Guido Cavalcanti c. 1250-1300
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.
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.
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.
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.