Biography

Guido Cavalcanti (between 1250 and 1259 – August 1300) was a Florentine poet, as well as an intellectual influence on his best friend, Dante. His poems in their original Italian are available on Wikisource here.

Cavalcanti was born in Florence at a time when the comune was beginning its economic, political, intellectual and artistic ascendancy as one of the leading cities of Renaissance. The disunited Italian peninsula was dominated by a political particularism that pitted each city-state one against the other, often with this factionalism contributing the fractious and sometimes violent political environments of each comune. The domination of medieval religious interpretations of reality, morality and society were challenged by a rise of new urban culture across Europe that gradually supplanted rural, local, ecclesiastical and feudal ways of thinking. There was an accompanying return to study, interpret and emulate the classics, known as a revival of antiquity. New secular views laid the foundations for modern life in the Western Civilization. As Jacob Burckhardt, Swiss historian and author of the classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy described, “It was not the revival of antiquity alone, but its union with the genius of the Italian people which achieved the conquest of the western world.” In sum, Cavalcanti lived during and helped shape this time of great innovation that was spurred on by a desire to explore, create and experiment with new things.

Cavalcanti is best remembered for belonging to that small but influential group of Tuscan poets that started what is now known as Dolce Stil Novo, to which he contributed the following (note: translations provided in parentheses do not match the titles by which are widely known in English manuals but are meant to be a more literal rendering of the Italian originals): "Rosa fresca novella" (New, Fresh Rose), "Avete in vo' li fior e la verdura" (You Are Flowers in the Meadow), "Biltà di donna" (A Woman's Beauty), Chi è questa che vèn (Who's This Lady That Comes My Way), "Li mie' foll'occhi" (My Crazy Eyes), "L'anima Mia" (My Soul), "Guido Orlandi", "Da più a uno" (From Many to One), "In un boschetto" (In A Grove), "Per ch'io no spero" (Because I Do Not Hope), "Voi che per gli occhi mi passaste il core" (see below), and "Donna me prega" (A Lady's Orders), a masterpiece of lyric verse and a small treatise on his philosophy of love. Starting from the model provided by the French troubadours, they took Italian poetry a step further and inaugurated the volgare illustre, that higher standard of Italian language that survives almost unchanged to the present day. The founder of this school, Guido Guinizzelli, a law professor at Bologna’s University wrote the first poem of this kind, a poem whose importance does not so much lie in its literary merits but in outlining what would the fundamentals of the Stil Novo program, which was further perfected by a second generation of poets, including Dante, Cino da Pistoia, Lapo Gianni, and Guido himself.

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