(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Sordello c. 1189-1200 - c. 1269

(Also referred to as Sordel) Italian troubadour.

One of the most celebrated early Italian troubadours, Sordello gained a formidable reputation primarily through his noble characterization in Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio, which immortalized the poet as a symbol of patriotic pride. Sordello wrote in the tradition of the troubadours— creative lyric poets of the late eleventh to the late thirteenth centuries who hailed primarily from northern Italy, northern Spain, and southern France and produced poems in their vernacular tongues. He composed about forty poems on such subjects as love, chivalry, and morality and became a fairly significant figure in the development of Italian literature, attracting attention to his native land as his fame spread. Following his death, his reputation grew as legends emerged about events in his life; early Mantuan chroniclers, perhaps influenced by Dante's portrayal of Sordello, centered on and presumably embellished his public importance and his gallant adventures. Scholars have debated whether these early characterizations contributed to Sordello's appeal to poets Robert Browning and Ezra Pound, both of whom were inspired by the troubadour. In 1840, Browning composed a largely imaginative version of the troubadour's life in his fulllength poem Sordello, a complex and highly idealized account of the development of the poet's spirit. Pound, one of the staunchest defenders of Browning's poem, echoed Sordello's lyrics in several of his Cantos, perhaps impressed, as scholars have suggested, by the troubadour's disdain for moral and political corruption as well as by his dedication to a plain style of composition.

Biographical Information

Most existing accounts of Sordello's life are considered unreliable, coming from his songs; from vidas, factually questionable biographies whose authors are unknown but thought to have been other troubadours; and razos, prose explanations preceding the songs. It is generally acknowledged that he was active in politics, attaching himself to wealthy, pro-Empire clans, and that he was entangled at various times in scandalous activities that threatened his courtly duties. He was born in the city of Goito, near Mantua, sometime between 1189 and the turn of the thirteenth century. His family belonged to the minor nobility, and he spent his youth learning the art of being a courtier, which often involved the composition of music in the troubadour tradition of southern France. One of the first historical mentions of Sordello occurs in the mid-1220s and recounts his patronage at various courts of Lombardy in northern Italy, where he exchanged verses with fellow troubadours and began acquiring a reputation as a poet of merit. Sometime during the mid-to late-1220s he was involved in the abduction and possible seduction of Cunizza, wife of one of his hosts, Count Ricciardo di San Bonifacio, and sister of the notorious Lord Ezzelino da Romano. Allegedly, he then traveled to Onedes, where he secretly wedded Lady Otta di Strassi (or Otha di Strassi), arousing the fury of her brothers. In danger of becoming the target of revenge by the Strassi clan as well as by Bonifacio, Sordello ultimately fled in the late 1220s to Provence, the center of culture in western Europe and where he most actively pursued his vocation as a troubadour poet. By the 1230s he had secured the patronage of Raymond Bérenger IV, ruler of Provence, in whose powerful court he encountered such notable literary figures as the poet Peire Bremon Ricas Novas, who appears in several of Sordello's poems. In addition, he associated with influential heads of state, including Lord Blacatz of Aups, whose death around 1237 prompted Sordello's most famous poem, and he fell in love with a lady, perhaps Berenger's daughter Beatrice, for whom he wrote numerous chansons addressed to the dolza enemia ("sweet enemy"). Following the count's death in 1245, Sordello served as friend and counsellor to his successor, the ambitious Charles I of Anjou, during whose reign the poet was taken prisoner while on a military campaign to Italy. Evidencing his public significance at the time was Pope Clement IV's intervention on his behalf, which prompted his release. The last mention of Sordello occurs in 1269, when historical records show that his feudal holdings, which Charles had granted him for his services, had been turned over to another Provençal knight. This transfer of property has led scholars to assume that either Sordello had died by this time or that he died in Provence a short time thereafter, possibly at the hands of one of his enemies.

Major Works

Sordello was the author of approximately forty poems of various styles and subjects, all of which were written in Provençal, the language spoken by courtly audiences in Spain, Italy, and France. His minor works include several love lyrics celebrating purity and chastity, most of which were written while he was in Italy and later, while he served under Charles I. Scholars emphasize that the significance of these works lies in the biographical information they provide rather than their artistic merit. Other of his minor works include his tensos, or partimens ("debate poems"), in which the poet holds discussions with such historical figures as Bertran d'Alamanon (it is not clear whether his subjects actually contributed their portions). In direct contrast with the idealized vision of his love poems, these debate poems reveal a pragmatic, and even cynical, side to the poet. Sordello's major works are predominantly sirventes (satiric poems) and cansos ("songs"), most of which he wrote from the 1230s to the early 1240s. His cansos form a more or less unified group and, although lacking the originality of his sirventes, are significant for their elegance and simplicity. Written in the style of trobar pla ("plain composition")—rather than trobar clus ("hermetic or closed composition"), customary among other troubadours—these lyrics, scholars believe, may have influenced later poets, including Dante, to abandon highly metaphoric and abstruse writing in favor of a clear and limpid style. In addition, Sordello's love poems, though often conventional in motif, are distinguished by their concentration on the theme of honor—regarded as the highest aspiration of a lover and the highest virtue of a lady. This focus marked a shift in troubadour poetry from an emphasis on the emotional, bereaved state of the dejected lover, to an examination of spiritual and moral questions. Sordello further explored this theme in his well-known didactic sirvente Ensenhamen d'Onor (Instruction in Honor), in which he contemplated the qualities that constitute honor. Characteristic of didactic poetry of the time, with its vague terminology and lack of heightened poetic feeling, Instruction in Honor offers a portrait of the morality of the period, when one's worth was measured not by intrinsic characteristics but by reputation. In his sirventes, Sordello both censures his country's moral and political climate and launches bitter assaults against his contemporaries; several of these attack his adversary Peire Bremon Ricas Novas, who accused him of imposture. Sordello's best-known, as well as his most successful, sirvente is the high-minded "Lament on Lord Blacatz" (c. 1237). In this planh ("funeral lament") the poet praises the courage and merits of his charitable patron and friend and criticizes the weaknesses of western European sovereigns, advising them to feed upon the subject's heart so that they too might become brave and generous. A political diatribe against decadent rulers, the work was imitated or parodied by at least two of Sordello's contemporaries. "Lament on Lord Blacatz" also inspired Dante; in cantos six through eight of his Purgatorio, the Florentine poet depicts an impressive Sordello who, in the Vale of Negligent Rulers, voices a severe invective against the princes of his time.

Textual History

None of Sordello's works composed in his native Tuscan, the standard literary dialect of Italian, survive. Scholars believe that his approximately thirty-four to forty works in Provençal may have been initially preserved through oral performance, as troubadour poems were often performed by either the composer or a joglar ("minstrel") before court audiences. This oral stage preceded or occurred simultaneously with the copying of his poems into manuscripts, possibly originally intended as memory prompts for the performer. By the mid-thirteenth century, scribes and perhaps even various troubadours themselves began a serious effort to record lyrics in collections of Old Provençal writings; several other collections followed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Modern editions of Sordello's writings have been undertaken by several German and French philologists. Most notable among these are the eighteenth-century Provençal authority Jean Baptiste de La Sainte-Palaye and the nineteenth-century Provençal scholar François Raynouard, who compiled the poet's writings in both Choix de poésies originales des troubadours (1816-21) and Lexique roman (1838-44). In the late 1800s Cesar de Lollis produced the authoritative Italian text Vita e poesie di Sordello di Coito; this work was followed in the mid-1950s by Marco Boni, whose Sordello, le poesie under-went revision by its editor more than fifteen years later. While many English translations of Sordello's individual works have been made since the nineteenth century, primarily for inclusion in anthologies of troubadour poetry, it was not until 1987 that James J. Wilhelm, an American medievalist and Pound scholar, produced the first complete critical edition, The Poetry of Sordello.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Sordello was generally recognized as an influential and talented Provençal poet; as evidence of this, scholars point to the troubadour Americ de Peguillan of Toulouse, who declared in one of his poems that only Sordello could judge its merit. By the late nineteenth century, critics had begun to speculate that perhaps some of Sordello's best writings were not preserved, maintaining that his extant works comprise only a portion of his total work. Around the turn of the twentieth century, critical tide shifted toward the perception that his poetic talent exceeded that of other Provençal poets. Singling out his "Lament for Lord Blacatz" as one of his finest works, commentators praised its originality, with Eugene Benson claiming that it "stirred the troubadours of the day. It gave them a new suggestion, a new idea, and they tried to equal it, if not to surpass it." Early twentieth-century scholars had also probed the tales surrounding Sordello's life and attempted to separate historical fact from legend. This led to the theory of two Sordellos: one, the honorable, illustrious poet of Italy who defended his native Mantua against attackers; the other, a vagabond adventurer and lover of pleasure. While contemporary critics have attempted to resolve this issue by seeking additional biographical materials, modern debates have revolved more frequently around Dante's interest in the troubadour. Attempting to reconcile the stature granted him by Dante with Sordello's actual poetic output and personal history, some scholars have purported that Dante admired Sordello for recognizing the limitations of his own vernacular and adopting Provençal instead. Others have maintained that Sordello's main attractions for Dante were the variety, vigor, and political convictions with which his works are infused and which in turn inspired several passages of Dante's Purgatorio. Although Sordello's love poems have been viewed historically as lacking originality, some scholars have found that his ruminations on love do individualize his work. For example, as Sordello equates his lady with a captor and himself with a prisoner, he contemplates the psychological effects of unrequited love, thus marking a transition in troubadour poetry toward an increasingly moralistic tone.