Guido Cavalcanti Additional Biography

Biography

Guido Cavalcanti was born in Florence, Italy, a few years prior to Dante’s birth. The exact year of Cavalcanti’s birth has never been established. While some have placed it as early as 1240, Natalino Sapegno and many others believe that the poet was born just before 1260. His father was Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, a descendant of Guelph merchants and the same figure who appears next to the Ghibelline Farinata degli Uberti in one of the burning tombs of the heretics in the Inferno. Dante’s treatment of Cavalcanti’s father and father-in-law in this famous episode has led to much speculation about Cavalcanti’s own philosophical and religious beliefs and was in part responsible for the depiction of Cavalcanti as a heretic in various stories by Giovanni Boccaccio and others. What is known of Cavalcanti’s life comes in large part from the contemporary chronicles of Filippo Villani and Dino Compagni. At an early age, Cavalcanti was betrothed by his father to Beatrice (Bice) degli Uberti, daughter of Farinata. This was essentially a political marriage, one designed, like so many of the time, to put an end to the internecine wars between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, who supported the papacy and the emperor respectively. Cavalcanti was among the Guelph representatives at the peace negotiations held by Cardinal Latino in 1280; he took part in the general council of the commune in 1284, together with Compagni and Brunetto Latini, and his friendship with Dante dates from this period. He was a fierce adversary of Corso Donati, leader of the Black Guelphs. Because of...

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Lyrical Works

If one facet of Cavalcanti’s poetry may be characterized as highly philosophical, the other can be described only as profoundly lyrical. The preoccupation with love and death, for example, results in a melancholy portrayal of the poet’s mercurial emotions: Happiness is poignantly juxtaposed to sadness. Tears and sighs become appropriate symbols of the persona’s ever-changing state of being because they can stand either for joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain. Love is always the culprit that renders the lover defenseless, a helpless observer. Love causes both agony and ecstasy; eventually, it generates a deep-seated desire for release via death. The poet’s sense of helplessness before such an all-powerful conqueror is reflected in the presentation of the lover as spectator. This distancing technique leads to a highly dramatic tension and a beautiful lyric expression. It allows the poet to observe and record the effects of love but does not permit him to intervene.