Guido Cavalcanti  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1255 – August 1300) was an Italian poet who was a role model for and a very close friend of Dante. He was born in Florence and was the son of the Guelph Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, whom Dante condemns to torment in the sixth circle of his Inferno, where the heretics are punished. As part of a political reconciliation between the Blacks and Whites, two factions of Guelphs, Guido married Beatrice the daughter of Ghibelline party leader Farinata degli Uberti. Unlike Dante, he was an atheist.
Si diceva tralla gente volgare che queste sue speculazioni erano solo in cercare se trovar si potesse che Iddio non fosse (people said he was speculating about finding the way to demonstrate that God does not exist). Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, VI, 9.
His poetry explores the philosophy of love. In June 1300, when the Florentines had become tired of brawling between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, the leaders of both factions were exiled and Cavalcanti was amongst them. He was sent to Sarzana, where, after only a few months he decided to try to return to Florence. He died of fever in August of the same year on his journey home.



Cavalcanti is best remembered for belonging to that small but influential group of Tuscan poets that started what is now known as Dolce Stil Novo, to which he contributed the following (note: translations provided in parentheses do not match the titles by which are widely known in English manuals but are meant to be a more literal rendering of the Italian originals): "Rosa fresca novella" (New, Fresh Rose), "Avete in vo' li fior e la verdura" (You Are Flowers in the Meadow), "Biltà di donna" (A Woman's Beauty), Chi è questa che vèn (Who's This Lady That Comes My Way), "Li mie' foll'occhi" (My Crazy Eyes), "L'anima Mia" (My Soul), "Guido Orlandi", "Da più a uno" (From Many to One), "In un boschetto" (In A Grove), "Per ch'io no spero" (Because I Do Not Hope), "Voi che per gli occhi mi passaste il core" (see below), and "Donna me prega" (A Lady's Orders), a masterpiece of lyric verse and a small treatise on his philosophy of love. Starting from the model provided by the French troubadours, they took Italian poetry a step further and inaugurated the volgare illustre, that higher standard of Italian language that survives almost unchanged to the present day. The founder of this school, Guido Guinizzelli, a law professor at Bologna’s University wrote the first poem of this kind, a poem whose importance does not so much lie in its literary merits but in outlining what would the fundamentals of the Stil Novo program, which was further perfected by a second generation of poets, including Dante, Cino da Pistoia, Lapo Gianni, and Guido himself. As Dante wrote in his De Vulgari Eloquentia, I, XIII, 4:

"Sed quanquam fere omne Tusci in suo turpiloquio sint obtusi, nunnullos vulgaris excellentiam cognovisse sentimus, scilicit Guidonem, Lapum, et unum alium, Florentinos et Cynum Pistoriensem (...) (“Although most Tuscans are overwhelmed by their bad language, we think that someone has experimented the excellence of high vernacular, namely Guido, Lapo and another [i.e: Dante himself], all from Florence, and Cino da Pistoia”.

This second generation, active between the later 13th and early 14th centuries, however, is not a school in the literary sense of the term. Rather, it is a group of friends who share similar ethical and esthetic ideals though not without noticeable differences in their approach; Dante is probably the most spiritual and platonic in his portrayal of Beatrice (Vita Nuova), but Cino da Pistoia is able to write poetry in which “there is a remarkable psychological interest in love, a more tangible presence of the woman, who loses the abstract aura of Guinizzelli and Guido’s verse” (Giudice-Bruni), and Guido Cavalcanti interprets love as a source of torment and despair in the surrendering of self to the beloved. An example in kind, and one of Guido’s most widely read lyrics is a sonnet entitled Voi che per gli occhi mi passaste il core (Transl. You, Whose Look Pierced through My Heart), dedicated, to his beloved Monna (lady) Vanna:

Voi che per gli occhi mi passaste ‘l core
e destaste la mente che dormìa,
guardate a l’angosciosa vita mia
che sospirando la distrugge amore
E’ ven tagliando di sì gran valore
che’ deboletti spiriti van via
riman figura sol en segnoria
e voce alquanta, che parla dolore.
Questa vertù d’amor che m’ha disfatto
Da’ vostri occhi gentil presta si mosse:
un dardo mi gittò dentro dal fianco.
Sì giunse ritto ‘l colpo al primo tratto,
che l’anima tremando si riscosse
veggendo morto ‘l cor nel lato manco.
You whose look pierced through my heart,
Waking up my sleeping mind,
behold an anguished life
which love is killing with sighs.
So deeply love cuts my soul
that weak spirits are vanquished,
and what remains the only master
is this voice that speaks of woe.
This virtue of love, that has undone me
Came from your heavenly eyes:
It threw an arrow into my side.
So straight was the first blow
That the soul, quivering, reverberated,
seeing the heart on the left was dead.

The philosophical background and "Donna me prega"

His pessimistic views are perhaps influenced by atheism: he believed in averroistic theories. According to these a man’s soul is material, and dies with the body. In Guido’s case, love may lead to death or close to it when a man’s soul, being corporeal, is mortally wounded by the disdain of the woman he loves. In the Dolce Stil Novo, as in troubadour and Sicilian poetry, it is not the woman that falls in love, but the other way round: the first appearance of the madonna strikes the poet’s heart like lightning, and while she is generally unaware of what she's done, the man finds himself shackled by passion and unable to get his mind off her. With its genuine interest in psychology, the Dolce Stil Novo is, in fact, remarkably nearer to Petrarch and the modern romantic sensibility than it is to other medieval styles of poetry. By following averroistic and aquinian scholastic theories, Guido is able to map all the movements of his heart: each passion, virtue or brain function is assigned to spiritelli, or genies (faculties, powers, virtues and spirits).

The most philosophical of his songs is probably "Donna me prega" (A Woman's Orders), a fully-fledged treatise on courtly love as seen by Dolce Stil Novo, but with clear personal accents. Guido claims to have been prompted to write it by his mistress, according to a formula very widespread in troubadour poetry and inherited by the Sicilian School and therefore Dolce Stil Novo. Guido's doctrine also draws on the greatest medieval poets or scholars, such as Chrétien de Troyes and Brunetto Latini. There are several hints to the Roman de la Rose, then considered the "Bible" of courtly love, for example in the famous line "a man who does not experience it [love] cannot picture it", a common axiom variously quoted from the troubadours to Dante's Vita Nuova. "Donna me prega", a remarkable anatomy of love, is divided into five stanzas of fourteen variously rhymed lines of eleven syllables each. The subject is divided into eight chapters dealing with

  1. Where love is located in the human body,
  2. What causes it
  3. What his faculties (virtues) are
  4. His power (what it can do or cause)
  5. His essence (what it is made of)
  6. His motions (or alterations it causes in the human body or mind)
  7. What makes us call it love
  8. The possibility of probing its effects using our sight.

In short, the sensitive, like the rational soul is located in the brain, but does not produce love-feelings unless the eyes meet those of a particular woman who has exclusive affinity to him. This complies with Aristotle's theory of cause and effect, whereby no effect can proceed from an object if the object has not the potential to accomplish it. When a woman's look meet the eyes of a man, the potential for love grows into passion, a spirit or fluid that possesses all his faculties. Such a passion needs more and more love to satisfy its ever-growing appetite, until (when desire outstrips human limits) he is led to insanity and death.

This highly philosophical canzone was extremely influential, and it was commented upon by authors including Dino del Garbo, pseudo-Giles, Giles of Rome, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Iacopo Mini, and Fracesco de Vieri (see Enrico Fenzi, La canzone d'amore di Guido Cavalcanti e i suoi antichi commenti, Melangolo, 1999).

While this has very little to do with modern psychology, Guido's philosophy of spiritelli was part of the guiding principles of Arabic medicine, considered very advanced at Dante's times. The merit of such philosophy in Cavalcanti's verse is its ability to describe what goes through the poet’s mind in a very detailed, personal manner, creating sensuous, autobiographic poetry. This is revolutionary compared to the rhetoric and academic exercise of the Sicilian and Neo-Sicilian Schools that had preceded the Dolce Stil Novo and, perhaps, a sign of the changing times.


Cavalcanti is widely regarded as the first major poet of Italian literature: Dante calls him "mentor". In the Commedia he says through Oderisi da Gubbio that "...ha tolto l'uno a l'altro Guido / la gloria de la lingua" (Purgatory XI, 97-8): the verse of the latter, younger Guido (Cavalcanti) has surpassed that of the former, (Guido) Guinizzelli, the founder of Dolce Stil Novo. Dante sees in Guido his mentor: his meter, his language deeply inspire his work (cfr. De Divina Eloquentia), though Guido's esthetic materialism will be taken a step further to an entirely new spiritual, Christian vision of the gentler sex, as personified by Beatrice whose soul becomes Dante's guide to Paradise.

Guido's controversial personality and beliefs attracted the interest of Boccaccio, who made him one of the most famous heretical characters in his Decameron, helping popularise the belief about his atheism. Cavalcanti will be studied with perhaps more interest during the Renaissance, by such scholars as Luigi Pulci and Pico della Mirandola. By passing to Dante's study of the Italian language, Guido's style has influenced all those who, like cardinal Pietro Bembo, helped turn the volgare illustre into today's Italian language.

Cavalcanti was to become a strong influence on a number of writers associated with the development of Modernist poetry in English. This influence can be traced back to the appearance, in 1861, of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Early Italian Poets, which featured translations of works by both Cavalcanti and Dante.

The young Ezra Pound admired Rossetti and knew his Italian translations well. quoting extensively from them in his 1910 book The Spirit of Romance. In 1912, Pound published his own translations under the title The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti and in 1936, he edited the Italian poet's works as Rime. A reworked translation of Donna me prega formed the bulk of Canto XXXVI in Pound's long poem The Cantos. Pound's main focus was on Cavalcanti's philosophy of love and light, which he viewed as a continuing expression of a pagan, neo-platonic tradition stretching back through the troubadours and early medieval Latin lyrics to the world of pre-Christian polytheism. Pound also composed a three-act opera titled Cavalcanti at the request of Archie Harding, a producer at the BBC. Though never performed in his lifetime, excerpts are available on audio CD.

Pound's friend and fellow modernist T. S. Eliot used an adaptation of the opening line of Perch'i' no spero di tornar giammai ("Because I do not hope to turn again") to open his poem Ash Wednesday.

See also

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