Friday, August 03, 2012

What's in a Name?

My secret ambition is to have my name in The Oxford English Dictionary: it’s the literary equivalent of being nominated for the Booker Prize. The trouble is my name. Imagine someone saying ‘I got a jones for Christmas’. It doesn’t have the same air of authority as ‘I’ll wear my stetson today’. So I guess I’ll never be an eponym. Verbs are slightly easier: imagine how proud Mr and Mrs Bowdler must have been when little Tommy got his name in the OED. But the problem remains: ‘bowdlerized’ smacks of modest power, but no writer would say ‘my book’s been jonesed’. Even characters can get you into the OED: Micawbers, say, or Walter Mittys - but never Joneses. I thought of trying an abstract noun - like ‘serendipity’, but Horace Walpole’s got the copyright: he wrote a story, The Three Princes of Serendip. Now he’s in the OED for having invented a word for a chance discovery. It was serendipity that brought me to the village of Certaldo. I’d been looking for it all over Tuscany but without success: it wasn’t in the Michelin guide or on my maps. Then one day, when I was absent-mindedly looking out of the window of a train that I thought was taking me to Poggibonsi - when I saw the sign: Certaldo! Fortunately, the train stopped and I clambered out – my papers billowing in the wind. Poggibonsi would have to wait. Certaldo was the town in which Giovanni Boccaccio was born. He was one of the distinguished trio of fourteenth century Florentine poets, the other two being Dante and Petrarch. But Boccaccio was my favourite: his best-known work was inspired by the onset of the dreaded plague, the Black Death. After Mass one day in 1348, a group of seven ladies and three gentlemen retreat to a country house just outside Florence, hoping to avoid infection, and the ten friends – the decamarone - pass the time in telling each other stories, each trying to outdo the other in levels of impropriety and bawdiness - a kind of Italian Canterbury Tales. When English poet Geoffrey Chaucer visited Tuscany in 1373, he hoped to meet the poet whose work he had admired – and borrowed, these being the times before copyright law existed, but sadly, Boccaccio was already too ill for them to meet. He died in the family home in 1375, a late victim of the plague which had inspired his greatest work.
Stepping from the funicular cable car that takes you up to the old village is a step into another era. Buildings and roadways are laid in narrow red bricks, herringbone-pattern, like Roman roads. In the vast Piazza Boccaccio stands a statue of a giant medieval hoodie on a pedestal that bears the inscription: Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). Halfway up the main street – the Via Boccaccio of course - is the Casa Boccaccio. During the Second World War it was almost destroyed by American B-26 bombers, but it has now been faithfully restored and looks as good as old. The view from its roof terrace is a 360-degree panorama of fields, vineyards and olive groves. But there is a surprise: eight miles to the south-west stands a cluster of medieval towers that can only be San Gimignano.
That’s serendipity.