Early in the morning on January 8th, 2020, I took my bike and headed for Georgetown University, where I have taught Italian literature and culture since 2002. I felt the anticipation mixed with a hint of anxiety that always marks the first meeting of a course. The day before, I had gone to campus to become familiar with my classroom and walked its length and width a few times, pausing to look at the empty chairs.
Absorbed as I was by the beginning of the semester, I did not pay much attention to a headline in the Washington Post that same day: Specter of possible new virus emerging from central China raises alarms across Asia. The article described “a new disease possibly linked to a wild animal market in Wuhan,” with “no clear evidence” of human transmission.
I was still oblivious to the threat of what would soon be known as the novel coronavirus when, a few weeks later, I introduced my students to the Decameron. The pestilence that Boccaccio describes originated in the East, was probably brought to Italy by Genoese merchants, and spread through Europe like wildfire, killing an estimated one-third of its population.
With unparalleled clarity and surgical precision, Boccaccio describes not only the symptoms of the disease, but also individual reactions in the face of danger and the social repercussions of the plague. He depicts people who limited human interaction to a minimum for fear of becoming infected and those who, on the contrary, partied like there was no tomorrow because they felt that, well, there was no tomorrow.
Society broke down, family bonds disintegrated, the dead became so numerous that it was impossible to honor them all, and corpses were laid to rest in mass graves. As science seemed powerless, men and women without any training in medicine started acting like physicians. Just imagine, I told my students, knowing full well that they could not, that none of us could. By the end of January, however, the spread of the coronavirus had already forced Italy to declare a state of emergency, and the first US patient had been diagnosed in Washington state.
The Decameron describes the collapse of society, but it also outlines a path toward healing. One morning, Boccaccio writes, in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, seven women and three men meet, decide to retire to the Tuscan countryside and establish their own rules to replace the ones the plague has destroyed.
The small-scale society that the 10 Florentines build for themselves is shockingly modern for its time, with men and women joining together in conversation and sharing responsibilities and privileges, each becoming queen or king for a day. They agree to avoid games, which could inject bitterness and dissension in their newfound harmony, and instead tell stories, so that each of them will in turn bring pleasure to the rest of the company.
Like Scheherazade who spins new plots for her cruel husband for a thousand and one nights, postponing the moment of her execution and eventually saving her life, the young protagonists of the Decameron tell stories to keep death at bay.
On February 21st, the first case of community spread was diagnosed in Italy. The person initially identified as Patient One was a 38-year-old man from Codogno, a town of 15,000 people in the prosperous Lombardy region. As I peered over Google Maps to locate it, I realized how unlikely it would be for a virus to find its way to Codogno but somehow overlook Washington, DC.
Let’s hope, I told my students at the next meeting, that we will always need to stretch our imagination to know what a pandemic is like. A few days later, President Trump announced that “within a couple of days” the 15 cases in the United States would be brought “down to close to zero” and commented: “That’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” I was beginning to worry.
As the number of cases in Italy began its exponential climb, Georgetown closed its programs there and asked returning students to self-quarantine. When I looked around the classroom during our last meeting before spring break, it dawned on me: we were a gathering of 10 people, like the storytellers in the Decameron! Should we be put on lockdown, I told my students, I had an idea for how to pass the time.
Had I known that class would be the last time we would meet in person, I would have taken a little longer to say goodbye. During spring break, faced with the seemingly unstoppable spread of what the WHO on March 11th declared a pandemic, Georgetown asked students to leave campus and moved to a virtual learning environment. I spent that week becoming familiar with online teaching technology and revising the syllabus to reflect the new circumstances.
I knew students were going through an incredibly challenging time. They were forced to go home to their families, without knowing if and when they would see their classmates again. Seniors had to scrap their plans for commencement, athletes had trained hard for competitions that were now cancelled, international students were forced to fly thousands of miles and several time zones away – not to mention issues of mental illness, substance abuse, strained family dynamics, and the like. And then, of course, there was the pandemic itself.
On March 10th, President Trump issued his remarks after speaking with Republican senators. The meeting had been “great,” with some “very good” updates on the virus; the taskforce was “tremendous” and had done “not a good job, a great job”; the coronavirus had only killed 26 people in the U.S., compared to the 8,000 lives claimed by the flu. “A lot of good things are going to happen,” the President promised. I decided it was time to panic.
By the time the first day of online teaching arrived, I had a plan. After the first week of transition to virtual teaching – a week when students were still moving off campus – exactly 10 meetings remained. Ten people, for 10 days, for a class that started on the day our plague was first mentioned in the newspaper… Too many coincidences not to heed the call. I suggested that we work on a common project.
Each of us would become queen or king for a day, choose a fictional identity, and tell a story that the others would then discuss, just like those Florentines almost 700 years ago. For 15 minutes at the end of each class, with the help of the virtual background in Zoom, we would be transported to the Tuscan hills and walk in the footsteps of Boccaccio’s storytellers. We would honor both Boccaccio and Georgetown’s motto “Hoya Saxa” (“what rocks!”) by naming our creation the Hoyasaxon.
And so we began.
Stories featured characters from different walks of life, such as a politician who loses a gubernatorial race when he publicly states that he does not believe in God; a bread maker who is unjustly deprived of his due, and in turn commits injustice himself; a selfish and incompetent ruler who succumbs to the disease ravaging the country he had been elected to lead; and two friends discussing the best investment strategy during a pandemic.
We explored love, ingenuity, religion, betrayal, social justice, and the inequalities among students at a prestigious fictional university. The last tale, set in Venice, provided a fitting end to the experiment by illustrating how beauty can manifest itself in the most trying circumstances.
We started our time together as 10 bodies sharing a classroom, and we ended it as 10 small windows on a screen. In the background of the squares that framed each of my students, I could see and hear glimpses and sounds of their worlds-a poster, an open closet, a relative walking by, a dog barking. And yet, as we built the Hoyasaxon tale by tale, we were brought together.
One of the students said that he imagined telling his story as we all sat around a fire in our Tuscan villa. In a way, I felt we were more connected than ever, because the threat we were confronting, and our determination to face it together, united us all regardless of our differences in age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Through the stories we expressed our care for one another, our desire to overcome displacement and fragmentation, our commitment to strengthen communal bonds and build resilience. “If you ask me,” a student wrote, “I think that Boccaccio would be proud.”
The end of the Decameron has always left me sad and uneasy. After two weeks in the countryside, the storytellers return to their starting point, the Church of Santa Maria Novella, while the plague continues its ravages. Their strange, suspended time together draws to an end, and the old world reaffirms its rules and breaks their community. The men bid farewell and leave, while the ladies linger a little longer before retiring to their homes.
By our last day of class, the number of cases in the US was approaching one million, and over 50,000 people had died. We wore Georgetown colours – blue and gray – and turned on our Tuscan background to hear the last story. Then, it was time to return to reality, with all its grief and uncertainty. We took a class picture, or rather, a class screenshot, and waved goodbye. My hand lingered for a second on the "end meeting for all" button. I clicked. The screen went blank.
Laura Benedetti is Laura and Gaetano De Sole Professor of Contemporary Italian Culture, Department of Italian, Georgetown University, Washington, DC