By Olga Lenczewska
Shortly before the dawn of the Middle Ages Italy gave birth to artists that are still amongst the most significant literary figures of all times. Their writings were inspired by a theme of common interest which at some point has troubled every one of us – love. This was the main topic of the literary movement of the 13th century – Dolce stil novo – that was developed in Florence and represented by Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti, among others. But if we look at the variety of names the Ancient Greeks had for this feeling: eros, philia, agape, storge, it becomes evident that love has many definitions, addressees, and forms. Therefore it comes as no surprise that l'amore in the sonnets of Dante and Cavalcanti was an area of dispute and of constant tension. That tension was caused by the duality in human nature – the clash of the divine feelings and the earthly desires.
The two natures of love – the earthly love towards a woman, and the divine love towards God accompanied by the desire of salvation are the main themes of Dolce stil novo. This duality, however, can be represented in various ways, and it is indeed the case when we compare Alighieri's sonnets with that written by Cavalcanti. Whilst for Cavalcanti love destroys rational thinking, keeps one away from Heaven and causes pain (e.g. Tu m'hai sí piena di dolor la mente from Rime 8), Dante sees this profound feeling not as a problem but as a solution to the duality between the earthly and the divine – the woman is his sonnets becomes God's messenger on Earth:
e par che sia una cosa venuta
da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare (Vita nova 17).
Not everything in the poets' sonnets is different, however. They agree that the power of love cannot be fully expressed in words of poetry, and indeed the beloved woman is always described as a divine being, a miracle whose perfect essence escapes imperfect human words, even that of great poets. Cavalcanti writes in one of his sonnets:
Chi é questa che vén, ch'ogn'om la mira,
Che fa tremar di chiaritate l'are
e mena seco Amor, si che parlare
null' omo pote, ma ciascun sospira? (Rime 4),
stressing thus the huge gap between the divine woman-miracle and the imperfect author. Dante, similarly, tells us that when his lady enters a room she evokes such an impression
ch'ogne lingua deven tremando muta,
e li occhi no l'ardiscon di guardare (Vita nova 17).
Whatever the approach to the problem of balancing the divine and the earthly desires, one thing stays the same in the Florentine poetry of Dolce stil novo – portraying the poets' object of love as an ideal, complete and absolutely beautiful – both internally and externally – being. Perhaps we can draw from this a non-academic conclusion that is be universal and thus suitable also for our times: to profoundly respect, honour and complement the object of our feelings, and never to put ourselves before the other person.