One of the most delicious literary portraits of all time is that of the Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini as penned by the acid-tongued German poet and commentator Heinrich Heine.

“He was tall, slenderly built, moved gracefully – I would say coquettishly, always self-consciously,” wrote Heine of the 33-year-old blond, blue-eyed musician from Sicily. “There was something vague, an absence of character in his features, something milky; and sometimes a sour-sweet expression of sorrow would appear on that milk-face… But it was sorrow without depth; it quivered in his prosaic eyes and flickered without passion on the man’s lips.”

Vincenzo Bellini captured in an anonymous miniature around the time of his death

“His hair was combed in such a romantic, melancholy way, he carried his little Spanish cane in such an idyllic manner, that he always reminded me of one of the young shepherds who simper coyly in our pastoral plays,” Heine continued. “And his gait was so virginal, so elegiac, so ethereal. The whole man looked like a sigh in dancing pumps and silk stockings.”

The two met in Paris where Heine, attracted by the liberal ideals that had put Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen King”...