Politics, and not poetics: a reading of Guido Cavalcanti's Sonnet "Una figura della Donna mia".
Keywords: Cavalcanti, stilnovo, poesia giocosa, Bianchi, Neri. (1)
The sonnet, "Una figura della Donna mia," is unusual in the corpus of Guido Cavalcanti because it depicts a particular historical event. For centuries, casual readers have tended to think of Cavalcanti as strictly a literary personality, withdrawn from the socio-political ferment of the end of the Duecento. Zygmunt Baranski notes that there are two medieval texts that present Cavalcanti as an isolated thinker: Decameron 6:9, which paints him as a solitary, philosophical individual; and Inferno X, which suggests his scholarly pursuits and intellectual acumen (Baranski 149). It is easy, therefore, to consider him as a person closed off in a type of ivory tower composing poetry and philosophical works, entirely divorced from the political and social events of the age. Such an image of the poet is absolutely false. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to examine Cavalcanti's poem "Una figura della Donna mia," and the response to it by Guido Orlandi, by the light of historical developments in the 1290s. As I hope to demonstrate, the sonnet can only be understood in its sociohistorical context, yet the implications of such an interpretation reach beyond one occasional poem. Not only can Cavalcanti be read in isolation from the historical events at the turn of the fourteenth century, but his poetry, and indeed much of the poetry of the dolce stil novo, can similarly be read ahistorically. Yet to do so eliminates some of the newness of their verse. The stilnovistic re-definition of love as the activation of a gentle heart (cuor gentile) betrays the impact of the social debates of the Duecento that underlay much of the political turmoil of the age.
The image of Cavalcanti as politically engaged is not unheard of, as it was promoted by some of his contemporaries. The chroniclers Dino Compagni and Giovanni Villani portrayed Guido as active in the factional struggle of the 1290s, struggling against Corso Donati and his party, known after 1302 as the Blacks, on the side of Vieri de' Cerchi, subsequently called the Whites. (2) Regarding the events of 1297, Dino Compagni writes:
Uno giovane gentile, figliuolo di messer Cavalcante Cavalcanti, nobile cavaliere, chiamato Guido, cortese e ardito ma sdegnoso e solitario e intento allo studio, nimico di messer Corso, avea piu volte diliberato offenderlo. Messer Corso forte lo temea, perche lo conoscea di grande animo; e cerco d'assassinarlo, andando Guido in pellegrinaggio a San Iacopo; e non li venne fatto. (3) Per che, tornato a Firenze e sentendolo, inanimo molti giovani contro a lui, i quali li promisono esser in suo aiuto. E essendo un di a cavallo con alcuni da casa i Cerchi, con uno dardo in mano, sprono il cavallo contro a messer Corso, credendosi esser seguito da' Cerchi, per farli trascorrere nella briga: e trascorrendo il cavallo, lancio il dardo, il quale ando in vano. Era quivi, con messer Corso, Simone suo figliuolo, forte e ardito giovane, e Cecchino de' Bardi, e molti altri, con le spade; e corsogli dietro: ma non lo giugnendo, li gittarono de' sassi; e dalle finestre gliene furono gittati, per modo fu ferito nella mano (4) (I, xxi, 58-75: 48-49).
Dino Compagni represents Guido Cavalcanti out on the streets of Florence battling Corso Donati and his followers, and Compagni's depiction is not unusual. Although the Cavalcanti clan had mercantile origins (Pasquini 691), they were fully engaged in the internecine struggles of Florence; Guido's father, Cavalcante, participated in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, taking refuge in Lucca when the Tuscan Ghibellines routed the Guelphs (Ercole 8). During Guido's lifetime the Cavalcanti possessed enough wealth to employ seventy men at arms (Contini, "Guido Cavalcanti" 487), and they ennobled themselves through marriage (Dameron, "Revisiting" 171). For political reasons, Guido was married to the daughter of Farinata degli Uberti, the Ghibelline leader (Petrocchi 748). By the 1280s the Cavalcanti were specifically named along with other trouble-making families (Becker 116). During the 1290s, the Cavalcanti clan feuded with the Buondelmonti (Byrne 198), a fact mentioned by the poet himself in his sonnet "Novelle ti so dire, odi, Nerone." in 1300, in an attempt to quell the factional violence, the Prior of Florence, Dante Alighieri, banished the leaders of both factions; Guido figured among the exiles, and he traveled to Sarzana in the Maremma where he contracted malaria and died that August. The biographical information about Cavalcanti listed above is essential in the interpretation of his sonnet "Una figura della Donna mia."
Giovanni Villani provides the specific historical background to the poem in question. (5) Villani writes:
De' miracoli che apparirono in Firenze per santa Maria d'Orto Sammichele Nel detto anno , a di III del mese di luglio, si cominciarono a mostrare grandi e aperti miracoli nella citta di Firenze per una figura dipinta di santa Maria in uno pilastro della loggia d'Orto Sammichele, ove si vende il grano, sanando infermi, e rizzando attratti, e isgombrare imperversati visibilemente in grande quantita. Ma i frati predicatori e ancora i minori per invidia o per altra cagione non vi davano fede, onde caddono in grande infamia de' Fiorentini. In quello luogo d'Orto Sammichele si truova che fu anticamente la chiesa di Sammichele in Orto, la quale era sotto la badia di Nonantola in Lombardia, e fu disfatta per farvi piazza; ma per usanza e devozione alla detta figura ogni sera per laici si cantavano laude; e crebbe tanto la fama de' detti miracoli e meriti di nostra Donna, che di tutta Toscana vi venia la gente in peregrinaggio per le feste di santa Maria, recando diverse 'magine di cera per miracoli fatti, onde grande parte della loggia dinanzi e intorno alla detta figura s'empie, e crebbe tanto lo stato di quella compagnia, ove'erano buona parte della migliore gente di Firenze, che molti benificii e limosine, per offerere e lasci fatti, ne seguirono a' poveri, l'anno piU di libbre VI; e seguissi a' di nostri, sanza acquistare nulla possessione, con troppa maggiore entrata, distribuendosi tutta a' poveri (6) (vol. VIII, chapter clv).
Villani explains that on 3 July 1292, the image of the Virgin Mary painted on a pillar of Orsanmichele gained the reputation of being miraculous. Orsanmichele was still a granary at the time, and the icon therein healed a multitude of the sick and straightened the withered. Devoted pilgrims came from all over Tuscany and spent every evening singing hymns, so the neighboring church had to be dismantled to make room for the piazza. Envious of the image's fame ("per invidia"), neither the Dominicans ("frati predicatori") nor the Franciscans ("i minori") believed in its miraculous powers, and thus the Orders incurred the disdain of the Florentine populace.
Guido refers to the very same religious phenomenon in his sonnet. He writes:
Questo sonetto fu dato a Guido Orlandi di Firenze, et non seppe che li le mandasse, se non ch'e' si penso per li precedenti: "Pare ch'e' fosse Guido Cavalcanti". E 'l messo torno per la risposta la qual e apresso a questo sonetto, la qual dice: S'avessi detto, amico, di maria. Una figura della Donna mia s'adora, Guido, a San Michele in Orto, ch'e di bella sembianza, onesta e pia. De' peccatori e gran rifugio e porto, e qual con devozion lei s'umilia, chi piu languisce, piu n'a di conforto: li 'nfermi sana e ' domon' caccia via, <a> occhi orbati fa vedere scorto, sana 'n publico loco gran' langori: con reverenza la gente la 'nchina, a luminara l'adornan di fori. La voce va per lontane camma; ma dicon ch'e idolatra i fra' minori, per invidia che nonn e lor vicina. (7)
Although Cavalcanti speaks about the same events as Villani, his intentions of doing so as a poet are different from those of the chronicler. Thanks to his reputation as an Averroist philosopher, his choice of a Christian subject matter is curious; (8) it is also curious given his active participation in the factional violence in Florence. For over a century, literary scholars have interpreted the sonnet ahistorically as the burlesque of Cavalcanti's stilnovistic poetics, and in particular, of his angelicization of the beloved. In 1903, reacting against Adolfo Bartoli's assertion that this sonnet corroborates Cavalcanti's atheism (164-165), Liborio Azzolina proclaimed that the poet instead constructs a humorous analogy of the lady of his verse with the Virgin Mary (27). In their respective editions, Gianfranco Contini ("Guido Cavalcanti" 558) and Domenico De Robertis (187189) provided the anti-stilnovistic reading of the poem, thereby cementing it into the scholarly discourse. Recently, Antonio Gagliardi built upon that interpretation, saying that throughout the sonnet the Virgin Mary actually transforms into the image of Guido's lady via the ancient myth of Venus (129), and Ronald Martinez has followed suit, describing the sonnet as "readable of stilnovistic formulas" (310). The interpretation of the sonnet as the self-conscious echoing of Cavalcanti's love poetry is intriguing, and Martinez successfully identifies a caique of stilnovistic language in the sonnet. The problem with the interpretation, however, is that the blurring of the beloved lady with the Virgin Mary does not accord well with Guido Orlandi's response. Orlandi writes:
Quest'e la risposta che diede Guido Orlandi al messo che li diede il detto sonetto S'avessi detto, amico, di Maria, 'gratia piena' e pia, "Rosa vermiglia se', piantata in orto," avresti scritta dritta simiglia. E 'veritas', e 'via', del nostro Sire fu magione, e porto della nostra salute, quella dia: ch'E' prese sua contia, <e> l'angelo le porse il Suo conforto; e certo son, chi ver' lei s'umilia e ssua colpa grandia, che sano e salvo il fa, vivo di morto. Ai, qual conforto ti daro? Che plori con Deo li tuo' fallori, e non l'altrui: le tue parti diclina, e prendine dottrina dal publican che dolse li suo' dolori. Li Framminori sanno la divina <i> scrittura latina; e de la fed'e' son difenditori, li bon' Predicatori: lor predicanza e nostra medicina.
Orlandi's reply suggests nothing humorous, or even self-conscious, in Cavalcanti's sonnet. In the opening stanza, Orlandi argues that Cavalcanti does not speak the truth, explaining that his sonnet would have been more accurate if he had actually praised the Virgin (w. 1-4). Orlandi suggests something blasphemous in Cavalcanti's poem even though such a meaning is not immediately visible. But the two main points of Orlandi's response are communicated in the final two strophes. He first alludes to Christ's parable from Luke 18: 9-14. In it, Christ contrasts the prayer of a tax collector ("publicanus") to that of a Pharisee:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that 1 am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted, (emphasis added)
In Christ's parable the Pharisee praises himself, thanking God that he is not like other sinners, but in contrast the reviled tax collector merely pleads for God's mercy; Christ concludes that only the tax collector was justified before God. Orlandi says the same thing in his sonnet, telling Cavalcanti that, like the biblical tax collector ("publican," v. 17), he should weep for his failings ("plori / con Deo li tuo' fallori," vv. 13-14). He should not act like the Pharisee who believes that he is superior to other people. In the context of Orlandi's sonnet, the message is clear: Cavalcanti should repent of his sins and thus reconcile himself with God. Yet it is difficult to relate this message to Cavalcanti's initial poem. On the contrary, he seemingly writes respectfully about the Virgin Mary, about the miraculous nature of the icon, and about the people devoted to it. On what basis, therefore, does Orlandi insist that he should repent?
In the last stanza, Orlandi arrives at his second point, a defense of the mendicant Orders. The Franciscans are knowledgeable in Scripture, he writes, and the Dominicans, whom he calls defenders of the faith, offer salubrious teachings (w. 18-22). Interestingly, Orlandi not only supports the Franciscans but also the Dominicans, whom Cavalcanti had ignored in his sonnet. To be sure, Villani mentioned both the minori and the predicanti, but Villani's passage very likely was influenced by both these sonnets. Still, Giovanni Villani stated that the mendicants' refusal to venerate the image caused a scandal among the Florentine population. As Villani highlights, Orlandi's defense of the two Orders apparently puts him in the minority in Florence. In other words, Cavalcanti was not alone in criticizing the friars.
In short, if Cavalcanti humorously juxtaposes his description of the beloved lady to the Virgin Mary's icon in Orsanmichele, then Orlandi's response is incongruous. He challenges Cavalcanti to repent for a seemingly respectful poem, he needlessly brings up the Dominicans, and he comes to the side of the Franciscans despite their unpopular rejection of the icon. In addition, as the rubrics explain, Orlandi did not mull over Cavalcanti's missive, unlocking its secrets over time, but instead read and responded quickly to it; he composed his own lyric and had the very same messenger carry it back to Cavalcanti. Of course, the rubrics should be viewed critically, as they may be inaccurate or based on the sonnets themselves. Yet to judge also by his response, Orlandi perceived a face-value meaning to Cavalcanti's sonnet that outraged him. This is not to say that Orlandi was correct in his interpretation, but his reading points in a specific direction for the interpretation of Cavalcanti's sonnet: Cavalcanti says something that may have been instantly recognizable to a Florentine reader of the 1290s but which, over the centuries, has now become obscure to us.
Elsewhere in his chronicle Villani describes the Cavalcanti family as occupying "il tuorlo e il midollo della citta" (Villani, IX, lxxi: 431); specifically, their residence stood across the street from Orsanmichele, which at this time served not as a house of worship but as a granary. Orsanmichele had been a Cistercian church that was demolished in 1249 to make the grain market, and the loggia was built in 1284 to provide shelter for the merchants there (Henderson 196). Although in part derived from the sonnets in question, Villani's passage about the icon provides an important post quem date. After 1292, a confraternity developed, the laudesi, which had two principal activities, the perpetuation of the cult and the distribution of alms, in particular, grain for the poor (Henderson 196-200). The current church was built only after Guido's death, when on 10 June 1304 the loggia was burned down by a member of the Black party, ser Neri Abati prior of San Piero Scheraggio. Ser Neri Abati set fire to the dwellings of his White enemies around Orsanmichele, destroying many houses, including the residence of the Cavalcanti, along with all of the Calimala neighborhood and the area surrounding Mercato Nuovo (Villani, IX, lxxi: 430). The granary that Cavalcanti and Orlandi wrote about was itself destroyed by the strife between the Blacks and the Whites.
The year in which the icon at Orsanmichele purportedly began performing miracles, 1292, also comprised a turning-point in the politics of the Florentine commune. The period constitutes the last six months of the priorate of Giano della Bella (Schevill 162). As is well known, Giano promulgated the Ordinances of Justice that excluded the magnates from power; not only did the law prohibit the urban nobles from holding public office, but also the powerful merchants, who were virtually indistinguishable from the aristocrats in terms of lineage, power or mentality (Parenti 226). It is significant that the Ordinances specified them all as magnates, and not as nobles in the feudal sense of the word, as the thirteenth-century neologism reflected the realities of civic life at the time (Schevill 158-159). Intermarriage, economic and social power blurred the line between noble and non-noble, rendering the distinction meaningless. Although there were many definitions at the time, the word magnate was almost always associated with factional conflict (Dameron, "Revisiting" 175), or with blood feuds, in the period between 1281 and 1293 (Becker 96). The two common characteristics to the various definitions of magnate were the ability to serve as knights, and public opinion about the status of the family (Fiumi 391). Up through 1292 the non-noble Cavalcanti figured among the magnates barred from politics (Gessani 99), and by November 1292, the process was set in motion that gave power to the guilds to determine the prior (Parenti 244). In the very same year, the guilds restricted political participation to members who were active in their respective trades, thereby eliminating those magnates who enrolled just to circumvent the legal prohibitions (Najemy 47). Subsequent to this date, the politically disempowered magnates split over how to react to the Ordinances and the guilds, and this internal division would eventually give rise to the factionalism among the Guelphs.
There existed many causes to the internecine struggle, including interpersonal animus, family feuds, and economic opportunism. Broadly speaking, however, the Cerchi and their followers adopted a more conciliatory attitude towards the popolani, the guilds and the Ordinances, while the Donati and their adherents wanted to reassert the traditional rights of the nobility to dominate the rest of society. Additionally, the pro-Donati faction cast itself ideologically as more conservatively Guelph, while the pro-Cerchi faction had the reputation of Ghibelline tendencies. Indeed, a common accusation against the followers of the Cerchi was that they had actually allied themselves with the Tuscan Ghibellines, a party Villani defines as heretics (Robaud 31). In this regard, it surely did not help Guido Cavalcanti that he had married the daughter of Farinata degli Uberti, the arch-Ghibelline and posthumously convicted Cathar. Having positioned themselves as the stricter Guelphs, therefore, the pro-Donati faction countenanced more papal intrusion into Florentine politics (Dameron, Florence and its Church 77). The Bishop of Florence sided with Corso Donati (Dameron, Florence and its Church 101), as did many prominent Dominicans like Girolamo da Pisa and Remigio dei Girolami (Lesnick, Preaching 181). (9) When Boniface VIII died in 1303, it was said that the Blacks had lost a great patron. There is no extant evidence about the political allegiance of the Florentine Franciscans, in part because, unlike those of the Dominicans, many of their sermons have not survived, nevertheless as a rule the Church hierarchy supported Corso Donati and his adherents.
One of Corso Donati's followers was the poet Guido Orlandi, the tenzonante with Cavalcanti and respondent to the poem under examination. He composed a political sonnet satirizing the Whites, "Color di cener fatti son li Bianchi," which is datable to 1302 (Lamma 14-15). Orlandi's political affiliation relates to the two sonnets about the miraculous icon in Orsanmichele. Orlandi's suggestion that Cavalcanti repent of his sins--publicly expressed in his sonnet for all to see--is insulting; but to judge from his reaction, he had taken insult from something in Cavalcanti's initial poem. During the Middle Ages, a common strategy of insult was to objectively depict the violation of community values (Lesnick, "Insults and Threats" 72); as Peter Burke writes, libels "present themselves as the voice of public opinion, 'fama commune,' or at least the voice of the neighborhood" (107). Thus, insult was more than the product of mere animus between two individuals, but instead it often reflected social questions of a more serious nature.
The friction between Cavalcanti and Orlandi, exemplified by the sonnets "Una figura della Donna mia" and "S'avessi detto, amico, di Maria," therefore, may have its origin in the Florentine political divide of the 1290s. In what is perhaps the key passage of the exchange, Orlandi gives Cavalcanti a specific charge: "le tue parti diclina" (v. 15). According to the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, the verb diclinare (or dichinare) has three possible meanings: to go downward; to approach; or to humble someone (260). Of the three possible meanings of diclinare, only the last one makes sense in the context of the sonnet. The noun parte has five definitions in the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca: part, section, or portion; genitals (specifically mentioned as parti vergognose); region or place; political faction or sector combatant (595). Of those definitions of the noun parte, only the last two make sense in the context of the sonnet. Therefore, in the clause "le tue parti diclina," Orlandi seems to tell Cavalcanti either to humble his factions, or to humble his combatants; both interpretations of the clause make sense, although the latter is probably preferable, and both interpretations of the clause appear to refer to the followers of Vieri de' Cerchi in their struggles against the pro-Donati faction. Thus, Orlandi writes, the pro-Cerchi partisans should be humbled, and then Cavalcanti should follow the example of the tax collector and not the Pharisee (w. 15-17). When Orlandi received Cavalcanti's sonnet, it appears that he took it as an attack on his faction, specifically its propapal and pro-noble ideologies.
In the light of Orlandi's clause "le tue parti diclina," aspects of the two sonnets take on political overtones. In the incipit of his sonnet, Cavalcanti apostrophizes the Virgin Mary by reversing the normal word order: not "mia Donna" or "Madonna," but "Donna mia," stressing the possessive by placing it in the A-rhyme position. In the following verse, he explains that the icon is venerated in Orsanmichele, placing the name of the granary too in the B-rhyme. The miracles occur, he seems to say, not in a church--or rather, the Church--but in a public location quite close to the Cavalcanti household. In the final tercet he returns to the question of proximity implicit to the phrase "donna Mia." Word of her intercession spread across outlying roads ("lontane camina," v. 12), and the Minorites reject the icon because it was not near to them ("nonn e lor vicina," v. 14). Through his rhymes, Cavalcanti structures the sonnet around the dynamism of proximity and distance.
Cavalcanti's attack on the friars raises an important question in this tenzone. Scholars have long recognized anticlericalism as a topos of medieval comic literature (Vitale, 17), and that finding is undoubtedly applicable to Cavalcanti's sonnet. A commonplace strategy of anticlerical satirists was to highlight the clerics' hypocrisy by contrasting their actions to traditional Christian teachings (Graus 70) (10), and such an approach is on display through Cavalcanti's characterization of them as envious ("per invidia," v. 14). Still, it would be a mistake to view the commonplace as mere empty rhetoric, as if Cavalcanti were unconsciously parroting the tradition. Instead, it is more useful to view anticlericalism as a complex set of hostile ideas about the religious (Szitta, ix). Donald Weinstein observes that anticlericalism does not constitute a constant, timeless feature, but frequently reacts against specific historical events (310). A more pertinent question, therefore, might be to ask which historical events inspired Cavalcanti's anticlerical slander. The very location of the icon challenges the claims of Corso Donati's followers to be true Guelphs, and undermines their endorsement by the Church. The icon appeared very close to the Cavalcanti domicile, but far from the institutions of the Church. Indeed, Cavalcanti proclaims, it is their distance from the icon that actually inspires the Franciscans' envy (v. 14). Through Mary's miracles in the granary, along with the condemnation of the icon on the part of the Minorites, Cavalcanti highlights the distance between the Church and its partisans from divine power and truth; the Virgin seemingly smiles upon something that the Ecclesiastical institutions did not support. For this reason, Orlandi may have felt compelled to come to the defense of the mendicants, his political allies.
The miraculous Virgin did not merely appear in a haphazard location near the Cavalcanti residence, but in a granary, a place evocative of the popolani and the guilds, and famous for its support of the poor. The poet stresses the Virgin's protection of all people irrespective of their status: "de' peccatori e gran rifugio e porto," (v. 4); "qual con devozion," (v. 5); "chi piU languisce, piU n'a di conforto" (v. 6); "con reverenza la gente la 'nchina" (v. 10). Historically speaking, the abuses of the magnates against the non-nobles had caused the governmental restriction of their aristocratic rights in the 1280s, which eventually resulted in Giano's Ordinances of Justices; these restrictions rankled Corso Donati and inspired his followers to act against them. Thanks to her presence in Orsanmichele, Cavalcanti seems to say, Mary smiles upon the Cavalcanti, the popolani, and the guilds; in short, she prefers the followers of the Vieri de' Cerchi.
The Virgin demonstrates her miraculous nature in a completely secular building, a granary. In his sonnet, Cavalcanti not only casts Mary as a partisan in the factionalism, but also undercuts the very justification for the Church. Divine powers, in short, do not require intercessors but instead are immanent in the world. The scandalous implications of his portrait certainly reinforced the stereotypes of him and his party. The Ghibellines, it will be recalled, were slandered as heretics, and in Inferno Dante described Cavalcanti not as an Averroist, which might have unwittingly thrust on him the aura of deep philosophical speculations, but as an atheistic epicurean (Baranski 169). Guido Orlandi rebuts Cavalcanti by affirming the Franciscans but also, tellingly, the Dominicans, whose political affiliations of the time are known. Yet Orlandi's sonnet reveals his umbrage at a far more scandalous insinuation of Cavalcanti's poem. In contrast to Cavalcanti's designation of the Virgin as "Donna mia," Orlandi emphasized the word "nostro" or "nostra" by repeating it throughout his composition ("del nostro sire," v. 6; "della nostra salute," v. 7; "lor predicanza e nostra medicina," v. 22). The Guelphs certainly exploited the notion of being the party of God, which the pro-Donati faction subsequently co-opted. When historical events turned against the Guelphs, some poets challenged their party's ideological stance by threatening to withhold their adoration of God as punishment (Alfie, "Punishing God" 47). Cavalcanti's representation of Mary as taking sides in a factional dispute seems altogether more shocking: the benevolent Virgin is the final refuge of all sinners, and cannot be claimed by any one group. As Orlandi stresses with his repetition of "nostro," she offers mercy to everyone, not only to a select few.
In conclusion, the sonnets between Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Orlandi seem to communicate across the factional divide in 1290s Florence. The landmarks of the city and their sociological associations imbue the two sonnets with a political resonance otherwise lost to later generations. Cavalcanti's suggestion that the Virgin, through her icon at Orsanmichele, favors the Cerchi certainly was not palatable to Orlandi. Orlandi rebukes Cavalcanti, telling him to humble his combatants and to repent of his pride. Yet aside from its intrinsic value the interpretation of the two sonnets as the byproduct of the internecine struggle also has greater implications for the understanding of the Florentine literature of the Duecento. As historian Carol Lansing notes, the notion of nobility lay at the center of a broad cultural contestation (212-220), which had real-world ramifications by inspiring in part the political strife in the thirteenth century (Jones 318). The cultural conversation centered on the essence of aristocracy, in particular the relationship in Aristotelian thought between inherited honors and moral character (Lansing 212216). A number of key Florentine thinkers discussed the insufficiency of the two criteria of the Aristotelian definition of nobility (Jones 224). Some writers, like Dante in the fourth book of the Convivio (ca. 1304-7), expressed the opinion that nobility was derived only from virtue and not at all from possessions (Simonelli 56). The factionalism in thirteenth-century Italy was the violent outcome of the cultural debate about the nature and role of nobility in an urban commune.
The two sonnets discussed above constitute only one of possibly three tenzoni between Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Orlandi. The scholarly interpretations of the exchanges, like that about the icon in the granary, tend to focus on them as debates about strictly literary matters. As with the two sonnets about Orsanmichele, the other tenzoni between Orlandi and Cavalcanti reflect the ongoing debates about the nature of nobility. In a poem by Orlandi, "Per troppa sottiglianza il fil si rompe," he describes Cavalcanti as someone who seeks out pomp ("che cheri pompe," v. 4). Orlandi describes the wealthy but non-noble Cavalcanti, a follower of the merchant Vieri de' Cerchi, as someone who seeks out the trappings of nobility, as if he does not possess them naturally. In his apparent response, "Di vii matera mi conven parlare," Cavalcanti explains that love is not something vile that can be carried in hand: "Gia non e cosa che si porti in mano: / qual che voi siate, egli e d'un'altra gente" (w. 1213). Cavalcanti portrays the hallmark of someone with inner nobility, love, as subtle, that is, as something in stark contrast to Orlandi's coarse nature. Cavalcanti seemingly denies nobility to the pro-Donati Orlandi, redefining it as a strictly intellectual trait. Lastly, in the sonnet "Onde si move, e donde nasce Amore?" which some believe inspired the canzone "Donna me prega," (Favati 104), Orlandi employs the traditional metaphor of the court of love: "odo che molto usate in la sua corte," (v. 14). People assert, he writes, that Cavalcanti frequents love's court; this is not exactly an objective statement that Cavalcanti is an actual lover. And it should be pointed out that courts, too, were part of the semantic field regarding medieval nobility, not of urban magnates in a mercantile city like Florence.
Terminology such as courts, love's lordship, love's faithful, and gentle hearts, which abound in the poetry of the dolce stil novo, were not strictly about passion. Rather, they mirrored the social and political questions of the age. In the verses of the dolce stil novo these terms were resemanticized, no longer denoting aristocratic bloodlines, but instead suggesting an individual's idealized character through the referent of love. The notion of the dolce stil novo as a school is debated," but poems such as "Una figura della Donna mia," illustrate that the poets associated with the movement engaged in the redefinition of an ingrained cultural concept at the time, nobility (Alfie, "'S'e' non ti cagia'" 317-318). By associating the notion of nobility to love and its "gentle heart," poets like Guido Guinizzelli, Guido Cavalcanti, Dante and Cino da Pistoia investigated in the possibility that it could be applied to people whose aristocratic bona fides were debatable: political exiles, like Guido Guinizzelli and Cino da Pistoia; or people whose aristocratic background was challenged, like the young Dante; or completely non-noble merchants, like Guido Cavalcanti. By casting love as the activation of an inner gentleness, and by presenting themselves as true lovers, the poets of the dolce stil novo could assume a position of authority in medieval Florentine culture. Although more research is needed on this matter, poems like "Una figura della Donna mia" and "S'avessi detto, amico, di Maria" highlight that the amorous verses of the stilnovisti may have been more historically grounded than many scholars currently acknowledge.
University of Arizona
(1) A version of this article entitled "Guido Cavalcanti's 'Una figura della Donna mia': A Proposed Interpretation" was presented at the American Association of Teachers of Italian Conference in Washington DC in October 2007. I would like to acknowledge all the participants of that session for their feedback.
(2) The names of the factions as "Blacks" and "Whites" were applied only after Cavalcanti's death. For that reason, I am generally avoiding them here.
(3) The poet Niccola Muscia referred to Cavalcanti's failed pilgrimage to Compostela in the sonnet "Ecci venuto Guido ['n] Campastello." Muscia's sonnet seems to relate the abortive pilgrimage to the internecine strife in Florence. See Alfie "Black Comedy."
(4) Cited from Dino Compagni, Cronica, ed., Gino Luzzatto.
(5) One of the earliest people to describe the connection between Guido Cavalcanti's sonnet and Giovanni Villani's chronicle was the Florentine philologist Vincenzio Borghini (1515-1580) in "De' poeti antichi toscani." See Alfie, "Sixteenth-Century Criticism," 144.
(6) Giovanni Villani is cited from Giovanni Villani, Cronache, ed., Giulio Cura Cura.
(7) The poetry of Guido Cavalcanti and the response by Guido Orlandi, along with their respective rubrics, are cited from Guido Cavalcanti, Rime, ed., Letterio Cassata.
(8) Ezra Pound, for example, viewed Cavalcanti as one who challenged the religious indoctrination of the Middle Ages. See Ardizzone, 137-139.
(9) See also Carpi, 181.
(10) See also Corsaro.
(11) For overviews of the debate see Spiers; Cordie; and Quaglio. People seemingly in favor of the idea of a school include Pastine; Nardi; and Marti. Seemingly opposed to the idea of a school is Contini, "Dolce Stil Novo."
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