This Sordello of Browning seems to have little identity with the brief and splendid Sordello of Dante, the figure that fronts us in the superb sixth canto of the Purgatoria, “a guisa di leon quando si posa.” The records of the real Sordello are scant, fragmentary and contradictory. No coherent outline of his personality remains, so that the character which Browning has made for him is a creation as absolute as if it had been wholly invented. The name indeed of Sordello, embalmed in Dante’s verse, is still fresh to our ears after the “ravage of six long sad hundred years,” and it is Dante, too, who in his De Vulgari Eloquentia, has further signalised him by honourable record. Sordello, he says, excelled in all kinds of composition, and by his experiments in the dialects of Cremona, Brescia and Verona, cities near Mantua, helped to form the Tuscan tongue. But besides the brief record of Dante, there are certain accounts of Sordello’s life, very confused and conflicting, in the early Italian Chronicles and the Provencal lives of the Troubadours. Tiraboschi sifts these legends, leaving very little of them. According to him, Sordello was a Mantuan of noble family, born at Goito at the close of the twelfth century. He was a poet and warrior, though not, as some reports profess, captain-general or governor of Mantua. He eloped with Cunizza, the wife of Count Richard of St. Boniface; at some period of his life he went into Provence; and he died a violent death, about the middle of the thirteenth century. The works attributed to him are poems in Tuscan and Provencal, a didactic poem in Latin named Thesaurus Thesaurorum (now in the Ambrosiana in Milan), an essay in Provencal on “The Progress and Power of the Kings of Aragon in the Comte of Provence,” a treatise on “The Defence of Walled Towns,” and some historial translations from Latin into the vulgar tongue. Of all these works only the Thesaurus and some thirty-four poems in Provencal, sirventes and tensens, survive: some of the finest of them are satires.
The statement that Sordello was specially famed for his philosophical verses, though not confirmed by what remains of his poetry, is interesting and significant in connection with Browning’s conception of his character. There is little however in the scanty tales we have of the historic Sordello to suggest the “feverish poet” of the poem. The fugitive personality of the half mythical fighting poet eludes the grasp, and Browning has rather given the name of Sordello to an imagined type of the poetic character than constructed a type of character to fit the name. Still less are the dubious attributes with which the bare facts of history or legend invest Cunizza (whom, none the less, Dante spoke with in heaven) recognisable in the exquisite and all-golden loveliness of Palma.