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Boccaccio, “Landolfo Rufolo”: summary and analysis of the short story

Introduction

Landolfo Rufolo is the protagonist of the fourth novel of the second day of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. The queen is Filomena, the first to establish a unique theme for the tales of the day, since the previous one had a free theme. Young people will have to narrate dangerous adventures which, in the face of desperate circumstances, resolve unexpectedly with a happy ending. To tell the adventures of Landolfo Rufolo will be Lauretta, who deals with a very felt topic in Boccaccio’s time: that of the precarious fate of merchants and traders. The latter, symbol of the renewed late medieval society, face the dangers of the sea for their businesses: for the purpose of profit, there is always the risk of losing the fruit of their work (and even life).

Summary

The merchant Landolfo Rufolo lives in Ravello, a city on the Amalfi coast where commercial activity is particularly flourishing. Despite his remarkable wealth Landolfo, eager to increase them, buys a very large ship and fills it with goods, then sailing to Cyprus. Unfortunately, there are already numerous other merchant ships and various and numerous goods here, so much so that Landolfo is often forced to sell his own below the real price. Having made a bad investment and having lost almost all his money, Landolfo decides to risk his life just to make up for it: he sells the ship and with the money left over he buys a boat suitable for piracy against Turkish ships. In less than a year Landolfo doubles the wealth of the past; having understood that it is better not to challenge one’s luck, he travels back to his homeland. In the Aegean, however, he is surprised by a storm: to protect himself he shelters in a gulf, where shortly afterwards two large Genoese merchant ships, which come from Constantinople, also dock. Finding out who the ship is and how much wealth the Genoese bring assault it and make it sink; Landolfo is taken prisoner. In turn, however, the Genoese are also victims of winds and storms: their ships are wrecked near Kefalonia. Castaways cling to pieces of wood that float; Landolfo desperately grabs a board and is transported by the sea and the wind until the morning. Alone in the middle of the sea, he is forced to rely on a crate that, tossed by the sea next to him, continues to go on the plank on which he is and from which he ends up falling. He still spends a whole day attached to the cash register; eventually the tides lead him, exhausted, to the coast of Corfu, where a woman is washing the dishes in the sea. Once the initial fright has been overcome, the woman saves the castaway and takes care of it for a few days. Then he invites him to go home and returns the chest found at sea, thinking it belongs to him. Landolfo, who does not remember much of the case, opens it and finds numerous precious stones inside it. Fearing that, once again, luck turns his back on him, he decides not to say anything to the woman: he wraps the jewels in some rags and exchanges the case for a sack. In Trani, he meets other merchants, to whom he tells of his misfortunes, but omitting the discovery of the cashier. With their help he can return to Ravello; here he counts the precious stones more carefully and discovers that he is richer than when he left. With the money obtained from the sale, he sends a sum to the woman of Corfu and the merchants of Trani, to thank them. With what remains, he decides to retire to private life, leaving the trade and thus living in a peaceful well-being until the end of his days.

Analysis and comment

The strong themes of Landolfo Rufolo’s short story can be traced back to three fundamental elements: merchant activity, luck, virtue. They are, more generally, central motifs throughout the Decameron. Landolfo’s novel, in particular, belongs – and indeed is emblematic of it – to the group of narratives dedicated to the merchant class, represented in some respects in a realistic key (Boccaccio himself was the son of a merchant and had worked with his father in his youth), for others with a certain idealization.

Both these aspects are captured in the contrast between the effects of chance (Fortuna) and the ability of the protagonist to react (Virtue). In fact, as often happens to those who dare, Landolfo is driven to act by greed and by the desire to profit from the goods available to him, according to a typical attitude of the merchants; fate, however, makes him run into unexpected and not infrequently disastrous showers. However, Landolfo reacts actively to the turnaround of fortune: he changes profession and successfully becomes a pirate; then he goes out of his way to avoid the storm; manages to survive the shipwreck; cleverly hides the gems found. Finally he understands the gift that fate has given him, despite all the previous blows, and generously rewards those who had helped him. Boccaccio’s judgment, in many cases merciless towards the vices of his characters, is therefore far from negative: in the light of the final behavior, the initial greed appears much more a professional quality than a real sin. The moral of the story, however, also lies in the final consideration. Landolfo in fact leaves the market: he learns from his past experiences and retires to enjoy his goods in peace. Cunning and resourcefulness are therefore fundamental themes, but moderation must not be missing. After all, even knowing when to stop identifies a form of cunning. A final central theme is that of the sea, which dominates as a constant panorama throughout the arc of the story, whether we are talking about the coast or the open sea. The sea expanse represented at the same time a universe of possibilities, to which it is no coincidence that the merchants entrust their hopes of gain and therefore subsistence, and the source of tragic disasters, given the enormous dangers to which those traveling by ship with the means of era.

Structurally, the story is rather linear and yet effective. As the events unfold, the plot follows the fabula, that is, it proceeds in chronological order as the events unfolded. The rhythm of the story, however, is not uniform. The first part of the story, which actually contains the majority of events, is narrated in a synthetic and hasty way, while the narrative time expands during the scenes of the last sea voyage, the storm and the shipwreck. The effect is to create suspense with respect to the fate of the protagonist as well as sharing for his adventurous experiences.

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