Guittone d’Arezzo – Dante’s forgotten muse

At a time of moral and political crisis, the medieval poet pioneered a daring and emotive vernacular style which inspired generations of Italian literature.
A sketch of Guittone d'Arezzo from the nineteenth century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A sketch of Guittone d'Arezzo from the nineteenth century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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Though little known today, Guittone d’Arezzo was one of the most important – and divisive – figures in the history of Italian literature. For some of his contemporaries, he was a poet of genius, who was worthy of comparison with Ovid and Catullus, and who revolutionised the writing of erotic verse. For others, he was a crude and clumsy fraud, who lacked a true understanding of love and was hamstrung by his ‘proletarian’ tastes.

Guittone was born in the little village of Santa Firmina, just outside Arezzo, in eastern Tuscany, at some point between 1230 and 1240. At that time, Italian poetry was still in its infancy. Although Italian dialects had occasionally been used for a few official documents, the Italian vernacular had long been regarded as unsuitable for literary composition. Home-grown troubadours like Sordello sang in the langue d’oc, rather than their native tongue; while Latin remained the dominant language of ‘high’ culture. It was only in the early thirteenth century that poems started to be written in everyday speech. According to Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the reason why the first poet chose an Italian dialect, rather than Latin, was so that he would be understood by the lady he was addressing. The real reason was probably more prosaic, however.

The first poem written in something recognisable as Italian was St. Francis of Assisi’s ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ (Laudes creaturarum), sometimes thought to have been composed in around 1224. But it was in Sicily, at the court of the Emperor Frederick II, that this early ‘Italian’ poetry had flourished most. A circle of poets – centred around Giacomo da Lentini (c.1210-c.1260) and the unfortunate Pietro della Vigna (c.1190-1249) – all burst into activity. Blessed with all the precocity of youth, their verse was full of freshness and vivacity; it glistened with charm and wit; and now and then, there were even flashes of brilliant promise. But it was also rather clumsy. Influenced by Provencal troubadours, the Sicilian School – as it became known – was preoccupied with chivalric themes (notably the fin amor); its courtly origins often inclined it towards the impersonal; and all too often, it was marred by a stiff formality.

Despite its weaknesses, the poetry of the Sicilian School spread quickly throughout Italy. It found a particularly receptive audience in Tuscany, where it inspired a number of imitators. By the time Guittone was a child, however, there were already signs of change. In Florence – which, being a republic, lacked a court – a simpler, more unaffected style began to put forth shoots. So too, in Bologna, the revival of interest in Aristotelian philosophy held out the prospect of a more intellectually sophisticated lyric. But where Italian poetry was going next was anyone’s guess. For all the literary ferment then gripping the peninsula, there was still no clear sense of what poetry should be – let alone what subjects it should address or what tone it should strike.  

We know little of Guittone’s education, but these questions seem to have fascinated him from an early age. Travelling from city to city, he became acquainted with several leading members of the wider Sicilian School and was evidently attracted by its possibilities. He soon tried composing verses of his own. Though dating his works is often problematic, his earliest efforts dealt with the classic themes of courtly love: the supremacy of amore, the lover’s devotion to his lady, and the sweetness of suffering. The forms he favoured (sonnet, canzone etc.) were of a familiar bent. And he displayed an affection for a complex style of poetry, beloved by the troubadours, known as the trobar clus.

But Guittone nevertheless transformed the poetry of the Sicilian School into something completely new – and arguably more powerful. Having apparently studied the Latin classics as a boy, he succeeded in marrying the freshness of the southern style with a muscular gravity. He also replaced the impersonal stiffness of the Sicilian School with a genuinely autobiographical element. This made his poetry not only more dignified than anything seen before, but also more intimate and touching. In the canzoneAhi Deo, che dolorosa’ (‘O Lord, how painful…’), for example, he explores how love made him hover between fear and excitement. In doing so, he revives the classical association between love and death in a delicate piece of wordplay (amore / a morte). Similarly, in ‘Se de voi, donna gente’ (‘If because of you, gentle lady’), Guittone seems to satirise the rigid conventions of courtly love; but his manner is so deft that it only adds to the charm of his declaration – and would no doubt have warmed the heart of any lady who read it. “Since we know for sure that Love is born from pleasing things,” he wrote,

How can a man defend himself
from you, who embody in yourself 
the flower of all the world’s pleasure?

But just as Guittone was getting started, the death of his father changed his life – and his poetry – for ever. Suddenly the head of his family, he found himself pitched into the political life of his native Arezzo. 

His timing could not have been worse. By the mid-1250s, Arezzo was in a perilous position. Following the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Tuscany had descended into chaos. Almost every city was divided between two warring factions, each vying for supremacy. Those who were loyal to the papacy were known as Guelfs, while those who continued to defend the cause of Empire were called Ghibellines.

In Arezzo, the Guelfs had gained the upper hand in 1254; but their hold was still fragile. Given that the city had almost no allies, they were worried that, if it was attacked, civil unrest might follow – and the Ghibellines, led by the bishop, would reassert themselves. To guard against this, the Guelfs therefore arranged an alliance between Arezzo and Florence. Foolishly, however, they then followed this by attacking Florence’s traditional ally, Cortona. Guittone, a Guelf, was horrified. Realising that the Florentines would regard this as a hostile act, he bitterly opposed the campaign – albeit in vain. As he had foreseen, Florence instantly broke the alliance and went on the offensive. Arezzo was plunged into crisis; and, as the Guelf regime tottered amidst a pan-Tuscan Ghibelline revival, Guittone saw that he was now in danger. In 1259, he decided to go into exile rather than fight. 

It was a bitter pill to swallow. Almost from the moment of his departure, he longed to return. But he could not help feeling resentful. He was disgusted both by Arezzo’s short-sightedness, and by the moral decline which he felt had led it to such a ruinous pass. In poetry – as well as in prose – he found a release. While he was careful not to cut his ties completely, he wrote a series of vicious poems and letters pouring scorn on his fellow countrymen. The opening lines of the canzone Gente noiosa e villana’ are typical: 

Troublesome and uncouth people, 
a wicked and vile government, 
judges full of falsehood, and a dangerous, foreign war, 
all make me hate my own country and love another’s: 
that is why I left it and came here; 
and the greatest pain which my heart bears is when I am reminded of it, 
or of anything that reposes there: 
so strong is my disdain.

There is no mistaking the depth of Guittone’s feeling, or the pain of his exile. What makes these poems of exile so extraordinary, however, is not their bitterness – but their subject. Whereas, in the past, Italian poetry had been used predominantly for love, devotion, and (occasionally) humour, Guittone now claimed for it a more politicalrole – and proved that biting invectives could be delivered with as much devastating effect in the vernacular as in any other language.  

As Guittone must have known, his best hope of returning to Arezzo was a Guelf resurgence across Tuscany. The following year, however, disaster struck. On 4 September 1260, the Florentine Guelfs were crushed by an army of Ghibelline exiles and Sienese troops at the battle of Montaperti. Almost immediately, several other towns fell to the Ghibellines. Guittone – then perhaps in Pisa – was crestfallen. In despair, he wrote his most famous and heartrending poem, ‘Ah lasso! or è stagion de doler tanto’ (‘Alas! Now is the season of great suffering’), a lament not just for Florence, but for the ‘flower’ of all Tuscany.

Hopeless, listless, and lost, Guittone sought new meaning. In 1265, he joined the Ordine dei cavalieri di S. Maria gloriosa, better known as the milites beatae Virginis Mariae (‘soldiers of the Blessed Virgin Mary’). Founded just five years before, this was a religious and knightly order which had originally been established to stamp out heresy in the cities, but which had increasingly dedicated itself to reconciling factions in the name of peace. By its nature, it placed a heavy burden on its members. Guittone was obliged to swear oaths of obedience and chastity. He was required to turn his back on his wife and three children. But Guittone had found what he had been looking for. Casting off his former life, he became Frate (Brother) Guittone and threw himself into his new calling.

Guittone’s poetry changed with him. In place of amatory verse or political diatribes, he now began writing more overly ‘moral’ poems, castigating the wickedness of the material world, and extolling the virtues necessary for salvation. This sudden shift has sometimes been seen as a repudiation of his previous work. Indeed, some scholars have even referred to ‘Frate Guittone’ as if he is a completely different author. But this is perhaps an exaggeration. Despite his ‘conversion’, Guittone appears to have seen his new ‘moralising’ works as acting in dialogue with his earlier writings. Like a penitent before the confessional, he was continually looking back at his youthful verses, analysing his motivations, and criticising his sins. This had the effect not of effacing what he had written before, but reconstituting and reaffirming it. At the same time, it shifted attention away from abstract ideas, and confirmed the self as the central concern of his poetry.  

Such an intense burst of poetic self-criticism must have been a heavy cross to bear – especially given that some of his confreres appear to have slipped back into their voluptuous ways. In 1266, he had a crisis of conscience. He asked himself whether he was doing the right thing; and, for a moment, seems to have contemplated leaving the Order altogether.

But somewhere, he found the strength to go on. He convinced himself that he had been right to abandon his three children and pressed ahead with moral reform. The following year, he was made the Order’s Provincial (regional head) in Tuscany.

Much of his time appears to have been spent in travelling. But poems and letters continued to pour from his pen. He wrote a cycle of verses illustrating various virtues and vices; repudiated friends who had retained their attachment to the corrupt world of politics; and extolled the superiority of divine to secular love – often with reference to the ancient classics. He even began to attract his own imitators.  

But Guittone was increasingly out of step with the times. His efforts to restore peace to Tuscany came to nothing. Factionalism was as intense as ever; and the strife between cities showed no signs of abating. As he neared his sixtieth year, he could only watch dolefully on as his native Arezzo was crushed by a Florentine army at the battle of Campaldino (11 June 1289). So too, he was out of step with the poetic changes happening around him. A new movement had begun to emerge in opposition to the severity and stylistic complexity which his verse embodied. Later to become known as the dolce stil novo (‘sweet new style’), this counted among its leading members Guido Guizzinelli (1235-76), Cino da Pistoia (1270-1336/7), Guido Cavalcanti (c.1255-1300), and – of course – Dante. Though it is rather difficult to define, it was characterised above all by its self-conscious refinement, its idealisation of Love, and its emphasis on the unity of subject and form.

After years of effort, Guittone could not go on. In 1293, he entered the Benedictine Camaldolese cloister at San Michele – and less than a year later, he was dead.

By then, he had already become an object of scorn. Guido Cavalcanti reproved him for his misuse of syllogisms; while Dante attacked him for a whole host of perceived faults. In the De vulgari eloquentia, Dante criticised his rough, plebeian style – quite unlike the ‘courtly vernacular’ appropriate to poetry – and his failure to rise above the commonplace (1.13.1; 2.6.8). Then, in the Commedia, Dante claimed – rather harshly – that he lacked a true understanding of Love (Purg. 24.55-62).

But Dante and Cavalcanti were perhaps protesting too much. Though they liked to define the dolce stil novo in opposition to Guittone, they owed him more than they were prepared to admit. It was Guittone who made Italian poetry personal and intimate; who made love songs more than just a rehearsal of familiar formulae; who made the self – in all its tortured, contradictory wholeness – a subject fit for vernacular verse. While his style could be a little overblown at time, Guittone created tropes that would become an indelible part of Italy’s poetic vocabulary. To take just one example, the image of Pisa a weeping woman, which first appeared in his canzone Magni baroni certo e regi quasi’ (‘Great barons, certainly, and almost kings’), would inspire Dante’s own depiction of Italy as the fallen ‘donna di provincie’ (Purg. 6.78) – and, several centuries later, would re-echo in Giacomo Leopardi’s (1798-1837) ‘All’Italia’. 

Yet even Guittone’s admirers did him scant justice. In the mid-fourteenth century, Francesco Petrarca (1304-74) hailed him as one of the great love poets, ranking him alongside Ovid, Propertius, Catullus – and even Dante. But he was much more than ‘just’ that. In that he established vernacular lyric as a vehicle not just for love, but also for engaging with moral and political questions, he greatly expanded its scope and richness. He paved the way for Petrarch’s own poetic discussions of the contemporary Church, the state of Italy, and the meaning of virtue – and arguably set the tone for some of the more ambitious varieties of later Renaissance verse.

This is not, of course, to suggest that Guittone did not have his flaws. But though he is often overlooked today, he deserves to be more widely recognised as one of the founding fathers of Italian poetry.

Alexander Lee

Dr Alexander Lee is a research fellow at the University of Warwick and the author of Machiavelli: His Life and Times (London: Picador, 2020).

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