Few facts are known about the family background of the Italian troubadour and poet known as Sordello (ca. 1180-1269) and some of what comes down to us is wrapped in contradiction. In spite of this sketchy knowledge, he is a recognized hero and the subject of works by Dante and Browning, and an opera by Donizetti. An Italian postal stamp bears his likeness and the main square in the town of Mantua is named "Piazza Sordello."
Sordello is alternately said to be a noble Castellan or the son of a poor knight. In an account written by Stewart Holmes, a general impression of Sordello's life indicates that he was the son of a "poor chevalier," Ser El Corte. His father was of the troupe of the Visconti family of Mantua. The Penguin Companion to European Literature refers to Sordello as a minor noble. Regardless of his family background, Sordello comes down to us as an accomplished poet.
The exact date of his birth is unknown but set at about 1180. Authorities agree that Sordello was born in a castle named Goito in the Mantuan area of Italy. As a young boy, he became known to the literary world through a poem called "Tresor." According to Caroline H. Dall in an article published in 1872, Sordello "distinguished himself by bravery and address, by a dignity and grace of manner." He was described as a handsome man and a great lover, but deceitful in his relationships with women. He is also said to have been false in his dealings with the barons with whom he stayed.
Outside of his literary life, Sordello is best known for his love affair with Cunniza. At some point in his youth he entered the court of Count Ricciardo di San Bonifazio (Richard of Saint Boniface), the lord of Verona. It was here that he fell in love with Milady Cunizza da Romano, the wife of the Count. Cunniza was the sister of Lord Ezzelino and Lord Alberico da Romano. Around 1225 or 1226, Sordello abducted Cunizza. The details are obscure but it is said that this occurred at the urging of Cunizza's brother, the tyrant, Ezzelino. This event occurred against the background of feudal fighting between Saint Boniface, on the side of the Guelfs, and Cunizza's family, leading the Ghibellines. The Guelfs supported the Pope while the Ghibellines were supporters of the Emperor Frederick. Sordello and Cunizza escaped to the court of her brother, Ezzelino. Within a short time, Sordello fled to Onigo, perhaps to the court of the Patriarch of Aquileia. Sordello is said to have entered into a love affair and a secret marriage with Otta of Onigo, the sister of Sordello's hosts, two brothers who were lords of the land. Incurring the enmity of the brothers, he abandoned Otta and left Treviso, Italy around 1229, fleeing across the Alps for the South of France.
Sordello settled in Provence, where he spent his days at the courts of Provence, Toulouse, and Roussillon and began making his name as a poet and troubadour. His wanderings have been documented by Peire Bremon Ricas Novas, a troubadour who confirms that Sordello was in Spain, at the court of Alfonso IX, King of Leon.
Casual mention in his poetry puts him in Provence before 1235. He thrived at the court of Count Raimond Berenger IV of Provence, who held court at the city of Aix. Upon Berenger's death in 1245, Sordello is found at the court of the Countess Beatrice, daughter of Raimond Berenger and wife of Charles of Anjou. He became a follower of Charles. It is thought that several of his love poems were written for Beatrice. According to Robert Brothers in Sordello: A History and a Poem, Beatrice pursued him against his will and eventually became his wife. Other authorities question Brother's account, although it is agreed that he did marry while in the court of Berenger. While in France, Sordello came under the protection of his main patron, Guillaume de Blacatz. Blacatz was both his good friend and his rival.
Between 1252 and 1265, Sordello's name appears in numerous records, placing him in the company of various nobles. He also seems to have established himself well in Charles' court. He followed Charles, albeit reluctantly, on the Italian expedition against Manfred in 1265. In 1266, Sordello was captured by the Ghibellines before reaching Naples and held prisoner at Novara. Pope Clement IV persuaded Charles to pay a ransom for Sordello, and in 1269 he received five castles in the Abruzzi near the river Pescara for his services. He died shortly afterward.
Neither prose nor poems written by Sordello in Tuscan are available to us. Forty poems written in Provencal are all that do survive to this day. It is agreed that the most lively of these are debates with other poets. His best-known poem, "Serventes" (1237) was written upon the death of his friend, Blacatz. In this satire, Sordello invites the sovereigns of the day to a funeral feast to eat of his (Blacatz') heart, "that they may recover what the Milanese have taken!" Among those sovereigns invited to such a meal were the Emperor Frederick II, the kings of England, France and Aragon, and the counts of Champagne, Toulouse, and Provence. Among his other poems is the "L'Ensehnamen d'Onor" or "Lesson of Honour," a didactic poem of high and pure morality. The "L'Ensehnamen d'Onor" is a vigorous, intellectual piece of noble pride. It describes the education and conduct proper to a courtier and a lover. Sordello is also credited with several treatises and essays, including "The Progress and Power of the Kings of Arragon in the Comte of Provence" and "The Defence of Walled Towns."
Sordello is often treated as two different men—a young, lively poet with a zest for life and love, and a sometimes reluctant warrior, following his king into battle and suffering the consequences of capture. Most followers of Sordello choose to merge the two men, regardless of the facts. The lure of Sordello's story survives centuries, and the few known facts wrapped in mystery have inspired others to search for the real Sordello.
Sordello's works inspired the likes of Dante and Browning. Dante gave him the status of a patriot in "Purgatorio," VI, and VII, assigning him the prominent role of escort to Virgil. In Browning's psychological poem "Sordello," he is made typical of liberty and human perfection. Ezra Pound inspected the Ambrosiana Library in Milan and published The Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound in which he expounds on the uncertainties of Sordello's life. He also includes a translation of an anonymous Vida in a 1913 essay on Sordello. Over 50 years after Browning's poem was published, Cesare de Lollis published a full biography of Sordello in the 1890s. Although little new information has come to light, the adventurous life of this twelfth century poet continues to draw enthusiasts attempting to find the real Sordello.
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