Symonds and Boccaccio’s “Artistic Inferiority”

Over the course of his career, one curious writer Symonds referenced frequently was Giovanni Boccaccio, a fourteenth-century Italian poet and prose writer famous for works such as The Decameron. Not only is Boccaccio discussed among other famous Italian authors, Dante and Petrarch, in the “Italian Literature” volume of his Renaissance in Italy series, but Symonds also wrote an essay about Boccaccio titled “Giovanni Boccaccio as Man and Author.”

This essay in itself is curious, its earliest publication being a posthumous 1895 edition. The only reference to the manuscript in Symonds’s Memoirs is a “long introduction to Boccaccio for Vizetelly” that he wrote in 1888 (Memoirs, 444). According to the footnotes, this was ultimately published by John C. Nimmo, not Vizetelly (Memoirs, 460 n135).

Giovanni Boccaccio As Man and Author, John Addington Symonds, published by John C. Nimmo, London 1895. Image via HathiTrust.

Bibliographic details aside, Boccaccio, ending the “first and most brilliant age of Italian literature,” was, alongside Dante and Petrarch, one of the writers ushering in a modern form of Italian literature (Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, 3). Symonds states:

Dante took for his province the drama of the human soul in its widest scope; Petrarch takes the heart of an individual man, himself; Boccaccio takes the complex stuff of daily life, the quicquid agunt homines of common experience.

Giovanni Boccaccio As Man and Author, 3

In addition to their different subject matters, the men themselves had drastically different upbringings: Dante grew up as Florentine nobility, Petrarch grew up middle class, and Boccaccio was born into the lower class from parents of no consequence, although Symonds notes that his class became the ascendant class in Florence (As Man and Author, 4-6).

This considered, then, the differences between them are clear. Symonds made his interest in Dante and his Inferno clear in the Memoirs, but his interest in Boccaccio is rather curious. In his essay on Boccaccio, he ranks Boccaccio below Dante and Petrarch in “force and character and quality of genius” (As Man and Author, 6). While Symonds gives praise to the originality and descriptiveness of his writing, he notes:

…judged as poems, they leave much to be desired. The style is never choice, and often simply vulgar. In some parts the execution is unpardonably slovenly.

As Man and Author, 50

He goes on to mention that Boccaccio’s work often feels rushed and there is an “absence of loving care” (As Man and Author, 51).

This critique reveals a marked contrast to Symonds’s own approach to writing, which he details as:

Concentration lies beyond my grasp. The right words do not fall into the right places at my bidding. I have written few good paragraphs, and possibly no single perfect line. I strove, however, to control the qualities I knew myself to have, to train and curb them, to improve them by attention to the details of style.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 418

Symonds consistently reveals himself to be a writer concerned with details and giving his writing due attention (which can be seen in the footnotes to the Memoirs, let alone his poetry). This raises a question: why did Symonds devote an entire essay to an author whose work he is often very critical of?

It’s worth noting that, while he claims Boccaccio fails to be an artist when it comes to his poetry, he also says that he himself lacks the “inevitable touch of the true poet, the unconquerable patience of the conscious artist” (Memoirs, 418). In other sections of the Memoirs, he notes times he doubted his own artistic abilities. This seems to demonstrate a lack of superiority or hypocrisy when critiquing Boccaccio’s work; the qualities he claims Boccaccio lacks are qualities he himself tries to achieve in his own writing. 

Despite these critiques, Symonds does give praise to Boccaccio’s finer qualities. To return to his comparisons between the three authors, despite Boccaccio’s ranking, he was the most influential of them:

He alone grew with the growing age, in his substitution of sensual and concrete for mystical and abstract ideals, in his joyous acceptance of nature and the world…

As Man and Author, 7

This statement alone offers some insight into the appeal of Boccaccio for Symonds, as Symonds establishes himself frequently in his writing as someone wont to be appreciative of nature and beauty, evident by diaries he carried during his travels, who aims to write vividly enough to fully utilize “such certainty of touch” and create perceptions for a reader (Memoirs 417).

In addition, he says of Boccaccio’s sonnets:

Their artistic inferiority secures for them a certain air of correspondence with the truth.

As Man and Author, 26

This is interesting because truth is something Symonds grappled with in his literary pursuits, particularly when crafting his Memoirs, where he creates a balance between his examinations of self and the minor day-to-day details. When he discusses his work in the Memoirs, he says:

It has been my destiny to make continual renunciation of my truest self, because I was born out of sympathy with the men around me, and have lived a stifled anachronism.

Memoirs, 418

The desire for truth juxtaposed with the frequent personal unattainability of it for Symonds might also suggest why Boccaccio’s own achievement of veracity in his work was interesting to him.

Symonds’s literature on Boccaccio is fascinating because, on the surface, it may appear that Boccaccio’s work might be too far removed from Symonds’s own to have been of any interest to him. It’s clear, however, that the critiques he offers are not particularly damning, as he himself is not a perfect writer. It’s possible that, besides making Boccaccio the subject of an essay due to his fame and influence, he saw Boccaccio’s work, as flawed as it was in Symonds’s eyes, as a tool through which he could analyze his own flaws as a writer. These comments that Symonds has made, about Boccaccio’s work and his own, can be used to reveal more about him as man and author.


Symonds, John Addington. Giovanni Boccaccio As Man And Author. London: J.C. Nimmo, 1895.

Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Symonds, John Addington. Renaissance In Italy: Italian Literature: In Two Parts. London: Smith, Elder & co., 1881.

Heavenly Versus Earthly Love

Symonds documented an early interest in Greek literature in his Memoirs, when he described being particularly struck by figures such as Shakespeare’s Adonis and Homer’s Hermes, working his way up to writers including Plato, who deeply impacted him when he began his study of him:

Here in the Phaedrus and Symposium — in the Myth of the Soul and the speeches of Pausanias, Agathon, and Diotima — I discovered the true Liber Amoris [Book of Love] at last, the revelation I had been waiting for, the consecration of a long-cherished idealism.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 152
A painting of Plato's symposium. Alcibiades and revelers are entering Agathon's house on the left side. Right of center, Socrates has his back to the scene and is bowing his head. He is sitting with other attendees of the symposium.
Plato’s Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. Oil on canvas. 1869. 598 x 295 cm. Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlesruhe. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Symposium, Pausanias, one of the speakers Symonds references, contradicts Phaedrus’ description of love, claiming he ought to have distinguished between heavenly and earthly — or heavenly and common — love (Plato, xx). There are, Pausanias claims, two Aphrodites: the heavenly one born from Uranus, who represents an intelligent, noble form of love, and the younger, common Aphrodite born from Zeus and Dione, who represents a perverted lust that is merely a love of the body, not of the soul (Plato, xx).

These two separate forms of love are referenced by Symonds in A Problem in Greek Ethics in his discussion of paiderastia; he describes “two separate forms of masculine passion clearly marked in early Hellas—a noble and a base, a spiritual and a sensual. To the distinction between them the Greek conscience was acutely sensitive” (Problem, section VI). His focus then shifts specifically to the “nobler type of masculine love” the Greeks practiced, stating:

The immediate subject of the ensuing inquiry will, therefore, be that mixed form of paiderastia upon which the Greeks prided themselves, which had for its heroic ideal the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, but which in historic times exhibited a sensuality unknown to Homer. In treating of this unique product of their civilisation I shall use the terms Greek Love

A Problem in Greek Ethics

Examples of these relationships are prominent in Greek literature and history. Symonds discusses some of these lovers, famous for their heroic contributions to Greece, and in the section of the essay called “Semi-legendary tales of love,” Section IX, he briefly mentions the most famous pair, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, lauded as heroes for killing the tyrant Hipparchus. This common reference to Harmodius and Aristogeiton as “self-devoted patriots” is an interesting one, because the idea to kill both tyrants was not originally born from a desire to restore democracy; it was of a desire for revenge (Thucydides, xx).

A statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Harmodius has his right arm raised, thrusting his sword forward. Aristogeiton has a cape draped over his left shoulder and is holding a sword in his left hand.
Statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Roman copy of Greek bronze. 2nd century AD. National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Photograph by Elliott Brown. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The story begins when Hipparchus sets his sights on Harmodius and tries in vain to seduce him. Harmodius, however, is already in a relationship with Aristogeiton, who is enraged when he learns of Hipparchus’ advances (Thucydides, xx). Hipparchus, nursing a bruised ego, makes a public suggestion that Harmodius’ sister isn’t a virgin, which inspires the lovers to kill him off. After some thinking, their plans become more ambitious, and what starts as a revenge plot is now instead a plot to kill off both Hipparchus and his tyrant brother Hippias, in order to topple the entire regime (Thucydides, xx). While they do not succeed in destroying the regime, they do manage to kill Hipparchus, for which they are both killed shortly after.

Although the lovers perhaps weren’t quite the radical patriots the Greeks may have imagined them to be, and although their sacrifices didn’t ultimately do much to save Athens (for Hippias became even more tyrannical after the death of his brother), one can certainly read the nobility in risking one’s life alongside their lover in order to get revenge, and it is not difficult to see why they were called heroes for their crime. 

Another point of interest in this event is the way heavenly love prevails while earthly love seems almost to be punished. Hipparchus’ interest in Harmodius was based entirely on the love of the body, not the soul, which is evident in his heated reaction to being rejected. He who bore the earthly love, then, was killed off, and the heavenly, heroic love that persisted between Harmodius and Aristogeiton was there until their own deaths. 

While Symonds doesn’t tell this story in full, he does share a bit in his Memoirs that relates to the idea of heavenly love being much more ideal than earthly love. He recounts several early exposures to sexual behaviors that repulsed him. One was an encounter with a boy who masturbated in front of him; he describes his reaction as:

The attractions of a dimly divined almost mystic sensuality persisted in my nature, side by side with a marked repugnance to lust in action…

Memoirs, 100

Shortly after he says:

…This [photograph of  the Praxitelean Cupid] strengthened the ideal I was gradually forming of adolescent beauty…The Cretan customs of heroic paiderastia had much that was good in them.

Memoirs, 118

While Symonds’s encounter with the representation of the statue of Eros by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles occurred some time before he became very interested in Plato, it’s interesting to note this early idea of being attracted to something more abstract than the physical body.

However, one does need to examine these passages within the context of the time; they were written during a period in which homosexuality (or “sexual inversion,” as it was commonly referred to at the time) was not accepted. While talking about his life at Oxford, Symonds devotes a chapter to a boy he fell in love with while there, a chorister named Alfred Brooke. Despite Alfred’s advances toward him, Symonds found himself unable to act on his attraction to Alfred, claiming:

A respectable regard for my father, an ideal of purity in conduct, a dread of the world’s opinion forced upon me by Vaughan’s and Shorting’s histories, combined to make me shrink from action.

Memoirs, 202

He also claims:

Sins of the body are less pernicious than sins of the imagination.

Memoirs, 202

These passages can be read as indicative of an apprehension of prevalent homophobia, especially when considering the usage of words such as “purity” and “sin.”

In addition, while he says toward the end of the Memoirs that to “pay a man to go to bed with me, to get an hour’s gratification out of him at such a price, and then never to see him again, was always abhorrent to my nature,” he follows this idea by stating:

An element of intimacy is demanded, out of which the sexual indulgence springs like a peculiar plant…But I have not sought it, except in the occasional instances mentioned above, unless I was aware that the man knew I meant to be his friend and stand by him.

Memoirs, 519

The latter statement contradicts his earlier assertion of being repulsed by sexual behaviors altogether; rather, here he seems to avoid sexual behaviors that have no basis in intimacy and love. While Symonds does show his appreciation for aestheticism and displays a tendency to prefer heavenly love, it is difficult to argue that his disgust with sexual behavior was a genuine indication of his own personal feelings instead of a larger societal belief.

Despite this question of sincerity, influence from Plato’s works can still clearly be read in Symonds’s own writings. It is from many early passages in the Memoirs that we can trace the ideas that led to the birth of works such as Greek Ethics, inspired by the theories and heroes of ancient Greek literature and the development of his sexuality that resulted. 


Plato, “Symposium.” The Dialogues of Plato: Translated into English, by Benjamin Jowett, 3rd ed., vol. 1, University Press, 1892.

Symonds, John Addington. “A Problem in Greek Ethics (1897).” John Addington Symonds Project, 10 Aug. 2020.

Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Thucydides. “The History of the Peloponnesian War.” Project Gutenberg, translated by Richard Crawley, updated 7 Sept. 2021,