(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Guido Cavalcanti c. 1250-1300

Italian poet.

Named by Dante Alighieri his primo amico (“first friend”), Cavalcanti is one of the most celebrated of Italian poets and considered the finest before Dante himself. He is generally credited with being the creator of what is known as the dolce stil nuovo (“the sweet new style”) and was the leader of the group of poets who practiced it. The dolce stil nuovo school was notable for recognizing and expressing intellectually the value of Amore (“Love”) and for the idealization of woman in their works. In his poetry Cavalcanti discussed his conception of love scientifically, with few if any religious implications. He explained that perfect love results when a man finds his idealized image of woman matched by a real woman, and the two are united in sexual union; his ideas, based on the philosophy of Arabic medieval scholar Averroes, are best presented in his most famous canzone, “Donna mi prega” (“A Lady Asks Me”). Cavalcanti was initially Dante's greatest influence and Dante dedicated his Vita Nuova to him.

Biographical Information

Cavalcanti was born in Florence to Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, a member of an important Guelph family belonging to the White political faction. In 1267 he was engaged to Beatrice degli Uberti, daughter of a powerful Ghibelline party member, in order to help stabilize the warring sides. In 1280 he represented the Guelphs as their guarantor of peace. Although Cavalcanti and Dante were the closest of friends and exchanged sonnets, their friendship eventually soured, possibly over disagreement about the place of religion in love poetry, and perhaps over ethical, literary, and political matters. By the late 1290s disputes between the White and Black political factions resulted in assaults and attempts at murder. Cavalcanti and other leading Guelph members were exiled from Florence in June of 1300; Dante himself, fulfilling his duty as prior, was among those who signed the official order of banishment. Although Cavalcanti's exile was soon revoked, he had already contracted malaria while in Sarzana, and died from the fever in August of that same year, shortly after returning home.

Major Works

Although Cavalcanti undoubtedly composed many more, only fifty-two of his poems are extant; they consist mostly of sonnets, with some ballads and canzoni. Much of his poetry is addressed to one of two women—Giovanna or Mandetta. Of the two, Giovanna receives more attention, but her identity has never been definitively determined and some scholars now believe that she may be a poetic composite of several women, real or imagined. The two most famous English translations of Cavalcanti were published by Dante Gabriel Rosetti in 1861 and Ezra Pound in 1912; Pound revised his translations of Cavalcanti's poems many times and over the course of several decades. He also included Rosetti's work in his own editions, as the two translators made considerably different choices: Rosetti's work is acclaimed for its beauty and melody, and Pound's for its brilliant expression of Cavalcanti's individuality.

Critical Reception

Cavalcanti was greatly respected and celebrated in his own lifetime and his love poems, particularly “Donna mi prega,” were the focus of intense study and interpretation. His literary status in modern times has remained high. Pound, one of his most notable adherents, declared himself Cavalcanti's apprentice and called him “master of us all.” Pound further claimed of Cavalcanti that “no psychologist of the emotions is more keen in his understanding, more precise in his expression; we have in him no rhetoric, but always a true delineation.” J. E. Shaw examines the Canzone d'Amore and explains that the love Cavalcanti describes is “sensitive and not rational, … but it is both intellectual and sensual,” and belongs to “the whole soul-and-body.” Shaw also explores what the term dolce stil nuovo represents and discusses whether or not it has been overused or misused. Scholars have paid considerable attention to Cavalcanti by way of Dante studies. Francesco de Sanctis explored Cavalcanti's influence on Dante, while Maria Luisa Ardizzone examines the relationship between the two great poets and evaluates the numerous potential causes for the disintegration of their friendship.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Early Italian Poets [translated by Dante Gabriel Rosetti] 1861

Pound's Cavalcanti: An Edition of the Translations, Notes, and Essays [translated by Ezra Pound, 1912; edited by David Anderson] 1983

Poetry of Guido Cavalcanti [translated by Lowry Nelson, Jr.] 1986

Guido Cavalcanti: The Complete Poems [translated by Marc A. Cirigliano] 1992

Francesco de Sanctis (essay date 1870-71)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: de Sanctis, Francesco. “The Tuscans.” In History of Italian Literature, Vol. 1, translated by Joan Redfern, pp. 53-61. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1959.

[In the following excerpt, first published in Italian in 1870-71, de Sanctis offers an appreciation of Cavalcanti and describes how Dante advanced Cavalcanti's poetic descriptions of science.]

It is in the technique and outward forms of his works that Cino's artistic consciousness shows itself most clearly: his main preoccupation is to develop the musical elements of the language and of verse. Never before in any other poet had the language sounded so sweetly, fined down like lovely polished marble, with every harshness and inequality rubbed away. But an artist of more profound and serious qualities than Cino was Guido Cavalcanti. He too has a perfect technique—in fact, with Cavalcanti technique is a science. He was in love with his native language, gave up every other study in order to carve and fix it, and wrote a grammar and a work on the art of speaking. Villani says of him that “he took a delight in rhetorical studies, and for this reason brought the art of rhetoric with elegance and artifice into his composition of rhymes in the vulgar tongue,” from which it is clear what a great impression this new artifice, expounded as science and applied as art, must have made on the contemporaries of Guittone and Brunetto Latini. So Guido Cavalcanti became the head of the new school, the creator of the new style, eclipsing the fame of Guido Guinicelli:

Thus hath one Guido from the other snatch'd
The letter'd prize.(1)

But glory of language did not satisfy Guido. He looked upon language and poetry as mere accessories and ornaments to the substance, which was philosophy. And so he despised Virgil, because, says Boccaccio, “he considered philosophy of greater worth than poetry, as it truly is.” He was an extremely subtle dialectician, as we are told by Lorenzo de' Medici, and brought into his poetry all the finenesses of rhetoric and scholasticism. He aimed not only at saying things well, but also at saying things that were important in themselves. His canzone on Love was studied by his contemporaries in the spirit that one would bring to a philosophical treatise; they made comments on it as though it were Aristotle or St. Thomas; later, Ficino looked to find the doctrines of Plato in it. So Guido Cavalcanti was held to be supreme, not only as an artistic and elegant user of words, but also as a philosopher. This was the position he aimed at, and the one he attained. He was first among his contemporaries; they hailed him as both scientist and artist.

Yet Guido was less a scientific than a learned man. He served science by expounding it, not by leaving on it any trace of himself. And he was less an artist than an artisan. He had perfect understanding and command of the mechanical and technical sides of art, which is no small boast, but he only touched the surface of art. His glory is in those works in which he sought a relief and an outlet for his soul. It was then that without wishing it or knowing it he revealed himself as an artist and a poet. There are men whom their contemporaries and they themselves are incapable of appreciating. Cavalcanti was one of these: he was greater than he himself and his contemporaries knew.

Guido Cavalcanti was the first Italian poet worthy of the name, because he was one of the first to have the feeling and love of reality. The empty generalities of the troubadours, changed next into a rhetorical and scientific content, in the hands of Guido became living things when he wrote for his own delight and outlet. He then depicted the impressions and inner feelings of the soul. Poetry, which till then had meant thought and description, now began to narrate and represent, and not in the simple and crude manner of the ancient poets, but with that grace and finish which has made possible the language that Guido mastered so perfectly. Here, for instance, are two girls, excellently characterized, who snatch from his mouth his secret of love; there we get a youthful shepherdess whom he meets in the wood, and from that he sketches a scene of love taken from real life.

The subjects of these poems are the same as those of the troubadours, but with Guido they are reality; not merely ornamented and made pretty from the outside, but given in their substance, become character, images, feelings, that is to say, become life and action. We seem to be in the very soul of the poet; now he is joyous and serene, expressing himself with ineffable grace, as in the ballad of the two country girls; now penetrated with melancholy that melts sweetly into pleasant dreams of the imagination and tenderness of feeling, as in the ballad written as an exile at Sarzana, his swan-song, his foreshadowing of death. Here the scientist disappears, the rhetorician is forgotten. All is born from within, natural, sober, simple, with perfect proportion between the feeling and the expression. The poet is not thinking of pleasing, of being effective, of imposing on people with the subtlety of his doctrine and rhetoric. His material is himself—his feelings when in certain states of mind—and he writes with no other pretension than that of unburdening himself, and expanding. It was he who pointed out the way on which Dante was to go so far. Posterity might justly apply to him what Dante said of himself:

                                                                      Count of me but as one
Who am the scribe of Love; that, when he breathes,
Take up my pen, and, as he dictates, write:(2)

words which would not apply to the notary Lentino, nor to Guittone. These two remained outside of the dolce stil nuovo, the “sweet new style,” because they exaggerated their feelings and went beyond Nature, in order to satisfy, to please, their readers:

                                                            He that seeks a grace beyond,
Sees not the distance parts one style from other.(3)

Of this dolce stil nuovo the forerunner was Guinicelli, the workman was Cino, the poet was Cavalcanti. The new school was nothing other than a clearer consciousness of art. Philosophy by itself was no longer thought enough; form was demanded. Guittone d'Arezzo had ceased to be appreciated, although, as Lorenzo de' Medici says of him, he had a “very ornate philosophy, and was grave and sententious.” But he lacked style. His writing was “rather rugged and severe, and not illuminated by any sweet light.” And Benvenuto da Imola calls his words “rugged,” and commends him for his grave maxims, but not for his style. In Florence a new sense was being born, the sense of form.

In spite of so much ferocious political warfare, literature was flowering in the whole of Tuscany, and under the most varied aspects. Dante da Maiano, with his Sicilian Nina, was an echo of the troubadours; Guittone, Brunetto, Orbiciani da Lucca, were learned but rough poets, as also were the two...

(The entire section is 2921 words.)

J. E. Shaw (essay date 1949)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Shaw, J. E. “Commentary” and “The Dolce Stil Nuovo.” In Guido Cavalcanti's Theory of Love: “The Canzone d'Amore” and Other Related Problems, pp. 9-50 and 128-45. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1949.

[In the following essays, Shaw explicates the first two stanzas of the Canzone d'Amore and explains why it is appropriate that Cavalcanti is studied as a poet of the dolce stil nuovo.]


The tradition that this canzone [The Canzone d'Amore] was written in answer to the questions in the sonnet of Guido Orlandi, Onde si muove, is based on the heading given to the sonnet in the...

(The entire section is 22664 words.)

Ernest Hatch Wilkins (essay date 1954)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. “Poetry of the Latter Half of the Thirteenth Century.” In A History of Italian Literature, pp. 29-31. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.

[In the following excerpt, Wilkins provides a brief description of Cavalcanti's life and major poetic interests.]

As Dante called Guinizelli il padre mio, so he called Guido Cavalcanti his “first friend”—though Guido, born probably between 1250 and 1255, was considerably the older of the two. The Cavalcanti were one of the great Guelf families of Florence. Guido, a man of lofty intellect and strong emotions, exceedingly proud and scornful, was deeply versed in philosophy, yet...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

Frederick Goldin (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldin, Frederick. “Guido Cavalcanti.” In German and Italian Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology and a History, edited by Frederick Goldin, pp. 298-311. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973.

[In the following essay, Goldin explains Cavalcanti's influence on court poetry, particularly regarding changes in thematic and stylistic elements, and outlines his system of spirits, which allowed him to de-secularize his descriptions of inner experience.]

The poet was born in Florence to a rich and distinguished family. In 1300, the Guelphs having split into two factions and causing great civil disorder by their violent antagonism, Cavalcanti was exiled along with...

(The entire section is 5244 words.)

Ezra Pound (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Pound, Ezra. “The ‘Introduction’ to Sonnets and Ballate.” In Pound's “Cavalcanti”:An Edition of the Translations, Notes, and Essays, edited by David Anderson, pp. 11-20. 1932. Reprint with notes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1932, with notes by Anderson added in 1983, Pound describes Cavalcanti's genius and his own attempts to render his style in translation.]

Cimabue thought that in portraiture
          He held the field; now Giotto hath the cry
          And all the former fame is turned obscure;
Thus hath one Guido from the other reft
          The glory of our tongue, and...

(The entire section is 3329 words.)

Maria Luisa Ardizzone (essay date 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Ardizzone, Maria Luisa. “Guido Cavalcanti.” In The Dante Encyclopedia, edited by Richard Lansing, pp. 459-61. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000.

[In the following essay, Ardizzone examines the importance of Cavalcanti to Dante and discusses the reasons for the break in their friendship.]

Poet and aristocrat, friend of Dante, and ardent Guelf, Cavalcanti was born between 1250 and 1255 and later married a daughter of Farinata degli Uberti. He composed one of the most difficult philosophical poems in the Italian language, the canzone Donna me prega. Because his death occurred in August 1300, after the fictive date of Dante's vision, he does not...

(The entire section is 918 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Cherchi, Paolo. “Guido Cavalcanti.” Dictionary of Italian Literature, edited by Peter Bondanella and Julia Conaway Bondanella, pp. 118-20. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Brief description of Cavalcanti's life, relationship with Dante, and major themes found in his poetry.

Additional coverage of Cavalcanti's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Reference Guide to World Literature, 2 ed.

(The entire section is 62 words.)