’s house. At the right, Griselda is shown naked, as she is just about to be dressed in her fine clothing. In the centre the couple are married.
The second panel is set in the grander surroundings of Gualtieri’s house. At the left edge, Griselda’s infant is taken from her apparently to be killed. In the centre, she is shown the forged Papal dispensation dissolving her marriage, then to the right she is removing her fine clothes prior to leaving Gualtieri’s house (detail below). At the far right she is barefoot, wearing just her shift, with her father’s house in the background.
The final panel shows several scenes from the end of the story. At the right edge, Gualtieri tells Griselda (now dressed in black) to prepare his house for the wedding, which she does by sweeping it, as shown at the left edge. Between those is the wedding feast: at the right, Griselda, still in black, talks with Gualtieri as he sits at the table. At the left end of the table, Griselda and Gualtieri embrace and kiss in reconciliation.
The next time that I visit the National Gallery, I will make a point of finding these superb narrative paintings.