The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, Limited Editions Club (1930 & 1940 editions)

Despite having read many of the stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron over the years, I had never read it cover to cover. Thankfully, I embarked on doing so a couple months back and was amply rewarded for the effort. It is one of the most enjoyable books one could hope to entertain themselves with, and I cannot believe I waited until my forty-ninth year to do what well-read people should do by the time they reach twenty!

Besides being a masterpiece of early classical Italian prose and one of our most beautiful windows into medieval life, The Decameron is one of the greatest and most influential works in the Western Canon. As stated in the prospectus and introduction to the 1940 Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition shown below:

Not only is it true that critics of literature think of Dante and Petrarch and Boccaccio as the three great writers who opened literature to the modern world, it is also true that the plots of the hundred stories which form The Decameron have been a source-book for every novel which has since been written.

Boccaccio (1313–1375) wrote The Decameron in the mid-1300’s, soon after the Black Death decimated Florence in 1348, completing it in 1353. The plague serves as the backdrop of the story, where seven young women and three young men, having left Florence to escape the scourge, each tell a story, one a day for ten days. The tales they tell are witty, full of practical jokes, and almost always provide a moral or life lesson. Sometimes seemingly bawdy at first appearance and often simply hilarious, one must read the Tenth Story of Day Three to fully understand the extent of Boccaccio’s humor. The monk Rustico teaching Alibech how to put the devil back into hell is uproariously funny and I am sure would offend modern sensibilities as much, if not more so, then Boccaccio’s contemporaries. Day Seven, Story Two reaches similar heights when Peronella conceals her lover in a cask when her husband returns home unexpectedly. What ensues as Peronella and her lover extricate themselves from the situation is the height of comedy. While both these stories can seem outright raunchy, Boccaccio himself reminds us, in his Author’s Conclusion, that:

…whatever their nature, these stories, like everything else, can be turned to good or evil ends, depending on who the listeners are…Never has a corrupt mind given any word a pure meaning. Just as virtuous words can do an evil mind no good, others, not so decent, can no more avail to corrupt the well-intentioned than mire can stain the rays of the sun or earth’s ugliness obscure the beauties of heaven.

Despite being written over 650 years ago, the stories retain their relevance, humor and morals. Only time separates us from these characters who, through these stories, become as real as our friends and neighbors. Typical stories highlight the constantly changing winds of fortune, intelligence winning over dullardry, escapades around marital infidelity, and the hypocrisy that so permeated the Catholic Church at the time (priests and monks are often satirized and shown as being larger sinners, especially in carnal matters and in gluttony, then those they supposedly serve). However, it is not mean-spirited and, in fact, Boccaccio can be seen as a moralist disliking the actions of those who should know better then to spend time punishing the rest of us for our sins, instead of mastering their own weaknesses.

One could randomly turn to any page of The Decameron and find quotes worth remembering. I will just sprinkle a couple into this article to give a small sampling to tease your appetite for more.

First, some wisdom:

…Human understanding does not simply consist of bearing in mind what is past, or in taking thought of the present; but the ability of employing both to foresee the future has always been deemed the rarest wisdom by men of intellect.

Now, some humor:

It is usual with you women to give your hearts to lusty youths, and hanker after their passion, because you see them rosier of complexion, darker of beard, and with more zest for dancing and sporting. All these virtues once also graced men of maturer years, who are, besides, past-masters in what those youngsters have yet to learn. Again, you consider them better gallopers and adept in making more miles in a day than older men. I admit they’re more brisk in shaking up your hide for you; but elderly men, rich in experience, know far better where the flea bites. Therefore, it is much more preferable to choose the little and the sweet, rather than the much and tasteless. Besides, rough-riding will tire and get anybody out of wind, no matter how young, whereas slow and sure pacing will lead one to the shelter in good form, though perhaps a little late. You don’t realize, brainless animals that you are, how much harm is hidden under that trifle of fine exterior. Young men are never satisfied with one woman. Not at all! They will desire every female they set eyes on, and think the world owes everything to them. Under such conditions, their love could not possibly be constant…

The Limited Editions Club (LEC) twice produced editions of The Decameron, once in 1930, and again in 1940. The main difference between the two, and the main reason for publishing two different editions, is the translation, as well as the use of illustrations.  As you will see, George Macy seemed to have a change of heart on both reasons, but we will get to that when discussing the 1940 version. In the Monthly Letter (ML) for the 1930 edition he tells us why he thought a new translation was needed:

Now Boccaccio did not write the book in Italian, but in the Tuscan vernacular. It seemed to us that it should, therefore, be translated, not into pedantic English, but into conversational English; not into American slang, but into the English language as it is spoken in these United States. We felt that if we cold attain such a translation, we would be giving the country in general a translation of The Decameron which could be read easily, for enjoyment as literature.

He also tells us why he choose to not illustrate this edition:

We deliberately avoided issuing an illustrated Decameron. Illustrators, when they approach this book, treat it as a work of erotica, and proceed to grow terribly, terribly naughty.

I think Macy was confused on translations available (or I am confused on his writings on the topic). In the Monthly Letter (ML) for the 1930 edition, in discussing why he decided to commission a new translation, he mentions “two complete translations. One, the classic translation by John Payne, has been used for hundreds of years. It is so definitely archaic that no one can read the book for pleasure… The other translation, made for The Navarre Society thirty years ago by J.E. Rigg, seemed to us a poor translation.” As far as I can tell, the John Payne translation he mentions was done in 1886, certainly not something that had been in use for “hundreds of years”. In fact, in the 1940 edition that we will look at below, Macy does use a translation from hundreds of years ago, the first English translation of 1620 (which was anonymous as far as I can tell). Perhaps a reader can clear up this translation history.

Macy was correct that The Decameron was written in the vernacular of the Florentine language and that providing a translation into similar vernacular of our time would result in an easy to read, significantly entertaining edition of this great work. While this 1930 edition may lack the Elizabethan beauty of English at its best, it is an easy and pleasurable read and accomplished this without sacrificing intelligence or, more importantly, the original spirit of Boccaccio in an effort to placate Elizabethan sensibilities.

The 1930 edition was designed by T.M. Cleland who, as Macy tells us, is “one of the giants of American printing.”  Macy goes on to tell us what a subscriber wrote him concerning Cleland:

D.B. Updike is responsible for the good taste in present American printing. Bruce Rogers is responsible for the fine work done upon limited editions in this country, and T.M. Cleland is responsible for the excellent decorative work in American printing today.

As the Monthly Letter (ML) tells us, for this edition, Cleland has drawn a truly magnificent title page, and a series of decorations for the beginning of each day’s series of ten stories and for the beginning of each of the ten stories. The type is printed in black, and the decorations for each day are printed in exceedingly different colors, with the result that the entire book is printed in black and ten colors. So while the book, according to Macy, is not illustrated, it effectively is illustrated with wonderful decorations that reflect nicely the spirit and setting of the stories. Cleland choose to use Poliphilus type, based on one first printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499 (from the famous and important Aldine Press). It was was cut by Frederic Goudy at his Village Letter Foundery, and also issued by the English Lanston Monotype Company.  The italic is called Blado italic, named after an Italian printer named Antonio Blado, who became printer to the Holy See in 1515. In short, we are told that:

The general typographic plan for the book is strongly reminiscent of early Italian printing. the page is divided into two tall columns, the decorative headings are illustrative of the characters in the book, the paper has a wide laid-mark and a distinct tone; all attributes of most of the books of that period.

In general, the 1940 edition, which you will see below, has plenty going for it and is generally the more admired version (and the more expensive). While taking nothing away from it, I was enamored by the 1930 edition from the act of actually reading it. It was comfortable, nicely sized and medieval in atmosphere of the design. While it may be plain compared to the later edition, I think it is undervalued by LEC collectors.

About the 1930 LEC Edition

  • Designed and decorated by T.M. Cleland
  • Newly translated by Frances Winwar
  • Introduction by Burton Rascoe
  • Printed in black and ten colors
  • Type is Monotype Poliphilus (first use in this size in setting a book upon the machines)
  • The italic letter used is Blado italic
  • Worthy Signature special paper
  • Printing done at the Press of A. Colish, New York
  • Bound by George McKibbin & Son in Bancroft full russet buckram, with black leather labels stamped in pure gold
  • All edges of the book painted in a deep blue
  • 2 volumes, 402 pages, 9″ x 11 1/2″
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by T.M. Cleland

Pictures of the 1930 LEC Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Spines
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Spines
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Spines
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Spines
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Cover
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Cover
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Side View
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Side View
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Decoration on Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Decoration on Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Contents
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Contents
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Text #1
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Sample Text #1
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Sample Text #1
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #1 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #1 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Sample Decorations #1 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Sample Decorations #1 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #2 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #2 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Sample Decorations #2 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Macro of Sample Decorations #2 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #3 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #3 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #4 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #4 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #5 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #5 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #6 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #6 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #7 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #7 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #8 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #8 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #9 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #9 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #10 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Decorations #10 with Text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Text #2
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Sample Text #2
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Colophon
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1930), Colophon

So, exactly why did George Macy decide to publish The Decameron again in 1940? As mentioned above, in planning the 1930 edition he stated two reasons as raison d’être for its publication: a new translation was needed as the existing one’s were archaic and that illustrations versions tended to emphasize the ‘naughty’. Yet, in 1940, he decided to publish a second version of The Decameron. This one, despite his feelings in 1930, uses a translation that truly is hundreds of years old and makes use of illustrations!

We had already published, in 1930, a beautiful edition of ‘The Decameron’, But I thought it important to revive this earliest of English translations, now that I had discovered it; and I thought it important to print an edition from Frtiz Kredel’s delightful woodcuts. So this was issued as a special book, outside of the regular series, to be purchased by those members who wanted it and rejected by those members who did not.

The 1620 translation used in the 1940 edition omits a couple tales, and in my comparison (not detailed by any means, just reading a number of the tales in both translations) the older translation is just a smidgen more tame. However, the translation remains well-thought of and, though a bit tougher to get through for the modern reader, the wording is beautiful as only Elizabethan language can be.

Only an Elizabethan could have brought into English the wit, the beauty of the Italian which Boccaccio wrote; only an Elizabethan could have rendered Boccaccio’s impudent stories into an impudent English which can be read with pleasure and delight…Although other translations of ‘The Decameron’ have appeared since 1620…none has so charmingly translated Boccaccio into English as did Shakespeare’s contemporary…

So in 1930 Macy wanted to give us The Decameron translated into the ‘English language as it is spoken in these United States’ to make it ‘easy to read’ and ‘entertaining’, whereas in 1940 he decided that a far older translation in Elizabethan English would be more ‘charming‘ allowing us to read it with ‘pleasure and delight‘!  In turns out that Macy was right on both counts. The 1930 is easy to read and the modern vernacular is more easily entertaining. The 1940 brings pleasure and delight if read with the patience that Elizabethan English requires for those out of practice of reading such.

Besides the difference in translation, Macy used the opportunity to publish Fritz Kredel‘s woodcuts for The Decameron. Kredel made a series of sixty wood-cuts in the manner of book illustrations of the Italian Renaissance. Macy felt that the 1620 translation and these ‘extraordinary‘ wood-cuts belonged tougher, and so the 1940 edition was born. Macy himself designed the edition. The type he used (linotype Cloister) is a modern copy of Nicolas Jenson‘s types and the arrangements of the title page and the chapter headings are meant to be ‘strongly reminiscent‘ of Renaissance books.

I think Macy largely succeeded here, in that the 1940 edition is beautifully done. The binding is especially nice, being half-black, polished calfskin, gold-stamped and with printed linen sides in a Renaissance pattern created by Fritz Kredel. Like the 1930 edition, I adore the elaborate title page, and Kredel’s illustrations really do hit the mark. The editions are nicely sized for easy reading.

About the 1940 LEC Edition

  • First English Translation of 1620, plus two tales there omitted
  • Designed by George Macy
  • Introduction by Edward Hutton
  • Illustrated with woodcuts by Fritz Kredel
  • Printed by Duenewald Printing Corporation, New York
  • Set in linotype Cloister
  • Worthy Rag paper
  • Bound by Russell-Rutter Company in half-black, polished calfskin, gold-stamped and printed linen sides in a Renaissance pattern created by Fritz Kredel
  • Two volumes, 566 pages, 7 3/8″ x 10 1/4″
  • Original cost was $12.50
  • Limited to 530 copies, signed by Fritz Kredel

Pictures of the 1940 LEC Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Books in Slipcase
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Books in Slipcase
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Spines
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Spines
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Cover
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Cover
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Cover
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Cover
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Side View
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Side View
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Decoration on Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Decoration on Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Title Page
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Text #1 (Note upon the text)
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Sample Text #1
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Sample Text #1
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Text #2 (Introduction)
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Text #2 (General Introduction)
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Sample Text #2
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Sample Text #2
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Text #3 (Author's Introduction)
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Text #3 (Author’s Introduction)
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Sample Text #3
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Sample Text #3
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Illustration #1 with text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Illustration #1 with text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Sample Illustration #1
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Macro of Sample Illustration #1
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Illustration #5 with text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Illustration #2 with text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Illustration #6 with text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Illustration #3 with text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Illustration #7 with text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Sample Illustration #4 with text
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Colophon
The Decameron, Limited Editions Club (1940), Colophon

5 thoughts on “The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, Limited Editions Club (1930 & 1940 editions)

  1. Hi Chris,

    First of all, thanks again for the review of *EE4*, which has already produced several enquiries and one order.

    Second, a quick note about your review of the LEC* Decameron*. In your bibliographic description of the 1930 edition, the first line says that the text follows the original edition of *Leaves of Grass*. I had never considered Walt and Giovanni to be of one mind in much, but perhaps I was mistaken.

    William Painter, in his *Palace of Pleasure* (1567), translated many of Boccaccio’s stories. Might it be those excerpts which were mentioned in your review? Or might Painter have been the eventual translator of the whole thing?

    Thanks for an interesting review. I must re-read it.

    All best wishes,

    Crispin

    Crispin & Jan Elsted at Barbarian Press 12375 Ainsworth Street Mission, British Columbia V4S 1L4 Canada

    Tel. (604) 826 8089 E.mail: Barbarian_Press@telus.net OR Barbarian.Press@lookieloo.net

    1. Hi Crispin,
      Once again, ooopssss!!! Who is the damn editor of this website, he should be fired!!! Oh, I guess that is me, who cannot catch a simple cut and paste error from the previous post!!! Of well, I hope I do better at my day job, and in the mean time I count on all of you generous Books and Vines readers to overlook these errors!

      Glad to hear on EE4. I will take advantage of this comment to encourage others reading this to take a close look — it is a wonderful work that belongs in the libraries of Books and Vines readers! I see The Folio Society tweeted the article today, so hopefully some Folio fans will take a close look.

      Interesting on William Painter, hopefully someone else can perhaps tell us more. Perhaps Greg can chime in?

  2. I read somwwhere that T. M. Cleland was a relative of John Cleland, of course several generations removed from the author of Fanny Hill, the epitome of 18th Century pornography. Whether true or not, T M cleland would have been a masterful choice to illustrate this novel, and make it into a much more sexually graphic work tham Boccaccio’s ribald tales.

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