John Florio (1553–1625), known in Italian as Giovanni Florio, was a linguist and lexicographer, a royal language tutor at the Court of James I, and a possible friend and influence on William Shakespeare. He was also the translator of Montaigne into English. He married Aline, the sister of poet Samuel Daniel in 1580. The couple had three children, Joane Florio, baptised in Oxford in 1585; Edward, in 1588 and Elizabeth, in 1589.
Born in London, John Florio was of Anglo-Italian origin. He referred to himself as "an Englishman in Italiane". John's father, Michelangelo Florio, born in Tuscany, had been a Franciscan friar before converting to the Protestant faith. He got into trouble with the Inquisition in Italy, after preaching in Naples, Padua, and Venice. Seeking refuge in England during the reign of Edward VI, he was appointed pastor of the Italian Protestant congregation in London in 1550. He was also a member of the household of William Cecil. He was dismissed from both on a charge of immorality, but William Cecil later fully forgave him. Little is known of Florio's mother; she may have been English.
Michelangelo Florio then became Italian tutor to Lady Jane Grey and in the family of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, father of Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke who would become the husband of Mary Sidney, sister of Philip Sidney. He dedicated a book to Henry Herbert and Jane Grey, his highest-ranking pupils: Regole de la lingua thoscana (Rules of the Tuscan language). Lady Jane Grey's youth, faith, and death affected him deeply and later, in seclusion, in Soglio in Switzerland, he wrote a book about her life. It was only published in 1607 but written around 1561/1562. He describes her as a martyr and innocent "saint". It is possible that he had witnessed some of the events surrounding her or had told her about the persecutions in Italy.
Exile of the family
Anthony à Wood says that the Florio family, which now included infant John Florio, left England on the accession of Queen Mary. In Strasburg, Florio met members of the aristocratic de Salis family of Bregaglia (Bergell), in the Alpine canton of the Grisons (in Italian-speaking Protestant Switzerland). Count de Salis offered Michelangelo the post of pastor at Soglio, which offered him the manse (now a restaurant) on the edge of a precipice, the post of local school teacher and a Reformed pulpit. Soglio was remote from the Inquisition and was situated near Chiavenna (north of Lake Como in Italy), a center of Reformed preaching. John Florio grew up speaking Italian with his father (and possibly fluent English with his mother). His father would have taught him French and German. When he was seven, was sent to live with and to be schooled in Tübingen in Germany by the Reformed Protestant theologian, Pier Paolo Vergerio, a native of Venetian Capodistria (who had also lived in Swiss Bregaglia) and later to attend university in Germany. John returned to England, possibly with his mother, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the early 1570s, in possession of a formidable Christian Reformed and humanist education.
Work in England
John Florio considered the English uncouth and barbaric and set about teaching the Protestant aristocrats European manners, linguistic skills and polished expressions. This mission was in some ways similar to that of reformer Philip Sidney who sought to educate the English to write and to read the Scriptures in their own enriched language. Florio introduced the English to Italian proverbs.
Florio was a friend of Giordano Bruno, while he worked as tutor and spy (for Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham) in the home of the French Ambassador. Frances Yates relates the story of a lively dinner party at Whitehall Palace at which Florio translated to the assembled company, which included Sir Philip Sidney and Oxford professors, Bruno's theories about the possibility of life on other planets. John Florio resided for a time at Oxford, and was appointed, about 1576, as tutor to the son of Richard Barnes, Bishop of Durham, then studying at Magdalen College.
In 1578 Florio published a work entitled First Fruits, which yield Familiar Speech, Merry Proverbs, Witty Sentences, and Golden Sayings (4to). This was accompanied by A Perfect Induction to the Italian and English Tongues. The work was dedicated to the Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Three years later, John Florio was admitted a member of Magdalen College, Oxford and became a tutor of French and Italian at the University. In 1591 his Second Fruits, to be gathered of Twelve Trees, of divers but delightsome Tastes to the Tongues of Italian and English men appeared, to which was annexed the Garden of Recreation, yielding six thousand Italian Proverbs (4to). These manuals contained an outline of the grammar, a selection of dialogues in parallel columns of Italian and English, and longer extracts from classical Italian writers in prose and verse.
Florio had many patrons. He says that he lived some years with the Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, possibly the young man in Shakespeare's Sonnets, and there is an account of an incident involving Florio at Titchfield Abbey, the Earl's Hampshire home. William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, also befriended him. In his will, Florio left gifts to the Earl of Pembroke, clearly on condition that he looked after his second wife, Rose. His Italian and English dictionary, entitled A World of Words, was published in folio in 1598. After the accession of James I, Florio was named French and Italian tutor to Prince Henry and afterwards became a gentleman of the privy chamber and Clerk of the Closet to the Queen Consort Anne of Denmark, whom he also instructed in languages.
A substantially expanded version of A World of Words was published in 1611 as Queen Anna's New World of Words, or Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues, Collected, and newly much augmented by Iohn Florio, Reader of the Italian vnto the Soueraigne Maiestie of Anna, Crowned Queene of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, &c. And one of the Gentlemen of hir Royall Priuie Chamber. Whereunto are added certaine necessarie rules and short obseruations for the Italian tongue.
His magnum opus is his admirable translation of the Essayes on Morall, Politike, and Millitarie Discourses of Lo. "Michaell de Montaigne, published in folio in 1603 in three books, each dedicated to two noble ladies. A second edition in 1613 was dedicated to the Queen. Special interest attaches to the first edition, because a copy in British Library bears the signature of Shakespeare, long accepted as genuine but now supposed to be in an 18th century hand. Another copy bears that of Ben Jonson. It was suggested by William Warburton that Florio is satirised by William Shakespeare in the character of Holofernes, the pompous pedant of Love's Labors Lost, but it is likely, especially as he was one of the Earl of Southampton's protégés, that he was among the personal friends of the dramatist, who may have gained knowledge of French and Italian literature from him.
He married the sister of the poet Samuel Daniel who worked in the household of the Mary Sidney Countess of Pembroke, centre of the literary Wilton Circle. He had friendly relations with many other poets and writers of the day. Ben Jonson sent him a copy of Volpone with the inscription, "To his loving father and worthy friend, Master John Florio, Ben Jonson seals this testimony of his friendship and love." He is characterised by Wood, in Athenae Oxonienses, as a very useful man in his profession, zealous for his religion, and deeply attached to his adopted country.
He died at Fulham, London in the autumn of 1625 in apparent poverty, because his royal pension had not been paid. His house in Shoe Lane was sold to pay his many debts but his daughter married well. Florio's descendants became Royal Physicians, part of the fabric of the highly educated English professional classes.
Florio is one of the many individuals who have been proposed as the real author of the works of William Shakespeare by advocates of the Shakespeare authorship question. The case for an Italian, either John or his father Michelangelo Florio, as author of Shakespeare's works was initially associated with resurgent Italian nationalism of the Fascist era. The theory is linked to the argument put forward by other anti-Stratfordians that Shakespeare's work shows an intimate knowledge of Italian culture and geography. John Florio was first proposed by Erik Reger, in an article entitled "Der Italiener Shakespeare" contributed during 1927 to the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. Michelangelo Florio was proposed by Santi Paladino in the same year. He claimed that Florio came from a Calvinist family in Sicily. Forced to flee to Protestant England, he created "Shakespeare" by translating his Sicilian mother's surname, Crollalanza, into English. One or both of the Florios have since been promoted by Franz Maximilian Saalbach (1954), Martino Iuvara (2002) and Lamberto Tassinari (2008). Paladino continued to publish on the subject into the 1950s. In his later writings he argued that Michelangelo Florio wrote the works in Italian, and his son John rendered them into English.
Tassinari in his book states that Florio's style was highly appreciated, first by his friend playwright Ben Jonson and poet, brother in law, Samuel Daniel; then by Florio's biographers Clara Longworth de Chambrun (1921), Frances Yates (1934) and critics Felix Otto Matthiessen (1931) and André Koszul (1931). Among the most authoritative critics is T.S. Eliot, to whom Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essays is a classic of English literature, second only to the translation of King James's Bible.
Scott McCrea, author of The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question (2005), reviewing Tassinari's book declared that it is full of "inconsistencies and ridiculous logic". McCrea refers to Tassinari’s argument that Shakespeare purposely massacres the Italian language in the plays because Florio is "concealing his identity by mangling his Italian", a claim which, according to McCrea, contradicts "his mission of improving English culture". McCrea compares Florio's own poetry to Shakespeare's, observing that "Reading Shakespeare alongside Florio makes one painfully aware of how beautiful and poetic even the two dedications to Southampton are, and how prosaic and fundamentally different is Florio's mind."
- John Florio, Florio's Second Frutes (London, 1591), 'To the Reader', sig. *r.
- Ives p. 65
- Ives p. 27–28
- Marrapodi 2007, p. 102.
- Bate 1998, p. 94;Cook 2013, p. 247.
- Campbell 1966, p. 234.
- Frances A. Yates, The life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England, 1934, p. 239
- Comparative Drama, vol.44 N.1 Spring 2010, pp.88–91
- John Florio. The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England by Frances A. Yates, Cambridge University Press
- The Italian Encounter with Tudor England: A Cultural Politics of Translation by Michael Wyatt. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- As of August 2007[update], the preparation of Queen Anna's New World of Words for publication at Project Gutenberg is well under way. In the meantime, scans of this 1611 edition of the dictionary can viewed online, searched, and downloaded at Florio’s 1611 Italian/English Dictionary.
- Gardino de Recreatione is underway at PGDP.