Guido Cavalcanti

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CAVALCANTI, GUIDO

Italian poet; b. Florence, c. 1259; d. there, August 1300. He was prominent in the political conflicts between factions of the guelfs and died of a fever contracted in political exile. Dante called him "the first of my friends" and dedicated the Vita Nuova to him. Guido's name appears several times in the Divina Commedia as the poet who had stolen the glory of G. Guinizelli's style, and Guido's poems are praised in Dante's De vulgari eloquentia as "most subtle and smooth." These references led to the conclusion that Cavalcanti's poetry sprang from the same conceptual and poetic sources, the same atmosphere, from which the Vita Nuova arose, and that he manifests the qualities generally judged characteristic of the dolce stil nuovo mainly the idea that poetry is inspired by love and that the mystic conception of beauty is the source of nobility and perfection and a ladder to God. There is indeed considerable insistence in Cavalcanti's poetry on the destructive force of love and on the fear and torment caused by the approach of the beloved; these aspects were considered personal quirks of his pessimistic and melancholy mind.

It is clear now, however, that these views have to be abandoned. There can be no doubt that when Dante speaks of himself and of the dolce stil nuovo in the famous lines "I mi son un che quando Amore spira noto," he does not speak of love that inspires, but of the spirits, the movements of love that he and his friends are able to detect and describe. In fact, the most important of Guinizelli's and Cavalcanti's poems are a kind of scientific analysis of love, with no reference to personal sentiment. Considered without reference to background, these poems seem inspired by Christian mysticism, but Guinizelli's key thought clearly derives from Avicenna's pagan conception of beauty as an emanation from a higher Intelligence and as a ladder to perfection. Cavalcanti speaks of love in conformity with Averroes' thought; he explains it as a passion of the sensitive appetite and holds that "from its power death often originates," because it prevents rational activity, the true life of man. Cavalcanti's conception of love as something that alienates the soul from the "supreme good" and brings death to man is to be found in the Averroist treatise De summa felicitate by G. da Pistoia, which is significantly dedicated "to Guido, most beloved friend." Cavalcanti's canzone "Donna mi prega" clearly expresses the repudiation of love by a philosopher who praises contemplation of the truth above all and rejects the fears and mutability of lovers.

It must be added that Cavalcanti is not simply a rigorous Averroistic philosopher. He is a poet first of all; he strove to create pure intellectual poetry, excluding every hint of sentiment or personal experience. His is a stern, sententious language, obscure, aphoristic, making no concession to common speech. It was a necessary cloak to hide his atheism, but it sprang primarily from the disdain of the philosopher (clearly expressed in a polemic against Guido Orlandi) for all ordinary people unable to understand his "scientific demonstration." Further, Cavalcanti conceived of poetry as something difficult and subtle. He was a versatile poet, however, and wrote in the dolce stil nuovo some pieces not inferior to Dante for grace and limpidity, and also some delicate, fresh pastorals. His ballata "Perch'io non spero," written during his exile from Florence in 1300, expresses with deep sincerity and moving tenderness his sorrow and nostalgia.

If at times Cavalcanti reverts to the themes and modes of Guinizelli, it is clear that he is not speaking of a real woman whom he adores, but of philosophy, his true lady. It is of her that he spoke in a sonnet to Guido Orlandi, opposing her to the Blessed Virgin and praising her for her power to heal and other miracles. Dante implies that Cavalcanti was excluded from the way to God because he had been a follower of Aristotelian naturalism and had disdained the help of Vergil, the poet of the divine mission of Rome. Cavalcanti mirrors the last years of the secularism of the 13th century. With him the religious superficiality of the troubadours turns into a pronounced repudiation of religion. He was dedicated to poetry, philosophical rigor, and a treatment of love on a purely psychological level, to the complete exclusion of moral and religious values.

Bibliography: g. cavalcanti, Le rime, ed. g. favati (Milan 1957). m. casella, "La Canzone d'amore di Guido Cavalcanti," Studi di filologia italiana 7 (1944) 95160. o. bird, ed., "The Canzone d'amore of Cavalcanti according to the Commentary of Dino del Garbo," Mediaeval Studies 2 (1940) 150203; 3 (1941) 117160. b. nardi, "L'averroismio del primo amico di Dante," Studi danteschi 25 (1940) 4379; "Noterella polemica sull'averroismio di G. Cavalcanti," Rassegna di filosofia 3 (1954) 4771. j. e. shaw, Guido Cavalcanti's Theory of Love (Toronto 1949). g. favati, "La Canzone d'amore del Cavalcanti," Letterature moderne 3 (1952) 422453. p. o. kristeller, "A Philosophical Treatise from Bologna Dedicated to G. Cavalcanti and His Questio de Felicitate," in Medioevo e Rinascimento: Studi in onore di Bruno Nardi, 2 v. (Florence 1955) 1:425463. r. montano, Storia della poesia di Dante, v.1 (Naples 1962).

[r. montano]

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Guido Cavalcanti

The Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti (ca. 1255-1300) was one of the originators of the dolce stil nuovo, or sweet new style, in Italian poetry of the late 13th century. He was a contemporary of Dante, who called him his "first friend."

Guido Cavalcanti was born in Florence not later than 1259, the son of a wealthy Guelf. In 1267 the boy Guido was married to Bice, the daughter of the Ghibelline leader Farinata degli Uberti, possibly in a peacemaking attempt between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. Guido was one of the Guelf guarantors of a peace concluded between the two factions in 1280. In 1284 he was a member of the General Council of the commune.

Contemporary chroniclers portray Cavalcanti as a disdainful, solitary, studious man, courtly and daring, and a good philosopher. His fiery temperament is evident in his animosity toward Corso Donati, the leader of the Black Guelfs of Florence. While Cavalcanti was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela-a trip which took him to Toulouse, where he met a young woman, Mandetta, to whom he wrote two poems, and to Nîmes but not beyond-it is said that Corso attempted to have him assassinated. Cavalcanti tried in vain to avenge himself by spurring his horse against Corso in a Florentine street and throwing a dart. A general fight ensued, involving also the Cerchi, leaders of the White Guelfs, whom Cavalcanti supported. On June 24, 1300, the priors of Florence (Dante among them) exiled some of the leaders of both factions, and Cavalcantri went to Sarzana with other followers of the Cerchi. His ballad of farewell, Perch'i' no spero di tornar giammai, a masterpiece of grace and tenderness, could have been written during this exile. He returned to Florence 2 months later, mortally ill. His death was recorded on Aug. 29, 1300, in the church of S. Reparata.

Poetic Works

The poems which can be attributed positively to Cavalcanti are 36 sonnets, 11 ballads, 2 canzoni, 2 isolated stanzas, and 1 motet. Almost all his poetry is concerned with love. In his famous canzone Donna me prega…, he develops his theory of love within an elaborate poetic structure and in complex philosophical terms. Original in Cavalcanti is his concept of love as a cruel, overpowering force with a violent potentiality for destruction. Love is a dark passion of the senses which arises from the contemplation of an image of ideal beauty abstracted by the possible intellect at the sight of a beautiful woman. From such love, death often result-a true state of death, in which the mind is destroyed and the poet moves about like an automation. The themes of fright and death predominate in Cavalcanti.

Cavalcanti incorporated into his poetic language a term from scholastic philosophy, "spirit" (spirito or spiritello), to indicate the various movements of the heart and the human faculties. The spirits become poetic personages by which Cavalcanti dramatically represents the psychology of the lover. The technique of personified spirits was adopted by Dante and other poets of the dolce stil nuovo.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Cavalcanti. Ernest Hatch Wilkins, A History of Italian Literature (1954), deals with his life and work, and Domenico Vittorini, The Age of Dante (1957), contains numerous references to his influence on Italian poetry and his relationship to Dante. For both political and literary background of the period see John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy (2 vols., 1935). □

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