The Decameron Web. How does encoding help pedagogy?

  1. 1. Giovanna Roz Gastad

    Scholarly Technology Group - Brown University

  2. 2. Elli Mylonas

    Center for Digital Scholarship - Brown University

  3. 3. Massimo Riva

    Italian Studies - Brown University

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In this paper we will focus on the pedagogical goals of the Decameron Web, and we will discuss how the SGML encoding of the primary text and the related retrieval system contribute to the teaching and learning experience in the digital environment. In addition, we will present the results of a user evaluation that will take place in the spring semester, 2001.


The Decameron Web, previously presented in a poster at ACH/ALLC 2000 in Glasgow, is a growing on-line resource, conceived to support teaching and learning about Boccaccio's masterpiece, and various aspects of life and culture in Medieval times. It is available in the form of a website, containing a bilingual (Italian and English) text of the Decameron, interlinked with a wide variety of secondary sources.

The project started in 1995 at Brown University under the direction of Massimo Riva, Associate Professor in Italian Studies and Modern Culture and Media, with the collaboration of Michael Papio, who is now Assistant Professor of Italian at the College of the Holy Cross. During these five years, undergraduate and graduate students of Professor Riva's Decameron class, have contributed most of the secondary sources present in the website; scholars and teachers of Boccaccio in other universities and colleges are also active participants in its development.

Since 1998, the Brown University Scholarly Technology Group has been offering its expertise to improve the quality of the primary sources, and thus offer students and scholars of Boccaccio a reliable digital textual resource, designed to suit their research needs. Text encoding is central to these improvements, and we will further discuss and evaluate its impact in this paper.

In the fall of 1999 the project was awarded a two-year NEH grant, which, among other benefits, permitted the hiring of a full-time director, Michael Hemment, from Harvard University, and also of graduate student collaborators in Italian Studies.

During the year 2000, the Decameron Web has been undergoing a thorough redesign phase, which consists of improvements in graphic layout, content and functionality. One of the principal goals of this redesign is for Professor Riva and his teaching partners to have access to a resource that can accommodate changes and refinements based on their pedagogical needs. An example is the ongoing expansion of the Arts section, overseen by Evelyn Lincoln, Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Brown University, and new collaborator of the Decameron Web.

Teaching a Classic as Hypertext

Professor Riva's theoretical approach to the teaching of the Decameron is based on the consideration that Boccaccio's book can be considered a hypertext 'in a virtual sense'. He writes: ' ... the textual structure of the Decameron, with its combination of macro- and microcomponents --the so-called frame and the hundred novellas, virtually suggests ... a hypertextual, multilinear type of reading.'1

Students in his class learn to use the hypertextual Decameron Web which includes both the new visual and cognitive form of the virtual book, and the secondary information about Boccaccio and his times.2 During the semester, each student assumes the virtual identity of one of the ten narrators who make up the brigata, while the instructor takes responsibility for the virtual identity of the author-narrator. Like the brigata of young Florentines who narrate the tales of the Decameron, a learning brigata is formed, with leaders in charge of the class discussion, according to the order established by the text. Each student has to write a short commentary for the novellas told by the narrator he or she represents, and to develop ideas and content for additional contextual documents to add to the Decameron Web.

Text encoding and pedagogy

The pedagogical hands-on approach to the digital text: analyzing stories told by the same narrator and locating different levels of discourse in the text, presented several limitations when the primary sources were encoded in basic HTML. Identification and retrieval of the stories was based on a static HTML file containing a linked list of the relevant novellas for each narrator. Once users found a single novella file, they could only browse it and retrieve words with the browser's 'find' mechanism.

The need to access the text at a fine granularity, and to search it according to its divisions, narrative voices, people and places of interest, required text encoding appropriate for the task. At STG we decided to use SGML encoding, and to design a DTD based on TEILite that would suit the need for descriptive markup, without having the richness and complexity of full TEI. The practical considerations behind these decisions were that the SGML encoding would grant the requested accessibility and retrieval, and could easily be delivered over the World Wide Web with Dynaweb, an application already used successfully by the Women Writers Project, also at STG. Moreover, the TEILite version of the DTD would make future conversion to XML easy, reduce the overall encoding by only using a limited subset of TEI, and be appropriate for a project which didn't intend to encode the presentational aspects of the print artifact.

In choosing what to encode, we combined our knowledge of SGML and its capabilities with Professor Riva and his team's expectations for the new version of the Italian text. From the beginning of the text encoding process we all tried to anticipate possible questions and needs of the general public and of the students, both undergraduate and graduate. The five graduate students who participated in the encoding also gave constructive feedback. The principal aim of the encoding was to analyze the text, define the peculiarities of its narrative structure, including the different voices, and pay particular attention to all the proper nouns. We therefore chose to identify and encode the divisions of the text, narrative shifts in discourse, direct speeches and songs, named characters and places, and unnamed speaking characters and unnamed relevant places.3 To make the encoding of names easier, and more robust, each name is thoroughly encoded out-of-line in one file (at the moment stored in the back matter) which functions as a database. Inline references to people and places are extremely simple: they are only identified as a person or place, and given an IDREF, which points to its correspondent ID in the database.

The database file and the narrative divisions of the text, constitute the source data for the retrieval system we have designed. A set of search features, divided by character, geographic location and word search, allow the student, for example, to run an on-line query for all the young men with role of merchant in the narration of Fiammetta. Although the searches have been designed to provide teachers and students with access to the Italian text, they may also be of use to a general user who is not acquainted with the text and who doesn't read Italian. At the same time, they are powerful enough to benefit a researcher who wants to search the whole text at once using meaningful criteria. To make the text more accessible to naïve users, we also provide dynamically generated tabular lists of particular groups of people (e.g. non Christian), and of places (e.g list of all the named places in Italy). The information contained in these lists is derived directly from the database of names.

In addition to the Italian text, the website now offers a lightly encoded English translation, (J.M. Rigg, 1921), which is linked to and from the Italian version, down to paragraph and sentence number. The Italian version will remain the only searchable one, but we are currently developing a facing-text display, which will allow users to view both texts simultaneously. The facing texts will help non-Italian students enrich their understanding of the text by allowing them to rely on the English translation, but to browse in and compare with the original Medieval Italian text.

In order to give the Decameron more analytical context, we plan to add other works by Boccaccio, specifically the Corbaccio and the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, which will be encoded with the same DTD, and delivered with the same software, thus creating a collection of works by Boccaccio, and, ultimately, of their translations. In addition, we are developing audio files of the novellas read in Italian; this interactive tool will assist students in learning the Italian language, and its Medieval characteristics.4


The question of how the new Decameron Web section of the Texts of Boccaccio -- with the SGML-encoded Italian text, the recently added English translation, search features and lists based on the encoding-- is going to improve the teaching and learning of Decameron is still open.

A first testing of the detailed search features has been done during Professor Riva's spring 2000 class, when students have written their final papers after searching the on-line text. Their overall feedback was positive, but not carefully evaluated.

An evaluation form, designed to assess how useful students find the opportunity to search and view results on-line, and to compare original text and translation, will be used during spring 2001. Our main interest is to discover what kind of research tasks students find simplified and enhanced by the on-line tools, and whether they believe these tasks are useful for understanding the Decameron. This will give us feedback not only about the effectiveness of our new design and features, but also about the benefits and limitations of a pedagogical approach that uses a resource specifically based on text encoding. A new pedagogy module will also be tested at Brown in spring 2001: a set of reading pathways and homework activities will guide students through the new tools, and familiarize them with this different way of encountering the text. Our evaluation form will also be made available to other educational institutions which are already using the Decameron Web in their courses. Classes which return their forms will be asked for their syllabus, and be evaluated as a unit.

Our work follows an iterative development process: we have anticipated the user needs with our encoding and delivery choices; now we teach users how to use the new on-line resource; next, in the near future we look forward to making new developments in accordance with users' feedback.


1 See Massimo Riva, 'The Decameron Web: Teaching a Classic as Hypertext', in: Approaches to Teaching Boccaccio's Decameron, ed. James H. McGregor, New York, 2000, p. 173.

2 Inspiration for the creation of the hypertextual resource Decameron Web has been the work done at Brown University by IRIS, George Landow and Robert Coover. The Decameron Web, though, contains the bilingual text of Boccaccio's classic at the center of a hypertextual collection of essays.

3 Partial inspiration for these encoding choices, especially for the ones relating to places, has been The World of Dante (, ongoing at the University of Virginia under the editing supervision of Professor Deborah Parker.

4 The inspiration is the Princeton Dante Project (, in which Professor Lino Pertile reads the text of the Inferno.


Boccaccio, Giovanni, Decameron, ed. Vittore Branca (Turin: Einaudi, 1992).

The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, trans. J. M. Rigg (London: privately printed for the Navarre Society Limited, 1921).

Landow, George, Hypertext 2.0; Being a Revised, Expanded Edition of Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Riva, Massimo, 'The Decameron Web: Teaching a Classic as Hypertext', in: Approaches to Teaching Boccaccio's Decameron, ed. James H. McGregor (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2000), pp.172-182.

On-line References:

The Decameron Text: http://www.stg.brow

The Decameron Web:

The Princeton Dante Project:

The Victorian Web: http://landow.stg.brown .edu/victorian/victov.html

The Women Writers Project:

The World of Dante: http://jefferson.village.vir

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC