(ca. 1200–ca. 1270)
   Sordello is the best-known of the Italian TROUBADOURS. He is famous now largely because of his significant position in DANTE’s DIVINE COMEDY, where in cantos 6 and 7 of the Purgatorio, he shows Dante and Virgil into the Valley of Princes. Dante saw Sordello as a figure representing an elevated and admirable political morality.
   What we know of Sordello’s life hardly seems to warrant Dante’s lofty opinion of him. Born a minor nobleman from Goito near Mantua, Sordello became embroiled in two serious scandals involving his relationships with women: He secretly married Otta, daughter of the Strasso family with whom he was staying in Ceneda. He fled with her to Treviso in 1227, and sought refuge from the tyrant Ezzelino II da Romano. But it seems he then began an affair with Ezzelino’s sister, Cunizza, wife of the Count Ricciardo di San Bonifazio. Fleeing the wrath of the lady’s brother and husband, Sordello left Italy in 1229, and spent some years wandering in Spain and Portugal.
   Eventually Sordello came to Provence, where he found a patron, Blacatz, lord of Aups. Blacatz was head of an ancient noble family, and between 1194 and 1236 was patron of numerous poets, as well as the composer of 12 extant songs. Perhaps because of Blacatz’s death, Sordello became attached in the mid-1230s to the court of Raimon Bérenger IV, count of Provence, whom he served until about 1245.
   After 1245, Sordello was a knight in the service of Charles of Anjou.He followed Charles into Italy in 1265 as part of Charles’s expedition to wrest the kingdom of Sicily from the Hohenstaufen king Manfred. Apparently Sordello was taken prisoner in Naples in 1266. Following Charles’s successful campaign, Sordello took part in the distribution of fiefs in the new Angevin kingdom in 1269. He received lands and six castles in Abruzzi for his loyal service. But he seems to have died shortly thereafter. Some say he died back in Provence; some say he died a violent death. But nothing about his death is known for certain. Some 40 of Sordello’s poems are extant, all written in Provençal. Only 12 of these are cansos, or love poems. But when Sordello does speak of love, it is with an extreme and almost platonic delicacy and deference to his lady: In one poem he says that he would rather serve his lady hopelessly for years than to serve another lady who would be so loose as to invite him to her bed. In another he says that he will write in the simple, clear TROBAR LEU style, because that is what pleases his lady. But Sordello is better known for his SIRVENTES, or political songs. His best-known poem, and the one that aroused Dante’s praise, is his planh or lament on the death of Blacatz, written about 1237. In this poem Sordello takes to task eight major political leaders of Europe, and charges them to eat the heart of the dead man, in order to inspire them to courageous action. To his own lord, Raimon Bérenger, he says:
   And the Count of Provence, it is well that
   he eats if he remembers
   A man’s worth nothing living robbed of his inheritance,
   And for all his effort to hold his ground and
   defend himself,
   He must eat of this heart for the heavy
   burden he bears.
   (Goldin 1973, 315, ll. 37–40)
   This planh (or COMPLAINT) must have given Sordello the reputation for political principles that inspired Dante to use him in the Purgatorio. In Dante’s story Sordello embraces Virgil as a native from his own home in Mantua, then delivers a prophetic diatribe on the political corruption in Dante’s Italy. Ultimately he leads Dante and Virgil into the Valley of Princes in canto 7. In addition to Dante, Sordello also provided poetic inspiration for Robert Browning in the 19th century, whose long poem Sordello appeared in 1840. Browning focuses not on Sordello’s political philosophy, but rather on his amorous affairs, particularly with the sister of Ezzelino.
   ■ Goldin, Frederick, ed. and trans. Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères: An Anthology and a History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973.
   ■ Wilhelm, James J. The Poetry of Sordello. New York: Garland, 1986.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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