Cavalcanti was born in Florence at a time when the comune was beginning its economic, political, intellectual and artistic ascendancy as one of the leading cities of the Renaissance. The disunited Italian peninsula was dominated by a political particularism that pitted city-states against one another, often with this factionalism contributing to the fractious and sometimes violent political environments of each comune. The domination of medieval religious interpretations of reality, morality and society were challenged by a rise of a new urban culture across Europe that gradually supplanted rural, local, ecclesiastical and feudal ways of thinking. There was an accompanying return to study, and to interpretation and emulation of the classics, known as a revival of antiquity. New secular and humanistic views laid the foundations for modern life in Western Civilization. As Jacob Burckhardt, Swiss historian and author of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy wrote, "It was not the revival of antiquity alone, but its union with the genius of the Italian people which achieved the conquest of the western world." In sum, Cavalcanti lived during and helped shape this time of great innovation that was spurred on by a desire to explore, create and experiment with new things.
The politics of Florence
Cavalcanti was the son of Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, a Guelph whom Dante condemns to torment in the sixth circle of his Inferno, where the heretics are punished. Unlike Dante, Guido was an atheist. As Giovanni Boccaccio (Decameron, VI, 9) wrote during the generation after Cavalcanti's death, "Si diceva tralla gente volgare che queste sue speculazioni erano solo in cercare se trovar si potesse che Iddio non-fosse" (People commonly said his speculations were only in trying to find that God did not exist).
During his lifetime, Florence was politically torn by the struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, factions supporting, respectively, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor in central and northern Italy during the 12th and 13th centuries. Although the struggle for power between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire had originally arisen with the Investiture Conflict of the 11th century, it was subsequently fed by a desire of either the Papacy or Holy Roman Emperor either to share in or to control the economic boom that was taking place in the leading cities of northern Italy during this time.
The division between Guelphs and Ghibellines was especially important in Florence, although the two sides frequently rebelled against each other and took power in many of the other northern Italian cities as well. Essentially the two sides were now fighting either against German influence (in the case of the Guelphs), or against the temporal power of the Pope (in the case of the Ghibellines). In Florence and elsewhere the Guelphs usually included merchants and burghers, while the Ghibellines tended to be noblemen. After the Guelphs finally defeated the Ghibellines in 1289 at Campaldino and Caprona, Guelphs began to fight among themselves. By 1300 Florence was divided into the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs. The Blacks continued to support the Papacy, while the Whites were opposed to Papal influence,
As part of a political reconciliation, Guido married Beatrice the daughter of Ghibelline party leader Farinata degli Uberti. 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 (probably malaria) in August of the same year on his journey home.
It is interesting to note that Guido's marriage to Beatrice degli Uberti should not be seen in the context of modern relationships where people marry each other for love, but rather in the context of his own age, when marriage was often motivated by business and/or political interests. As such, Guido's poetry, which dwells on love, should be seen as a philosophical exploration of love and not as that of a husband bound into and seeking satisfaction outside a marriage made for political purposes.
Dolce stil novo
Cavalcanti was a part of the Tuscan poetic movement known as the Dolce stil novo (Sweet New Style), whose members are referred to by their Tuscan name, the stilnovisti. The formative influences on the stilnovisti came from two main sources.
First, there was the poetry of the troubadour and trobairitz, who began the tradition of courtly love, known by its then contemporary term, as fin'amor in the ducal and princely courts of Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and ducal Burgundy, at the end of the eleventh century. Based on the Occitan language of south France, this courtly poetry, which was a part of Occitan literature, spread throughout all European cultivated circles in the 12th and 13th centuries. (Many of its poets can be found here in this list of troubadours and trobairitz.)
Second, there was the poetry of the Sicilian School, which was a small community of Sicilian, and to a lesser extent, mainland Italian poets gathered around Frederick II, most of them belonging to his court, the Magna Curia. Headed by Giacomo da Lentini, they produced more than three-hundred poems of courtly love between 1230 and 1266, the experiment being continued after Frederick's death by his son, Manfredi. This school included Enzio, king of Sardinia, Pier delle Vigne, Inghilfredi, Stefano Protonotaro, Guido and Odo delle Colonne, Rinaldo d'Aquino, Giacomino Pugliese, Arrigo Testa, Mazzeo Ricco, Perceval Doria, and Frederick II himself.
The poets of Stilnovismo included the early forerunner Guido Guinizelli, Guido Cavalcanti and Dante, plus Cino da Pistoia, Lapo Gianni, Gianni Alfani, and Dino Frescobaldi. Far from being a derivative school of poetry that mimicked its French and Sicilian poetic ancestors, Stilnovismo brought an originality to and completely transformed the poetry of courtly love in that: 1) It was an urban poetry of the Tuscan commune, not of an aristocratic court. 2) It explored the philosophical, spiritual, psychological and social effects of love. 3) It championed the Tuscan vernacular. 4) It did all this while expressing the heart and mind of the poet in original verse that utilized the sonnet, ballata and canzone forms of poetry. Cavalcanti was a central part of this accomplishment.
In one of his earlier poems, Guido transforms the imagery of fin'amor, with its beautiful ladies and armed knights, into an idea that love has a philosophical component related to human intelligence and moral purity by equating it with a wise heart. He then proceeds to create a series of images of nature's serene beauty, which he then explains are all transcended by his lady's beauty, grace and noble heart; i.e., her emotions that are pure, based on wisdom, something he is incapable of.
Biltà di donna, e di saccente core
beauty of women and wise hearts
In this simple, but beautiful sonnet, we have, then, both something emblematic of the best poetry of the Dolce stil novo, while at the same an example of Cavalcanti's poetic idiom that is at once powerful, persuasive and, here, mellifluous.
The crowning achievement of Cavalcanti's poetic youth is his canzone Io non pensava che lo cor giammai in which he embodies his philosophical thoughts in a vernacular masterpiece. An analysis of two passages from this fifty-six line poem reveals his core ideas on love.
Io non pensava che lo cor giammai
I never used to think that my heart
Influenced by Averroës, the twelfth century Islamic philosopher who commented on Aristotle, Cavalcanti saw humans with three basic capacities: the vegetative, which humans held in common with plants; the sensitive, which man shared with animals; and, the intellectual, which distinguished humans from the two lower forms. Averroës maintained that the proper goal of humanity was the cultivation of the intellect according to reason. Further, Averroës maintained that the intellect was part of a universal consciousness that came into the body at birth and returned to the universal consciousness after death. As such, it meant there was no afterlife, and, as well, the thing that gives an individual his or her identity was not the intellect, but the sensitive faculty, the appetites and desires of the body. Hence, the goal for Averroës and Cavalcanti was the perfection of the sensitive capacity through reason in order to achieve a balance between the body’s physical desires and the intellect. This balance was considered the buon perfetto, the "good perfection." Guido thought this balance could not be achieved, which is why he speaks of “tormented laments” that makes his soul cry, that make his eyes dead, so he can feel “neither peace nor even rest in the place where I found love and my Lady.”
Di questa donna non si può contare:
of her one couldn't sing
This passage explains the conflict between the sensitive and intellectual, as Guido's heart shivers as his "our lowly minds couldn't sustain what our intellects saw." All this is driven by the lofty beauty of his lady.
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 Asks Me), 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 be 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 judge that some have known the excellence of the vernacular, namely Guido, Lapo and another [i.e: Dante himself], all from Florence, and Cino da Pistoia".
Scholars have commented on the Dolce stil novo with Dante as 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
You whose look pierced through my heart,
Although there are many poems that exemplify Cavalcanti's poetic maturity, Certe mie rime a te mandar vogliendo is unparalleled in its originality, for here Guido adapts his medium of love to speak of his inner psychological state and the uncertainty of Dante's reaction in this example of occasional poetry. This is creativity at its highest, for Cavalcanti transforms the medium into a unique response to a real world problem.
Certe mie rime a te mandar vogliendo
When I wanted to send you certain poems
Guido tells Dante of how desire, how "wanting" has ruined his heart. He dramatically reinforces his condition through the appearance of Love—the medieval and Renaissance view of Love as Cupid matured into a grown man—in the guise of death, as if Guido is indeed on the verge of leaving this world. Love then warns him not to send this poem to Dante, who is not ready to deal with Guido's condition, given the depth of friendship Dante feels for him. Love also acknowledges that what he makes humanity suffer is "unjust," In sum, because of the love he has felt in life, Guido is ruined, and because of the depth of friendship Dante holds for him, Guido fears he may be ruined as well, seeing him in such a state.
Poetic masterpiece "Donna me prega"
Through his study of Averroës, and perhaps due to his native temperament, Cavalcanti held the pessimistic view that humans were limited in the sort of ultimate attainment they could achieve. The intellect could never be brought into a harmony based on reason with bodily desires. This affinity for the ideas of Averroës would have lent to his reputation that he was an atheist.
The crowning achievement of Guido's poetic career is his masterpiece, the philosophical canzone Donna me prega (A lady asks me). It is a full-fledged treatise of his personal thoughts and beliefs on love. Through it, he transforms all that came before him and influenced him: courtly love, the troubadours, the Sicilian School and his peers of the Dolce stil novo.
Guido says he was prompted to write it by his mistress, according to a formula very widespread in the tradition of love poetry. As such, Guido's doctrine 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
- Where love is located in the human body
- What causes it
- What his faculties (virtues) are
- His power (what it can do or cause)
- His essence (what it is made of)
- His motions (or alterations it causes in the human body or mind)
- What makes us call it love
- 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-seeming manner 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 would 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 would 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 1932, he published 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 1930 poem Ash Wednesday.