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Palazzo Pretorio
Photo ©Sailko

Certaldo: in search of Boccaccio (and onions)

The quaint Tuscan town is the birthplace of a literary giant

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It was a hot day in late July when I boarded the train in Florence bound for Certaldo, a town in Tuscany best known for two things: wonderfully sweet purple onions (cipolle di Certaldo) and for being where Giovanni Boccaccio spent the final 13 years of his life. The suggestion that Giovanni was born in Certaldo in 1313 has been mostly disproved (he was probably born in Florence), but Certaldo is the native city of his father, Boccaccio di Chellino, so the author was indeed familiar with the town. It gets a flattering mention as the setting for the 10th story on the 6th day of The Decameron:

Certaldo, as you may possibly have heard, is a fortified town situated in the Val d’Elsa, in Florentine territory, and although it is small, the people living there were at one time prosperous and well-to-do. (p. 506)

Certaldo onions in history
Certaldo onions
Certaldo onions

If you go to Certaldo looking for onions, you may be disappointed. I myself expected a town laden with picturesque braids of onions hanging on every doorpost like garlic against vampires, and restaurant menus proposing onions braised, baked, and boiled. I hoped to buy some onions to take back to Florence. The fact is, Certaldo is not a tourist town, and there is nobody there to sell, or buy, onions except at the bi-weekly market held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Apparently just about everyone there grows their own onions for personal consumption. These exist in two varieties: the “statina” is a fresh onion grown in the summer, with a white inside, while the “vernina” has a dry outside and deep red inside and is for winter use.

My obsession with Certaldo onions is not just a personal one. The fame of these onions, and of the town as a result, goes back to at least the 12th century, at which point we know that the town’s symbol was a shield with a glorified purple onion on a white background. This symbol can still be seen in a fresco on the wall of the Palazzo Pretorio, the home of the Alberti lords and later of the governing body of Certaldo. The town motto is a metaphoric tribute to the onion that can be loosely translated as “by nature I am both strong and sweet, and I please those at work and those at rest”. Amusingly, the lowly onion was removed from the crest in 1633, but reinstated 1867.

So renowned is the onion from Certaldo that contemporaries reading Boccaccio’s Decameron would have understood the joke-name of the protagonist of chapter 6:10, Frate Cipolla. This “little man with red hair and a merry face” was a friar of the order of Saint Anthony who visited the town each year in August to collect alms. Boccaccio maintains that the friar was always well received “doubtless due as much to his name as to the piety of the inhabitants, for the soil in those parts produces onions that are famous throughout the whole of Tuscany.” The friar promises the crowd that in return for their alms, he would show them a feather of the Angel Gabriel that he brought back from a trip to the Holy Land. Unbeknownst to him, two young men decided to play a practical joke and switch the feather with some coals that they placed in the closed reliquary box, so we get to watch as the friar talks his way out of an awkward situation. Now, this Mr. Onion is described as being quite illiterate, but such a great speaker that you might swear him to be Cicero or Quintillian. Upon discovering that there were coals in his little casket, the friar launches into an impressive bit of travel writing – a ridiculous description of a flippant voyage through places like Bordello, Funnyland, and Liarland – before inventing a plausible provenance for the coals upon which he claims that Saint Lawrence was burned. Through the mouth of Friar Cipolla, Boccaccio gives writers and orators a good piece of advice: “In all these countries, I coined a great many phrases, which turned out to be the only currency I needed”.

Finding Boccaccio
Certaldo
Certaldo - Credit: Franz Venhaus

I went to Certaldo in search of Boccaccio. Phrases turned out to be insufficient currency, as six euro was the price of admission to the town’s three museums, which include the house museum (Casa di Boccaccio), a museum of sacred art, and the priors’ palace. All are conveniently located on the main street, which is not surprisingly named via Boccaccio, and all can be visited in about two hours. 

The Casa di Boccaccio is probably where you’re going to find the greatest concentration of the essence of Boccaccio in Certaldo, although some of that essence was lost when the place was bombed in World War II. There is an informative display of written panels on the ground floor, while upstairs the nucleus of the collection is a 19th-century fresco of the artist and a display of various recent objects (medals, books) associated with him. The most interesting thing in the house is surely the library, which is open to the public and contains a good collection of Boccaccio studies and translations.

More than just a museum, the Casa di Boccaccio is also a centre for research, conferences, book presentations and other events associated with the author. This succeeds in stimulating creativity in a town that did not produce any other really notable writers or artists. Recently there was even a video projection for young people called “Travelling with Fra Cipolla”.

The house museum is also the home of the Ente Nazionale Giovanni Boccaccio, which, together with the local Rotary Club and government, has sponsored an annual literary prize since 1982. Beyond the walls of Casa Boccaccio, animated readings of the Decameron are often put on in town by a local group in medieval costume.

Continuing my hunt for relics of the great vernacular author, I visited his tomb in the nearby church of SS. Jacopo e Filippo, though this is not actually his tomb but rather a small marker that indicates the exact location of his remains. Coolly smiling down at visitors from his perch on the wall is an early 16th-century bust of Boccaccio carved by Giovan Francesco Rustici.

In the main square of the lower town, there is a memorial statue of the author commissioned in 1875 for the 500th anniversary of his death.

As mentioned, Certaldo is not much of a tourist town. It maintains the character of a medieval walled city and has resisted opening souvenir shops. Twice a year it holds important events that draw large crowds. The two events reflect my own characterization of Certaldo as being about Boccaccio and onions. In July, there is the medieval festival of Mercantia, with street theatre, artisans’ booths, dance, music, and readings – a real celebration of the arts. Food is the protagonist of the Boccaccesca festival that runs in early October, with tastings of local products and a prize for cooking school students who make the cipolla di Certaldo into a main dish.

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