John Florio, 1553-1625: A Harmless Drudge

Contrary to our flash image of Italy as a Catholic country, Protestantism did in fact make some inroads into the peninsula in the 16th century.   Giordano Bruno is among the best known to have had what Americans call “issues” with the Catholic church, issues strong enough to convert such him and others to Protestantism.  Among his colleagues was  Michaelangelo Florio, a Franciscan friar of Jewish extraction and father of our subject John.  Michaelangelo made a few  ill advised sermons on the subject, and soon wound up in jail (he was fortunate that he was not, like Bruno, burned alive).  First chance he got, he was off to Protestant friendly countries, ending in England where he shepherded other exiled Italian Protestants.

His day job was to tutor of Lady Jane Grey, that unfortunate queen for nine days, in foreign languages (it is to her that he dedicated his Regole de la Lingua Thoscan).   He mourned her death greatly and presumably also mourned the elevation of the deeply Catholic Queen Mary, who had a hard enough time with English Protestants, never mind Italian tutors of royal usurpers like-  well, like Lady Jane Grey.   So it was off to Switzerland (Italian Protestant connection again)*

Back in England in 1570 with his family, including his son John, who exploited those professional connections of his father’s that he could (he dedicated his first book to Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester,  a patron of the elder Florio) and set out on his life’s work of civilizing the English.

One way to do that is to teach them languages.  One way to do that is through the basic phrase book, First Fruits, which yield Familiar Speech, Merry Proverbs, Witty Sentences, and Golden Sayings; A Perfect Induction to the Italian and English Tongues, containing such instructive dialogue as (I give the English only):

 “Wil you sup with me this night? We will haue a salet”.
“Yea, but my chamber is so far, and the gates are shutte so soone, that if I come, I shall not get in.”
“You shall lie with me, you shall have a good bed & a paire of clean sheets, I pray you come”

 Where is the pen of my aunt, indeed.

He also takes the these dialogues as an opportunity to bemoan the provincialism of the English.

“What thinke you of the maners of Engish men? Tel me or curtesie.”
“I wyll tell you, some are well manered, but many yl.”
“Towards whom are they yl manered?”
“Toward Strangers: and fewe of these Englishmen delight to haue their chyldren learne divers langauges, whiche thing displeaseth me.  When I arriued first in London, I coulde not speake Englishe, and I met aboue fiue hundred persons, afore I coulde fine one, that could tel me in Italian, or French, where the Post dwelt.”

He was, however, not just an aggrieved immigrant scribbler.  He also translated Montaigne for the benefit of those without French (proof enough in itself of English barbarity).   He rubbed shoulders with  the great, if not always the good.   While tutor in the house of the French ambassador, he doubled as a spy for spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.    He had as patron, among other, the Third Earl of Southhampton (you know, the guy who ghosted the Shakespeare plays).  His friend Ben Jonson incribed a copy of Volpone for him.  He was appointed a teacher of Italian and French at Oxford and compiled a dictionary of the Italian language.

And he kept on writing, giving us his Second Fruits, to be gathered of Twelve Trees, of divers but delightsome Tastes to the Tongues of Italian and English men, his  Garden of Recreation, yielding six thousand Italian Proverbs, his  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.

All this Italian culture did not go down across the board.  Roger Ascham, grand old man of Tudor education theory and practice,  thought that too much exposure to Italy and things Italian undermined the manliness of British youth, and leapt on the Italian phrase

Inglese Italianto
Diavolo incarnato,

An Englishman Italianate
Becomes a divell incarnate

Friends of Florio added the coda:

But an Italian Anglyside
Becomes a Saint Angeliside.

Not surprising that such a man would be the true source of the Shakespeare plays, perhaps an intermediary ghost between the Earl of Southampton and the fellow from Stratford.  Well, people have their notions and I’m not one to discourage anyone’s digging in the archives.

I think it fair to assume he knew Shakespeare, that Shakespeare read his material, and perhaps got some pointers on making the Italian plays more realistic.   (I also think it fair to think that a good deal of backing and forthing went on between Shakespeare and say,  Burbage  over whether a line or character or scene would play well or not – they were, after all, in it for the money – but that’s rather different kettle of fish.)

As to Florio, he seems to have have fallen out of favor towards the end.  He died penniless in London waiting on a royal stipend that never came.  A poor use indeed of an honorable and  valuable man.

* To be fair, Queen Mary’s edict applied to all strangers in England.  Get out in twenty four days was about the size of it.  Hardboiled woman, Queen Mary.  Michaelangelo Florio later referred to her as  “that impious, cruel brazen jezebel the Queen [who] had stolen that realm from Christ and given it as a prey to Antichrist.”


Frances Yates, John Florio,The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England

Michael Wyatt,  The Italian Encounter with Tudor England: A Cultural Politics of Translation

One thought on “John Florio, 1553-1625: A Harmless Drudge

  1. Pingback: Sir John Hawkwood, ca 1320-1396: Inglese Italianato, Diavolo Incarnato* | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

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