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Florio, Johnfree

  • Desmond O'Connor

John Florio (1553–1625)

by William Hole, 1611

Florio, John (1553–1625), author and teacher of languages, was born in London, the son of a Tuscan former Franciscan friar, Michael Angelo Florio (d. 1566x71), and of an Englishwoman whose identity has not been determined. His father, like the famous Italian reformers and preachers Bernardino Ochino and Pietro Martire Vermigli (known as Peter Martyr), had escaped the Inquisition and had fled to London, which during the reign of Edward VI was a haven for refugees of many nationalities. After his arrival in London in 1550 Michael Angelo began preaching in a newly constituted Italian protestant church, but disagreements with other members of the church led him to turn to Italian language teaching for a living. Two of his pupils were Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke, and Lady Jane Grey, to each of whom he dedicated an Italian grammar, 'Regole de la lingua thoscana' (1553) and 'Institution: de la lingua thoscana' (undated) respectively, two manuscripts that remained unpublished in his lifetime.

Early years

In March 1554, following Catholic Mary Tudor's elevation to the throne and the proclamation of the edict that foreign exiles were to leave the realm, Michael Angelo Florio abandoned England with his English wife and infant son, John. After a year spent in Strasbourg the family settled in the Grisons canton of Switzerland, in the town of Soglio in the Val Bregaglia, just beyond the Italian border. John Florio spent his early childhood in Soglio, where a number of other Italian religious refugees also made their home, and where his father became pastor of the local reformed church. There is no evidence that John ever set foot in Italy during these years. At the age of ten he was sent by his father to Tübingen to study under the distinguished Italian refugee Vergerio, formerly bishop of Capodistria. He remained there until probably 1565. According to Yates (p. 25), Michael Angelo Florio died in Soglio, and by 1576 John had returned to London.

First writings

In England, John Florio followed in his father's footsteps by making language teaching his principal source of income. In 1578 he published his first manual for teaching Italian, aptly called Florio his Firste Fruites, which he dedicated to Jane Grey's brother-in-law, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, whom his father had previously served. At the outset Florio made contact with the patrons previously frequented by his father and saw himself as his father's successor in attempting to satisfy the thirst that people in high places had for a knowledge of the Italian language, which in Elizabethan England was considered an essential gateway to Renaissance culture. The Firste Fruites contains forty-four chapters of graded phrases, dialogues, proverbs, and borrowed prose extracts, arranged in Italian and English in two columns, and followed by an Italian grammar and by rules to help Italians learn English. Despite Florio's apologetic declaration in the preface that it was not his profession to write a language textbook, the volume makes interesting reading in its lively glimpses of contemporary London life and for the variety of topics that it treats. The occasional appearance of Italian regional vocabulary in the text betrays his familiarity with the northern Italian vernacular that he must have acquired in his childhood in the Val Bregaglia.

Some time after 1578 and until 1583 Florio lived in Oxford, where he taught Italian to university scholars and made the acquaintance of the poet Samuel Daniel, whose sister he married c.1580. A daughter of this union, Joane Florio, was baptized in Oxford in 1585; a son, Edward, was baptized in 1588 and another daughter, Elizabeth, in 1589. While at Oxford Florio published in London A shorte and briefe narration of the two navigations and discoveries to the northweast partes called Newe Fraunce (1580), a translation into English of Ramusio's Italian version of the work by Jacques Cartier.

In 1583 Florio returned to London, and for two years was employed in the French embassy as tutor to Katherine Marie, the daughter of the French ambassador, Mauvissière, while at the same time apparently serving as a spy for the statesman Sir Francis Walsingham. It was at the embassy that Florio met the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who, while residing there during the same period, wrote and published in London his six most celebrated moral dialogues, including the Cena delle ceneri, in which Florio is mentioned as Bruno's companion. Florio in the meantime was busy translating several Italian newsletters that had been dispatched from Rome to France, from where they probably reached the French embassy in London. The Rome correspondent provided news of events surrounding the papacy as well as other gossipy items from various parts of the world. The resulting pamphlet, entitled A letter lately written from Rome, by an Italian gentleman to a freende of his in Lyons in Fraunce, was published in London in 1585.

In 1591 Florio compiled a second dialogue manual, entitled Florios Second Frutes, together with a collection of 6000 Italian proverbs, the Gardine of Recreation, the largest proverb list to be published in the sixteenth century. This bilingual manual, dedicated to Nicholas Saunder of Ewell of the well-known Surrey family, was aimed, as before, at the educated upper classes among whom Florio moved, but now the earlier moralizing tone of the Firste Fruites was replaced by a more joyous celebration of life. The Second Frutes contained a wealth of popular phrases and proverbs set into dialogues depicting everyday genteel activities, such as playing tennis or chess or attending a banquet, presented in a way that would enable the student of Italian speedily to develop colloquial and graceful conversation skills, and at the same time learn of the more refined manners and customs of the Italians.

Florio's dictionary

Seven years later, in 1598, Florio published the first edition of what would be one of his major achievements. A Worlde of Wordes, or, Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in English and Italian far surpassed the only previous Italian–English dictionary, a modest volume by William Thomas published in 1550. Florio dedicated his work to his pupils Lucy, countess of Bedford, and Roger, fifth earl of Rutland, and to Henry, third earl of Southampton, in whose 'paie and patronage' he had lived for some years (sig. a 3r). Half of the six-page introductory 'Address to the reader' consisted of an invective against H. S., originally thought to refer to Shakespeare, but since shown convincingly by Yates to be Hugh Sanford, tutor and secretary in the Pembroke family, who had publicly criticized Florio's previous work. Whereas William Thomas had assembled just 6000 words, Florio, according to the titles that he listed at the beginning of his Worlde of Wordes, consulted seventy-two works by mainly sixteenth-century writers to provide no fewer than 44,000 Italian entries. A major source of words, not acknowledged in his list of titles probably because the volume was a well-known contemporary lexicon, was the third edition of Thomas Thomas's Latin–English dictionary of 1592. Florio turned many of Thomas's Latin entries into their Italian equivalent and borrowed many of his elaborate English definitions.

Detached from the linguistic debate taking place in Italy at the time regarding the priority to be given to fourteenth-century Florentine, Florio indiscriminately included in his list words from all parts of Italy (including Italian slang), with the result that his dictionary provided his English contemporaries with a valuable resource for understanding the many Italian plays, poems, treatises, encyclopaedic collections, and scientific and historical works that were then reaching England. Throughout the volume he displayed his erudition not just in his ability to understand such an extensive range of Italian vocabulary but also in his ability to provide an impressive spread of formal, colloquial, and occasionally vulgar English equivalents—for example, 'Sbattuto, trampled, crossed, vext, dasht, beaten, shaken, rouzed, striken, tugged, touzed, tossed, turmoiled, confounded, affrighted, tumbled, driven away in a quandrie, thrashed, weatherbeaten, weathershaken' (sig. 2F5v; p. 346). At a time when interest in languages was at its peak in cosmopolitan London and particularly among the ruling class, Florio offered the Elizabethans a vehicle for discovering Italy, its language, and its Renaissance culture without necessarily travelling to the continent.

The translation of Montaigne

Florio's greatest fame as a manipulator of English and as a translator was achieved through his English version of Montaigne's Essais, which he published in 1603 as The Essayes, or, Morall, Politike and Militarie Discourses. Florio by now had numerous aristocratic patrons, many of them women, as attested by the names of the people to whom he dedicated the three parts of the translation: Lucy, countess of Bedford; her mother, Lady Anne Harington; Elizabeth, countess of Rutland; Lady Penelope Rich; Lady Elizabeth Grey; and Lady Mary Neville. In the dedication Florio explained that he sought 'to repeate in true English what you reade in fine French' (sig. A2r). Although he received assistance from his brother-in-law Samuel Daniel, his Welsh friend Dr Matthew Gwinne, and the Italian protestant Theodore Diodati, Florio's style is clearly visible throughout the translation. His extraordinary skill in the use of alliteration, his ability to embroider and amplify the French original through the addition of English synonyms, his sense of rhythm, his art of turning French proverbs and expressions into idiomatic English equivalents, and his experimentation with new-formed English words (such as 'conscientious', 'endeare', 'efface', 'facilitate') made his Montaigne one of the great translations of the Elizabethan age. The work was a source of inspiration for such as Ben Jonson, Sir Walter Ralegh, John Webster, and Shakespeare. Despite the fact that, as a translation, it was occasionally inaccurate, ‘Florio's Montaigne’ was reprinted both in his lifetime and over subsequent centuries.

The New World of Words

Florio's reputation was now at its peak. The following year, 1604, he was appointed groom of the privy chamber, and reader in Italian and private secretary to Queen Anne. He translated into Italian James I's Basilikon Doron, but did not publish it; a manuscript copy survives in the British Library. Apart from tutoring the royal family in Italian and French, he devoted considerable time to revising his Italian–English dictionary, which he republished in 1611 as Queen Anna's New World of Words. The new edition, dedicated to Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, contained over 70,000 entries, for the compilation of which he claimed to have consulted as many as 252 Italian publications. His list of book titles now included a vast assortment of works dealing with history, travel, religion, astrology, philosophy, artillery, mechanics, and medicine, as well as the London publications of Giordano Bruno and numerous comedies, tragedies, and pastorals. His aim was to capture the 'complete' corpus of Italian words, so that he could interpret for his English contemporaries the huge variety of vocabulary—including regionalisms, archaisms, and exoticisms—that were present in sixteenth-century Italian literature. The dictionary included Florio's portrait, engraved by William Hole, and a short Italian grammar. He made no attempt to provide an English–Italian word-list, an addition that was inserted by Giovanni Torriano when he published the manuscript of Florio's third edition in 1659.

Last years

Florio remarried on 9 September 1617, taking Rose Spicer (d. in or after 1626) as his new wife. When Queen Anne died in 1619 Florio lost his position at court. A year later an English version of Boccaccio's Decameron was published in London. While it is uncertain whether the unnamed translator was Florio, it is not hard to imagine the indefatigable and 'resolute' John Florio, as he elsewhere often signed himself (for example, Worlde of Wordes, sig. b2r), taking on such a task at court in the years following the completion of his New World of Words. If the work was indeed his, however, it certainly did not provide him with any financial reward, because in 1619 he was already residing in poverty at Fulham, where, despite his attempts, he was unsuccessful in extracting a pension from the lord treasurer. We know that at Fulham he worked on the third edition of his dictionary, translated into English parts of Traiano Boccalini's Ragguagli di Parnaso, destined to be published after his death as The New-Found Politicke, and compiled ten dialogues in Italian and English, most of which found their way into Torriano's The Italian Tutor (1640).

Florio died about October 1625, a victim of the plague. Beneficiaries of his will, which was dated 20 July 1625, included his wife and daughter, Aurelia Molins [see under Molins, James (c. 1580-1638)]. Florio named Theophilus Field, bishop of Llandaff and a member of the earl of Pembroke's circle, and Richard Cluet, vicar of Fulham, as his executors; however, they renounced their position in this regard, and on 1 June 1626 Rose was issued with a commission to act as executor. Aurelia, the only offspring mentioned in the will, married James Molins, a surgeon; they had at least six sons and three daughters.

Florio and Shakespeare

Since Florio was a contemporary of Shakespeare, it has always been tempting to seek connections between the two. It seems certain that they knew each other, since both had as patrons the earls of Southampton and Pembroke. Shakespeare gives evidence of familiarity with Florio's work: in Love's Labour's Lost he has Holofernes the schoolmaster utter the precise proverb from Florio's Firste Fruites 'Venetia, Venetia, chi non ti vede non ti pretia', indicating that he had read Florio's language manuals; he included in The Tempest (act ii, scene i) a passage from Florio's translation of Montaigne; and, given Florio's skill as a word-gatherer and word-expositor, Shakespeare no doubt consulted the vast store of Italian and English vocabulary contained in his Worlde of Wordes.

Over a dozen plays by Shakespeare feature Italy or Italian names. This, coupled with the fact that a few theorists during the past two centuries have suggested that Shakespeare's plays could not have been written by the less-than-aristocratic Stratford-born son of a glover, has encouraged the occasional dilettante researcher to give Shakespeare an Italian identity. The theory that Shakespeare was, after all, the cultured Italian Florio was first advanced in Italy in the 1920s during the fervently nationalistic fascist regime. In recent times the same unsubstantiated and anachronistic case has again been made that Michael Angelo Florio was born in Messina, the son of Giovanni Florio and Guglielma Crollalanza (Shake-spear in English), and, being a Calvinist, as a young man fled to England, where he assumed the identity of a deceased cousin who had Anglicized his surname. However, if this Shakespeare were in fact Italian-born, he should surely have known that Milan and Padua were not by the sea, as The Tempest and The Taming of the Shrew would have it.

The real John Florio, teacher, translator, writer, interpreter, grammarian, and paroemiologist, with his excellent language skills, his knowledge of Italian Renaissance literature, and his elegant style, contributed to the regeneration of English humanism in the latter part of the sixteenth century and to its consolidation at the beginning of the seventeenth century. As the leading language teacher of his day he understood the needs of the inquisitive spirit of his contemporaries. He lacked the inspiration and originality of the poet and playwright, and did not hesitate to borrow, as necessary, his predecessors' material for the compilation of his own works, but he far surpassed the linguists who came before him in the range and size of his productions, in his clever manipulation of the English word, and in his success in providing the impetus, and the passion, for the study of Italian language and culture in his own and in later generations.



  • W. Hole, line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in J. Florio, Queen Anna's new world of words (1611) [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

died in poverty: Yates, John Florio, 312–15

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London