03.05.02, Ardizzone, Guido Cavalcanti

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Daniela La Penna

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.002


Ardizzone, Maria Luisa. Guido Cavalcanti: The Other Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 231. ISBN: 0-8020-3591-4.

Reviewed by:
Daniela La Penna
University of Reading

Between 2000 and 2001, three major conferences (New York, Rome and Barcelona) were organised to celebrate the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of the Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti (12??-1300). The proceedings allowed a long overdue round-up of the critical assessments produced since Maria Corti's 1983 ground-breaking study La felicità mentale. For one who is familiar with Guido's poetics and philosophy, these celebratory events have an immediate ironic back-flavour that certainly was going as such to be perceived by a poet who, himself endowed with a penchant for mordacious irony, used his skilful gift for poetic construction and logic demonstration to demolish the idea of after-life and to describe, with vividly dramatic touches, the death-in-life of those who fall in love.

Ardizzone's volume represents the most recent contribution to a thriving Cavalcantian scholarship: on university libraries' bookshelves it will sit shoulder to shoulder with the recently published proceedings of the Rome's and Barcelona's conferences from which a variety of interpretations sparks off, often in open contradiction with Ardizzone's own take on the matter.

Ardizzone emphatically stresses, from the very title of her study, the otherness of Cavalcanti's work as it is exemplified in the Poet's decision to seek "answers to human desires and goals not in theology but in biology, natural philosophy, and in medicine" (6) and to choose as illuminating guides in his intellectual journey Avicenna, Averroes and the other representatives of the radical Aristotelianism whose works were circulating in Thirteenth century Italy and France. Ardizzone's research hypothesis is not new. And indeed, she uses as her starting point Maria Corti's 1983 seminal study, in which Bruno Nardi's assumption that Cavalcanti's doctrinal canzone Donna me prega must be read in the light of the debate within the "left" of the Aristotelianism, is further corroborated by Corti's conviction that Cavalcanti was deeply influenced by an anonymous commentary, Quaestiones de anima, on Aristotle's first two books of De Anima, whose paternity doubtfully lies between Boethius of Dacia and Siger of Brabant. Ardizzone's study seeks to explore and fill in the numerous "cultural" interstices of both Nardi's and Corti's hypotheses, privileging among other sources, the physician Dino Del Garbo's commentary to the doctrinal canzone, and emphasising links with medicine, natural philosophy, speculative grammar, and logic.

In Ardizzone's study, the commentary of Donna me prega spans over three of the five chapters constituting the volume. The basic tenets of the author's hypothesis are, firstly, that Donna me prega can be fully comprehended only if the "theory of passion" there fashioned is put into context with the "rhetoric of passion" orchestrated in the other poems constituting Cavalcanti's "canzoniere". This survey is carried out in Chapter one. The second tenet maintains that the vocabulary used in the major canzone, mainly revolving around the semantic field of optics and passion, is not merely metaphorical but highly technical.

In chapter one, the "rhetoric of passion" is seen in the light of Cavalcanti's awareness of the physician Taddeo Alderotto's work in which natural philosophy and medicine converge. With the commentary of some twelve of the about fifty poems which constitute the whole collection, Ardizzone is able to provide the intellectual background for Cavalcanti's insistent use of the word "spirit" (which is linked to the pneumatology of obvious Stoic-Galenic tradition) and to show that the dramatic disintegration of the lover's psyche under the attack waged by the Lady's image is accurate from the point of view of medieval medical science. It is worth noting that sonnet XXVIII, a poem famous for its self-parodic take on the use of the word "spirit" (which in this text occurs fifteen times) is not commented upon. And yet, this text is crucial in many ways: a sonnet in which the scientifically accurate description of the roles played by the spirits in the psychopathology of love is sublimated and redeemed by the literariness of a virtuoso's poetic craft. Cavalcanti seems to remind us that, however well versed in medicine and natural philosophy, he is and remains a poet!

The chapter concludes with Ardizzone's own contribution to one of the interpretive cruces of Dante's Comedìa: Inferno X, vv. 52-69, on which she will return in Chapter 2 (pp.65-70) and 3 (pp.94-102) with further clarifications. The author maintains that (1) the obscurity is intentionally fashioned by Dante in order to hint at Cavalcanti's use of syllogism, thus evoking in the style the very presence of the one whose very name is omitted throughout the scene. (2) the "cui" refers to both "Beatrice because she embodies not only transcendent love but also the possibility for a new kind of poetry, and the medieval Virgil because he was seen as the poet who implied the survival of the individual soul" (46).

In order to appreciate the complexities of Cavalcanti's discourse, Ardizzone launches a detailed assessment of the theories of optics (or perspectivae) available to Cavalcanti, in order to bring to light the implications of his choice of words. Central to this re-assessment are two interlinked elements, discussed respectively in Chapter Two and Three of the study: the first is the metaphor of the "diaphanous" which, in the perspectivae elaborated by Alhazen, Robert Grosseteste, and Roger Bacon in the light of Aristotle's De anima and De sensu, constitutes the transparent medium of which light is a state of and which can be found in all bodies including air, water and aether. Cavalcanti uses the "diaphanous" as metaphor for love: "love's form is like that of the diaphanous, which enables vision and, from that the generation of form" (125). The second element is the role played by the word "accidente" in Cavalcanti's theory of passion which, as it emerges from Donna me prega, shows to be strongly influenced by the Arabic interpretation of Aristotle's theory of matter dominated by necessity. The elaboration of these points leads Ardizzone to argue that the canzone's "trobar clus" is "one that uses obscurity in order to introduce a precise meaning: love [...] reveals the double genus of sense and intellect, the accidentality of coniunctio, and the subordinate role performed by the sensitive soul. This indirectly suggests an answer to the much-debated question of intellectual happiness" (120).

Contrarily to what the theory of courtly love states, Cavalcanti believed that the experience of love was not an edifying one and did not originate virtue. This is shown through philosophical demonstration in his major canzone, whose main point is that intellectual happiness is unattainable by man. In Chapter four, Cavalcanti's canzone is read against the grain of the debate on happiness of which it constitutes one of the most important contributions, so much so that Giacomo da Pistoia's Quaestio de felicitate, a text which maps out the radical Aristotelianism internal debate on the role of the individual in the intellectual process, is dedicated to the Florentine. Giacomo's treatise is compared and contrasted with Guido's canzone, in order to ascertain the fundamental originality and radicalism of Cavalcanti's thesis which ultimately sanctions intellectual happiness as unachievable by man by affirming that human happiness coincides with the satisfaction of bodily desires.

The study concludes with a fifth chapter devoted to gloss Ezra Pound's own reading of Donna me prega, followed by two appendixes: one containing Ardizzone's own translation of the canzone in the text established by Domenico De Robertis' 1986 critical edition of Cavalcanti's Rime, used throughout the volume, and a second exhibiting previously unpublished correspondence between Ezra Pound and Etienne Wilson regarding Dino Del Garbo's Latin commentary to Donna me prega.

In the last chapter, Ardizzone is able to link her in-depth analysis of Cavalcanti's scientific and philosophical milieu to the Twentieth-century author who compelled her to fathom the Florentine's complex cultural frame, Ezra Pound. As indeed is well known, Ezra Pound had an enduring fascination with the Italian medieval poet which can be conveniently divided into three phases. The early stage sees the publication of Pound's own translation of Cavalcanti's Sonnets and Ballate (1912) (in which the doctrinal canzone was not included). A second which coincides with Pound's translation and commentary of Donna me prega, published in 1928 on the literary journal "The Dial" and the following project of a critical edition of Cavalcanti's poems, published in Italy in 1932 and widely criticised by the Italian academic establishment. A third and final phase corresponds to Pound's poetic sublimation of Cavalcanti's figure and work, marked by the inclusion, in his masterpiece Cantos, of Donna me prega (Canto 36) and of Cavalcanti himself (Canto 73, composed in Italian).

Ardizzone's long-standing scholarly interest in Ezra Pound is testified by her collaboration with Mary de Rachelwitz, editor of the 1985 Italian edition of Cantos, and numerous articles devoted to the subject. In the last section of the study, the Author identifies Pound's commentary to Cavalcanti's canzone as the energetic centre of that "vortex" from which Pound's new vision of Tradition and literary values irradiates. For Pound, Cavalcanti's quintessential poetic language of Donna me prega, a language so "sensuous" that conjures up an immediately precise mental image and consciously dependent on "natural demonstration [and] the metaphor of the generation of light" (140), represents the long-missing ring between the European literary Tradition and Chinese ideogrammatic Tradition. It is precisely this notion that facilitates the further assimilation of Cavalcanti's figure and poetic method in the "Italian" sections of the American's Cantos. As Ardizzone convincingly explains: "Memory and the power of phantasia are crucial in the Pisan cantos, but what is important is that they are presented as the result of the body's power. The great invention in these cantos derives from Pound's use of Cavalcanti. The centrality of the body in Guido's poetry also becomes basic for Pound, who puts forth his own body activity as a text that he reads" (153).

In conclusion, this study adds a number of reflections on Cavalcanti's reception of the radical coté of the scientific and philosophical debates of his time. The findings of Ardizzone's research are communicated in an often demanding style, which at times adds obscurity to an argument which seeks to bring light on a fundamental junction of the Italian medieval cultural history. Unfortunately, this feeling is further enhanced by the poor proof-reading of the text, in which frequently missing inverted commas and a non systematic use of italicisation for quotes in Latin and Tuscan, spoil the often challenging rendering of a complex subject matter.

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Author Biography

Daniela La Penna

University of Reading