The Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti (ca. 1255-1300) was one of the originators of the dolce stil nuovo, or sweet new style, in Italian poetry of the late 13th century. He was a contemporary of Dante, who called him his "first friend."
Guido Cavalcanti was born in Florence not later than 1259, the son of a wealthy Guelf. In 1267 the boy Guido was married to Bice, the daughter of the Ghibelline leader Farinata degli Uberti, possibly in a peacemaking attempt between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. Guido was one of the Guelf guarantors of a peace concluded between the two factions in 1280. In 1284 he was a member of the General Council of the commune.
Contemporary chroniclers portray Cavalcanti as a disdainful, solitary, studious man, courtly and daring, and a good philosopher. His fiery temperament is evident in his animosity toward Corso Donati, the leader of the Black Guelfs of Florence. While Cavalcanti was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela-a trip which took him to Toulouse, where he met a young woman, Mandetta, to whom he wrote two poems, and to Nîmes but not beyond-it is said that Corso attempted to have him assassinated. Cavalcanti tried in vain to avenge himself by spurring his horse against Corso in a Florentine street and throwing a dart. A general fight ensued, involving also the Cerchi, leaders of the White Guelfs, whom Cavalcanti supported. On June 24, 1300, the priors of Florence (Dante among them) exiled some of the leaders of both factions, and Cavalcantri went to Sarzana with other followers of the Cerchi. His ballad of farewell, Perch'i' no spero di tornar giammai, a masterpiece of grace and tenderness, could have been written during this exile. He returned to Florence 2 months later, mortally ill. His death was recorded on Aug. 29, 1300, in the church of S. Reparata.
The poems which can be attributed positively to Cavalcanti are 36 sonnets, 11 ballads, 2 canzoni, 2 isolated stanzas, and 1 motet. Almost all his poetry is concerned with love. In his famous canzone Donna me prega…, he develops his theory of love within an elaborate poetic structure and in complex philosophical terms. Original in Cavalcanti is his concept of love as a cruel, overpowering force with a violent potentiality for destruction. Love is a dark passion of the senses which arises from the contemplation of an image of ideal beauty abstracted by the possible intellect at the sight of a beautiful woman. From such love, death often result-a true state of death, in which the mind is destroyed and the poet moves about like an automation. The themes of fright and death predominate in Cavalcanti.
Cavalcanti incorporated into his poetic language a term from scholastic philosophy, "spirit" (spirito or spiritello), to indicate the various movements of the heart and the human faculties. The spirits become poetic personages by which Cavalcanti dramatically represents the psychology of the lover. The technique of personified spirits was adopted by Dante and other poets of the dolce stil nuovo.
Further Reading on Guido Cavalcanti
There is no full-length biography of Cavalcanti. Ernest Hatch Wilkins, A History of Italian Literature (1954), deals with his life and work, and Domenico Vittorini, The Age of Dante (1957), contains numerous references to his influence on Italian poetry and his relationship to Dante. For both political and literary background of the period see John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy (2 vols., 1935).