Certaldo and the Search for Boccaccio (and onions)
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: they grow wonderfully sweet purple onions (cipolle di Certaldo); of no lesser importance, Certaldo is where Giovanni Boccaccio spent the final thirteen 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, and our author was indeed familiar with the town. It gets a flattering mention as the setting for the tenth story on the sixth 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
If you go to Certaldo looking for onions, you may be disappointed. I 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 twelfth 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 encomium 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 facetious 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 of these countries, I coined a great many phrases, which turned out to be the only currency I needed”.
I went to Certaldo on a search for Boccaccio. Phrases turned out to be insufficient currency, as six euros 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 to be honest, I think that some of that essence was lost when the place was bombed to smithereens 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 nineteenth-century fresco of the artist and a display of various more recent objects (medals, books) associated with him. The most interesting thing in the house is surely the library, which is open to the public (limited hours) and contains a good collection of Boccaccio studies and translations. It would be fun to come read one of the earlier printed books or peruse a Cyrillic edition in the author’s own house.
More than just a museum, the Casa di Boccaccio is also a center 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 (with my apologies to the obscure Pace da Certaldo who documented the town’s 13th-century war with nearby Semifonte). 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, have 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. To me, it is these events, more so than the place, that keep the memory of Boccaccio alive in Certaldo.
Continuing my hunt for relics of the great vernacular author, I visit his tomb in the nearby church of SS. Jacopo e Filippo, and photograph not the tomb but the small marker above it that indicates the exact location of his remains. Coolly smiling down at me from his perch on the wall is an early sixteenth century bust of Boccaccio carved by Giovan Francesco Rustici. That’s it for Boccaccio in Certaldo Alto (the upper town). In the main square of the lower town, there is a memorial statue of the author commissioned in 1875 on occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of his death. He surveys a parking lot except when the piazza is cleared for special events.
As I 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 manifestations 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.
A few Practical Notes
HOW TO GET THERE*Take the train from Florence on the Siena line, it's 52 minutes away and costs 4.20 euros. Get off at Certaldo. Walk up the street from the train station and at the end (not far) you'll see a funicular that takes you up to the historic town.
*Come equipped with G. H. McWilliam’s Penguin Books translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, from which I have taken the quotations used in this article.
*There is an excellent guidebook to Certaldo written by local scholars F. Allegri and M. Tosi, with facing text in English, available at the local tourist office halfway up via Boccaccio.
MORE PHOTOS: more photos of Certaldo on Around Tuscany blog!