Guido Guinizelli c. 1230-1276
Scholars credit Guinizelli with founding the school of poetry characterized by the dolce stil nuovo, or “sweet new style,” praised by Dante Alighieri in his Purgatorio. Although Dante places Guinizelli in circle seven of Purgatory with the lustful, Dante expresses his admiration for Guinizelli's poetry and acknowledges him as a mentor. Guinizelli's known output was small, with fewer than thirty works extant, but his love poetry had a substantial influence on many later poets, including Guido Cavalcanti. Guinizelli believed that only a noble heart (what he termed a gentle heart) could feel love, indicating that love itself was not ennobling. He was the first poet to attribute divinity to his lady; he asserted that in praising her as an angel, he praises God for creating her, elevating his own soul through receptive contemplation. Guinizelli wrote in an Italianized Tuscan vernacular, continuing and popularizing a trend against the use of traditional Latin. Dante described what he considered Guinizelli's essential message in his paraphrase of one of his poems: “Love and the gentle heart are one and the same thing.”
Guinizelli was born in about 1240 to Guinizello da Magnano and Guglielmina di Ugolino Chisleri, but little other information exists on his early life. He is known to have served as a judge in Bologna in 1266, although he may have started his career somewhat earlier. Politically he championed the Ghibelline party. When they were defeated in 1274 by the Guelph party, Guinizelli was forced to abandon his career and go into exile at Monselice. He died there in 1276, leaving a widow, Beatrice della Fratta, and a son, Guiduccio.
Guinizelli's body of work is slight and his poems cannot be precisely dated. Since his poems are not titled, critics refer to them by their first line for ease of study. Five canzoni and fifteen sonnets are of unchallenged authenticity; two additional unchallenged canzoni exist only in fragments. Three other canzoni have been rejected by modern editors, and a fourth is dubious. Additionally, two sonnets are part of a poetic exchange with contemporaries. Guinizelli's earliest poetry was heavily influenced by Guittone d'Arezzo, and in one of his sonnets he calls him his father and asks for him to correct the problems of an accompanying canzone. His break from the tradition Guittone represented is best exemplified in his masterpiece, “Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore” (“Love seeks its dwelling always in the gentle heart”). This canzone has been called an eloquent manifesto of the new school of poetry and has been translated more often than any of his other works. In a similar vein to “Al cor gentil” are the sonnets “Vedut'ho la lucente stella diana” (“I have seen the shining morning star”), “Io voglio del var la mia donna laudare” (“My Lady I most truly wish to praise”), and “Lo vostro bel saluto” (“The handsome greeting and gentle look”), in which the poet compares the wonders of nature and heaven to his lady, rather than using the accepted comparison of the beloved to the wonders. Besides his more well-known love poetry, Guinizelli also wrote complaints concerning love, poems with a moral message, and one invective.
Critics unanimously prefer Guinizelli's later poems to his earlier work, which is deemed imitative. Some commentators argue that Guinizelli did not truly originate a new style of poetry but only hinted at it, or, if he did create it, that he was not aware enough of his accomplishment to make full use of it. His defenders counter that whether or not Guinizelli completely recognized his accomplishments has no bearing on their worth, and that even though Dante fully attained what Guinizelli started, Guinizelli was nevertheless an originator. Paolo Cherchi credits Guinizelli with “an occasional and casual introduction of some new themes, a lightening of style, and a set of new images that were later programmatically absorbed and developed by the dolce stil nuovo whose poets had a much stronger awareness of their distance from the old school.” In response to negative assessments of the intellectual nature of Guinizelli's poetry, his defenders hold that intellectualism is not a fault but rather one of his defining characteristics. Douglas Radcliff-Umstead writes that for Guinizelli, “the problem of love had to be understood intellectually. Amore and scienzia became nearly synonymous terms in as much as poetry served as an instrument of philosophical meditation and reasoned analysis of the religious virtue of the beloved lady.” Robert Edwards writes that Guinizelli's greatest strength as a poet may be “his abilities with abstraction and imagery and his skill in bringing the two into a creative tension.”