Guido Cavalcanti Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Through his unique treatment of the theme of love, Cavalcanti became one of the major poets of the so-called dolce stil nuovo school. He exerted a major influence on Dante and the love poets of the early Renaissance.

Early Life

Guido Cavalcanti’s importance as one of the early masters of European love poetry becomes all the more remarkable in view of the paucity of information about his life. He was born in the middle of the thirteenth century, the period in which the vernacular Italian literature first arose. His family was aristocratic, proud of its status as one of the most powerful families of the Guelphs, a political faction which allied itself, generally, with the pope, as opposed to the so-called Ghibellines, who favored the cause of the emperor. Throughout the thirteenth century, factious rivalries between Guelph and Ghibelline parties often resulted in bloody feuding as well as in political chaos.

Cavalcanti himself seems to have been a proud, contentious man who was disdainful of the lower classes and often upheld his honor with his fists. Yet by contemporary accounts, he was also highly educated, introspective, scholarly, and philosophical. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), in his famous Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), related a popular story about Cavalcanti, illustrative of his character and wit. A group of idle young gentlemen are riding one morning and spot Cavalcanti in a pensive mood, walking among the tombs in a graveyard. They begin teasing him about his reputation as an unbeliever, as a man of little faith who sought to prove that God did not exist. Cavalcanti looks up at them and calmly answers that they can say of him anything they wish, because men should be allowed to speak freely in their own houses. The cryptic nature of Guido’s retort, by which the taunters were themselves impugned as being among the dead, their intellects entombed, as it were, by their own ignorance, is indicative of the subtlety of his thought and, ultimately, of his poetry. Cavalcanti did not deny his atheism, but by turning the tables on the young gentlemen he did not confirm it either.

Certainly the image of entombment was associated with the Cavalcanti family in a scene in Dante’s Inferno, part of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). In this circle of Hell, the heretics are encased in their sepulchers. Among these heretics and Epicureans—those philosophers who believed, among other things, that the soul perished with the body—is Cavalcanti’s father. The father cries out, looking for his son, who, he implies, will also be damned for his philosophical pride.

Life’s Work

Yet if Dante condemned Cavalcanti for his heretical views, part of which formed the basis of Cavalcanti’s theory of love as mortality, he also respected the man as a poet. The two, in fact, were close friends. Dedicating his La vita nuova (c. 1292; The New Life) to Cavalcanti, whom he called his “first friend,” Dante relates that he once wrote a sonnet expressing in symbolic terms his vision of love and that Guido Cavalcanti admired the poem and replied to it with a sonnet of his own. Thus from about the early 1280’s, Cavalcanti and Dante were admirers of each other’s work, and Dante’s early poetry shows the unmistakable influence of the older man.

Yet the factiousness of Florentine politics, together with Cavalcanti’s own disputatious personality, resulted in a split between the two friends. As a leader of the White Guelphs, rivals of the powerful Blacks, Cavalcanti was involved in the bloody feuds near the close of the century, and there were rumors that several attempts had been made on his life. Early in 1300, Dante, then a magistrate of Florence, found himself forced to banish Cavalcanti in the interest of peace. Guido went to Saranza, but while there he contracted malaria. He was allowed to return to his native city, and it was there that he died in August, 1300, the same year in which the narrative of The Divine Comedy begins.

Cavalcanti’s reputation rests on a handful of poems, his total output numbering about fifty sonnets, ballades, and canzone. Though his most characteristic poems are fraught with delicate complexity and rigorous analysis—as if he were, in effect, a philosopher or scientist parsing a rational solution to a central enigma in man’s...

(The entire section is 1848 words.)