Guido Cavalcanti

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Guido Cavalcanti’s poetry, like that of other stilnovisti, may be viewed, in part, as a reaction to the poetry of Guittone d’Arezzo and his followers. Guittone’s mid-thirteenth century poetry was largely imitative of the Provençal tradition: Hermetic in nature, it also emphasized rhetorical, metrical, and verbal complexities. Poets of “the sweet new style,” on the other hand, deemphasized technical elements so that aspects such as meter and rhyme were generally subservient to meaning. Also, whereas Guittonian poetry covered a wide range of subjects, Guinizzelli and his disciples focused almost entirely on love and its effects. Cavalcanti, however, should not be seen as a mere conformist to Guinizzelli’s dicta, for Cavalcanti in turn distinguished himself from many of his own school. In his concentration on love’s psychology, he was philosophically more sophisticated than all other stilnovisti except Dante. He introduced, for example, the concept of spiriti (spirits) into his poetry in order to dramatize the conflicting emotions and behaviors that love elicits. The term “spirit” is a technical term of Scholasticism; it refers, according to Albertus Magnus, to the “instrument of the soul” or the “vehicle of life.” Spirits represent the essence of life. They shine in the eyes of the beloved and console the heart of the lover. They are forced to flee, however, when love invades. Their flight results in man’s metaphorical death. It is not surprising, then, that closely related to the theme of spirits in Cavalcanti’s poems is the theme of death.

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Guido Cavalcanti