The illustrations in what was for many years considered the ‘standard’ French translation of Boccaccio’s mid-14th century classic, the 1757 translation by Antoine Jean le Maçon, were a collaboration in which Eisen was one of four artists involved. The other three were Hubert François Gravelot (1699–1773), Nicolas Cochin (French, 1715–90) and François Boucher (1703–70); we have included all 111 plates for completeness. In their comprehensive Guide de l’amateur de livres a gravures du XVIIIe siècle (Specialist Guide to 18th-Century Illustrated Books), Henry Cohen and Seymour de Ricci describe this Décaméron as ‘one of the most accomplished illustrated books of the 18th century’.
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccacio is a collection of short stories believed to have been written between 1349 and 1353. The narrative begins in Italy as the Black Death ravages Europe. Ten individuals, seven young women and three young men, escape the plague of the Black Death by leaving Florence and taking refuge in a villa in Fiesole. In order the keep themselves entertained, the group decides to tell stories in the evenings. Each person must share a story for each of ten days, hence ‘decameron’ or ‘ten days’ work’, and the resulting one hundred tales.
Many of the tales have a sexual element, with priests, nuns and wives using their wits to get satisfaction from the people they are in lust with. Despite the fact that the overriding moral virtue in the medieval era was chastity, Boccaccio was a champion of youthful passion and rebellion against parental authority when it came to sexual behaviour. He believed that sex is natural and irresistible, that religious restrictions on sex are hypocritical, that parents trying to control their children’s sex lives usually ends in disaster, that adultery and fornication can be enjoyable, and that jealous husbands deserved to be cheated on.
While most of the engravings for the 1757 five-volume Décaméron are not particularly erotic in the modern sense, they do convey something of the flavour of Boccaccio’s libertarian and humorous stories.