Medieval Studies The Italian Novella
Christopher Nissen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0215


The medieval Italian novella flourished from the late 13th through the 14th and early 15th centuries, primarily in Tuscany. This eclectic genre, generally written in prose but occasionally in verse, grew out of the rich tradition of medieval short narrative forms (narratio brevis), which included vernacular renderings of Latin exempla, retellings of the ancient Greek Milesian tales, anecdotes, fables, saints’ lives, Provençal vidas and novas, Old French lais, contes, and fabliaux, etc. To some extent, the structure and content of the novella reveals a descent from narrative traditions that tend to be more oral than literary, so that the act of oral retelling is often alluded to as a source for a narrative or as an intrinsic element of a novella plot. Moralistic tales and collections of tales of Asian origin, including The Seven Wise Masters (The Book of the Seven Sages), Barlaam and Josaphat, and The Tales of Kalila and Dimna, circulated in Italy in Latin or Italian versions during the 13th century and had considerable influence on the Italian novella, especially in its frequent adoption of the structure of the frame story (cornice) for the novella collection (novelliere). Other influences include episodes of romance; vernacular chronicles; Latin exempla collections, such as Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina clericalis; Bible stories; and versions of the narratives of Aesop, Apuleius, or Petronius. All of these traditions were absorbed into the late-13th-century urban environment of Tuscany, where both literature and the visual arts reflected a new interest in mimetic realism. Whereas the exemplum and other types of moralistic narratives tend to emphasize a timeless, universal perspective, the Italian novella is more likely to reflect the unique, lived experience of specific individuals. Out of this often arises a certain ambivalence with respect to moral norms, as opposed to a sententious mode of expression that had been totally defined by them. This new aesthetic and ideological vision takes its first grand form in the anonymous Libro di novelle et di bel parlar gentile, better known as the Novellino (late 13th century), and reaches its culmination in the Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1350), one of the master works of Western literature. The late medieval epigoni or followers of Boccaccio, such authors as Ser Giovanni Fiorentino (late 14th century), Franco Sacchetti (b. c. 1332–d. 1400), Giovanni Sercambi (b. 1348–d. 1424), Simone de’ Prodenzani (b. c. 1355–d. c. 1440), Giovanni Gherardi da Prato (b. c. 1367d.–d. c. 1446), and the seemingly apocryphal Pseudo Gentile Sermini (flourished c. 1424) continued the tradition of the late Gothic Italian novella collection (il novelliere tardogotico) into the first decades of the 15th century, even if they did not always share Boccaccio’s social or artistic vision. The genre, especially in the form bequeathed to it by Boccaccio, may be regarded as one of the principal forerunners of the modern short story in Western literature. The medieval Italian novella influenced many later writers, among them Shakespeare.

General Overviews

Studies of the medieval Italian novella commonly center on the literary inspirations or influences of the Decameron, the acknowledged masterwork of the genre, and sometimes use the terms novelle, o favole, o parabole, o istorie (novellas, or fables, or parables, or histories) that Boccaccio applied to his short narratives as a point of departure for an analysis of the genre’s origins and influences, as is evident in Borlenghi 1958 and Albanese, et al. 2000. Theories of the origin of the novella have been treated extensively, often as a means of evaluating the revolution wrought by Boccaccio in a genre that was generally ignored by literary theory in the medieval and Early Modern periods; see, for example, Battaglia 1965, Borlenghi 1958, Pabst 1967, and Neuschäfer 1969. Modern critics may approach the genre from a variety of perspectives. Picone, et al. 1983 contains studies emphasizing narrative voice, the function of the frame story in novella collections, and literary as opposed to oral origins for narratives, whereas Borlenghi 1958 and Battaglia 1965 stress the potential exemplary functions of the text. Clements and Gibaldi 1977 and some of the contributors to Bianchi 1989 find significance in presentations of society and social class. Certain essays in Picone, et al. 1983; Albanese, et al. 2000; and Bianchi 1989 also deal with the contrast between elements of novella and romance, realism, and the role of the author as narrator or participant in the narrations. In recent decades, the richness, diversity, and influence of the novella tradition have inspired a number of academic conferences on the novella, both as a primarily Italian genre and as a wider European phenomenon; these, in turn, have led to the publication of several conference proceedings that typically include twenty or more articles by experts in the field; see for example Picone, et al. 1983 and Albanese, et al. 2000. The largest and most important of these published proceedings, providing many essential insights into the medieval Italian novella, has been the Caprarola conference of 1988, published as Bianchi 1989. Monographs and collections of critical essays pertaining to the Italian novella tend to cover a wider range of production than just that of the Middle Ages, including also the novella collections inspired by the revival of interest in the Decameron in the Early Modern period of the late 15th and 16th centuries, in Italy and elsewhere; this is especially true of Clements and Gibaldi 1977; Pabst 1967; and Picone, et al. 1983. It has generally proven difficult to study the medieval Italian novella as a separate phenomenon, without consideration of such relevant factors as the genre’s later development in the Early Modern period or its origins in Latin literature or the literature of medieval France.

  • Albanese, Gabriella, Lucia Battaglia Ricci, and Rossella Bessi, eds. Favole parabole istorie: Le forme della scrittura novellistica dal medioevo al rinascimento; Atti del Convegno di Pisa, 26–28 ottobre 1998. Rome: Salerno Editrice, 2000.

    The twenty-eight articles in this volume include studies of the relationships between the novella and romance by Daniela Delcorno Branca and Daniela Pietragalla, as well as studies by Enrico Malato, Selene Sarteschi, and Amedeo Quondam. Many essays discuss the potential meaning of Boccaccio’s use of the terms favole, parabole, and istorie to define the novella.

  • Battaglia, Salvatore. La coscienza letteraria nel medioevo. Naples: Liguori, 1965.

    Battaglia’s studies of the medieval exemplum are of particular value, especially his chapters “Carattere paradigmatico e qualità realistiche dell’esempio medievale” and “Dall’esempio alla novella,” which explain the importance of anecdotal narrative in medieval consciousness and in the development of the novella in Italy and elsewhere.

  • Bianchi, S., ed. La novella italiana: Atti del Convegno di Caprarola, 19–24 settembre 1988. 2 vols. Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1989.

    This volume includes fifty-one essays by distinguished novella scholars who examine the genre from a variety of perspectives. Of interest are essays on the origin and nature of the novella by Enrico Malato, Cesare Segre, and Michelangelo Picone. Hermann H. Wetzel provides an essential study of the romance-style novella.

  • Borlenghi, Aldo. La struttura e il carattere della novella italiana dei primi secoli. Milan: La Goliardica, 1958.

    In this text, Borlenghi analyzes the rhetorical characteristics of the medieval exemplum and apologetic or polemical writings that contribute to the rise of the novella in the Novellino and the works of Domenico Passavanti, Francesco da Barberino, and Boccaccio. He also examines the use of the term novella in Boccaccio.

  • Clements, Robert J., and Joseph Gibaldi. Anatomy of the Novella: The European Tale Collection from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Cervantes. New York: New York University Press, 1977.

    Although the scope of this book embraces more than the medieval Italian novella, the issues addressed, including origins, style, defining literary motifs, influences, representations of society, etc. are essential for an understanding of the role played by medieval Italian culture in the wider development of the novella genre.

  • Neuschäfer, Hans-Jörg. Boccaccio und der Beginn der Novelle. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1969.

    Neuschäfer provides an assessment of Boccaccio’s innovations in the novella genre within their literary historical context by looking back toward the variety of works and cultural influences that inspired the Decameron. The Italian novella’s origins in French, Provençal, and medieval Latin literature are emphasized.

  • Pabst, Walter. Novellentheorie und Novellendichtung: Zur Geschichte ihrer Antinomie in den romanischen Literaturen. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 1967.

    In this extensive study of Italian, Franco-Provençal, and Iberian literature, Pabst traces the origins of the novella genre from such medieval short fiction forms as the exemplum and Provençal vidas and razos. The book provides a comprehensive list of the short narrative works that contribute to the development of the novella.

  • Picone, Michelangelo, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Pamela D. Stewart, eds. La nouvelle: Formation, codification et rayonnement d’un genre médiéval; Actes du Colloque International de Montréal—McGill University, 14–16 octobre 1982. Montreal: Plato Academic Press, 1983.

    This book contains twenty essays in French, English, and Italian concerning novella theory, medieval narratives that gave rise to the novella, and aspects of the medieval French and Italian novella. Of particular value are essays by Paul Zumthor, Paolo Cherchi, Hans-Jörg Neuschäfer, and Maria Bendinelli Predelli.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.