Category Archives: Biography

Biography Curiosities Dinosaurs Medicine Science

He discovered the fossil bones of the prehistoric Iguanodon

Gideon Mantel by Samuel Stepney, published in ‘Thoughts on a Pebble’ (1837)


Shakespeare’s England usually sits very firmly in the everyday world of the seventeenth century, but I’ve always believed this doesn’t preclude me from exploring tantalising snippets of history from both before and after my beloved sixteen hundreds. So this post is on Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), father, doctor, and dinosaur expert. As a resident of Sussex, I’ve often walked past the house which once belonged to him, and this week I thought it was time, at last, to discover who he really was.

Gideon was born on 3rd February 1790, at the family home in Lewes, East Sussex. His father Thomas was a shoemaker, and his mother, Sarah Austen, came originally from a family in Kent. Gideon’s father had radical political opinions. As a strident Whig and Methodist, his views were unacceptable at the local grammar school, and so Gideon was educated by John Button in Sussex and his uncle in Wiltshire. By 1805, at the age of fifteen, Gideon had become apprenticed to the Lewes surgeon James Moore, and after a six-month spell at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, he became Moore’s business partner. In 1816, Mantell married Mary Ann Woodhouse of London, the daughter of one of his earliest patients, and he was soon successful enough to buy out James Moore’s interest in the Lewes medical practice and support a growing family.

Gideon contributed to a number of journals and publications as his medical career progressed, but he developed an increasing fascination for geology and palaeontology; interests he had been fostering since childhood. Spending many hours exploring the rolling countryside of Sussex, Gideon published his first book, The Fossils of the South Downs, in 1822. By 1825, having surveyed Tilgate Forest near Cuckfield, Mantell announced the exciting discovery of Iguanodon. His early evidence for the existence of dinosaurs (incidentally a word not yet coined in 1825) consisted primarily of extant teeth he had collected, but it was sufficient to establish the identity of a gigantic extinct herbivore, and Mantell was subsequently invited to become a member of the Royal Society.

In 1827, Gideon published Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex, a booked devoted to vertebrate fossils, it is ‘the earliest book of any to deal primarily with dinosaur remains’ (Dean). In 1833, he combined his writings from both his previous books with a paper written for the Geological Society, and published a new book entitled Geology of the South-East of England, in which he confirms his discovery of a second type of dinosaur, the heavily-armoured Hylaeosaurus. This discovery confirmed that dinosaurs walked on the ground and were not amphibians; a theory previously held by scientists.

Mantell’s work and reputation grew exponentially in these years, and he began to associate with members of the aristocracy, particularly the third earl of Egremont, who made him a whopping grant of £1000. Such was his fame and popularity, Mantell located to the more fashionable nearby resort of Brighton, which the king visited every winter. Gideon attempted to open a medical practice in Brighton which failed, but he did create a geological museum to house his fossils. In 1834, Benjamin Silliman of Yale managed to secure Gideon an honorary LLD, and despite his distinction being literary, rather than medical, he adopted the title Dr Mantell henceforth.


The Weekly True Sun (London) 1838


In 1834, Mantell acquired his most famous paleontological specimen, the Maidstone Iguanodon, which had been located for him by two of his friends. It was one of only two almost complete dinosaur fossils known at the time, and it became the chief attraction in Mantell’s Brighton museum. Despite this however, Mantell’s finances were failing, and he was forced to purchase a medical practice in Clapham. Unable to afford to maintain his collection, he sold his fossils to the British Museum in 1838 for £4000. The following year, his wife and elder son left him, and in 1840, his favourite daughter, Hannah, died of tuberculosis.


Maidstone Iguanodon


Initially and naturally devastated by his accumulated losses, Gideon nevertheless maintained his interest in palaeontology, and his book Wonders of Geology (1838), as well as his Medals of Creation (1844, which opposed evolution), and Thoughts on Animalcules (1846, on microscopy) sold well and were popular. His last books on geology, A Pictorial Atlas of Fossil Remains (1850) and Petrifactions and their Teachings (1851), included contributions on recently extinct New Zealand birds by his son Walter.

From 1841 onwards, Gideon was plagued with a painful spinal disease and he eventually died in his Chester Square home in London on 10th November 1852, possibly from an overdose of opium taken to counteract his back-pain. He was buried in Norwood cemetery with his daughter, Hannah.

The word dinosaur came into use in 1842, coined by a comparative anatomist named Richard Owen, who was envious of Mantell’s discoveries. For posterity it should be noted that it was Mantell, and not Owen, who first emphasised that there had been an age of reptiles preceding the age of mammals. Besides Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, Mantell’s dinosaur discoveries included Megalosaurus, Cetiosaurus, Regnosaurus, Pelorosaurus, and the later-named Hypsilophodon. He also discovered dozens of other prehistoric creatures: new fossil fishes, further vertebrates, and a very large number of invertebrates, together with microspecies and plants.


Plaque outside Mantell’s home in Lewes


Source: “Mantell, Gideon Algernon (1790–1852),” Dennis R. Dean in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, October (2006)

Biography Books Conversation Italy London Monarchy Shakespeare

To talke in the darke

Today’s post is on the life of John Florio (1553-1625), Italian language teacher and contemporary of Shakespeare.

John’s father, Michael, was a former Franciscan monk, who escaped the Inquisition and fled to England during the reign of Edward VI. In 1550, Michael began preaching at a newly-formed Italian Protestant church in London, but after falling out of favour with other members of the church, he turned to teaching Italian in order to support his family. Two of his more famous students included Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke, and Lady Jane Grey.

In 1554, the Catholic Mary Tudor ascended the throne, and Michael, like many foreign exiles, was forced to leave England. He and his family settled in Soglio, Switzerland, near the Italian border. At the age of ten, John was sent to study under the Italian refugee Vergerio, a former bishop, but when his father died, he returned to Soglio, and by 1576 John Florio was back in England.

In London, John turned his hand to teaching Italian, and in 1578 he published his first handbook, Florio his Firste Fruites, which he dedicated to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. First Fruites is comprised of forty-four chapters of typical conversations and interactions, and a guide to Italian grammar.


Page from Florio’s First Fruites (1578). Right click to open a large image in a new tab.
Around the time he published his First Fruites, Florio moved to Oxford, where he taught Italian at the university and became friends with the poet Samuel Daniel. He married Daniel’s sister in 1580 and they baptized their first child, Joane, in Oxford in 1585. Their second child, Edward, was born in 1588, and another, Elizabeth, in 1589. During his time in Oxford, Florio published A shorte and briefe narration of the two navigations and discoveries to the northweast partes called Newe Fraunce (1580), an English  translation of Ramusio’s Italian version of the work by Jacques Cartier. 

In 1583 Florio and his family returned to London, and for two years he was employed by the French embassy as a tutor to the daughter of the French ambassador. During this time it is believed he also worked as a spy for Francis Walsingham, a common activity, and one undertaken by many literary men, including Christopher Marlowe. Florio was also occupied translating newsletters from Italy, which he published in one pamphlet, A letter lately written from Rome, by an Italian gentleman to a freende of his in Lyons in Fraunce (1585).

In 1591 Florio published a second language book entitled Florios Second Frutes, which contained 6000 Italian proverbs in the appended Gardine of Recreation; the largest list of proverbs to be published in the 16th century.

Second Frutes (1591)

  Proverbs from Second Frutes 

Second Frutes was aimed at the upper classes, and contains a wealth of fascinating conversations surrounding daily life, such as visiting the theatre, playing tennis, and attending dinner parties. Interest in languages and all things Italian was at its height in England at this time, and as his biographer notes, ‘Florio offered the Elizabethans a vehicle for discovering Italy, its language, and its Renaissance culture without necessarily travelling to the continent.’ 

In 1598, Florio published the first edition of a Worlde of Wordes, or Most Copius, and Exact Dictionarie in English and Italian. According to the titles he lists at the beginning of the book, he consulted seventy-two works by 16th century writers, to provide over 44,000 entries in English and Italian. But his most famous work was published in 1603; a translation of Montaigne’s Essais, entitled The Essayes, or, Morall, Politike and Militarie Discourses. By this point he had severable well-connected patrons including Lady Elizabeth Grey, Lady Penelope Rich and Lady Mary Neville. This translation of Montaigne was a source of inspiration for Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, John Webster and William Shakespeare.  

Florio’s star was in the ascendant, and in 1604 he was appointed groom of the privy chamber, and reader in Italian, and as private secretary to Queen Anne. He tutored the royal family in Italian and French, and revised his dictionary, which he republished in 1611 as Queen Anna’s New World of Words. This new edition included almost 70,000 entries, and covers such subjects as history, astrology, philosophy and medicine. This edition also included an engraved portrait of Florio, which can be seen above.

In 1617, Florio remarried a woman named Rose Spicer, and when the queen died in 1619, he lost his place at court. Later that year he and his wife were living in poverty in Fulham. Here he worked on a third edition of his dictionary. In October 1625, Florio died of plague, and his wife followed him to the grave a year later. Their daughter Aurelia went on to marry the surgeon James Molins and they had at least nine children.

Florio and Shakespeare were contemporaries and almost certainly knew each other. Shakespeare demonstrates familiarity with Florio’s work in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and in The Tempest, in which he includes a passage from Florio’s translation of Montaigne (2.1). At least twelve plays feature Italy or Italian names. Some theorists have speculated that Shakespeare himself was an Italian, and others that Shakespeare was indeed Florio; the theory going that John’s father Michael was born in Messina to Giovanni Florio and Guglielma Crollalanza (Shakes-pear in English). That he fled to England and assumed the identity of a dead English cousin, his son John then inheriting the real surname Shakespeare.

The Tempest, First Folio (A4r)

Like all authorship theories, there is little evidence to support such claims, and Shakespeare and Florio probably knew each other through the intimate and tight-knit world of the court and London publishers.

John Florio was the leading language teacher of the early 17th Century. His knowledge of Italian Renaissance literature and his elegant writing contributed, according to his biographer, ‘to the regeneration of English humanism in the latter part of the sixteenth century and to its consolidation at the beginning of the seventeenth.’

From a modern perspective, Florio’s work, particularly the two Frutes, provides charming and revealing evidence of every day life and interaction in 17th Century London, which makes a rich contribution to our understanding of the world of Shakespeare.

You can read some of Florio’s entertaining conversations here

Source: Desmond O Connor, DNB

  © 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Biography Playwrights Theatre

Enters the devil, murder.

These fragments form an overview of the life of one of Jacobean England’s most intriguing playwrights, John Webster. Famously depicted as the bloodthirsty young actor in the film Shakespeare In Love, Webster was the author of two of  the most successful Jacobean tragedies of all time, The White Devil, and The Duchess of Malfi.

John Webster was born c.1578 in London, son of John and Elizabeth. The family lived in the parish of St Sepulchre, Newgate, in a home which John would have shared with his parents and five siblings. John’s father ran a successful business in Cow Lane, Smithfield, loaning carriages and wagons, and became a well-respected member of the Guild of Merchant Taylors.

No complete school records for the period survive but as a result of his father’s membership of the guild, John may have attended Merchant Taylors’ School. Like most boys of the period, he would have received a classical education, and a record from the Middle Temple, dated 1st August 1598, refers to the admission of ‘Master John Webster, formerly of the New Inn, gentleman, son and heir apparent of John Webster of London, gentleman’. The Inns of Court, often referred to as the Third University, attracted many young men who lived and studed at the Inns as an addendum to their education. There is no evidence Webster studied the law, although it is possible, and legal references are scattered through his plays, but given his father’s business background it seems likely Webster trained at the Inns of Court in order to join the family business. Whether he worked alongside his father and brother in the coaching concern is impossible to determine, but a famous reference to Webster as a ‘Play-wright, Cart-wright’ suggests he spent some time at least toiling away on Cow Lane.

Middle Temple today

An entry in Henslowe’s diary, dated 22nd May 1602, marks what was perhaps Webster’s first foray into theatrical composition: £5 ‘unto antoney monday & mihell drayton webester & the Rest mydelton in earneste of A Boocke called sesers ffalle’. The following week, £3 was paid to‘Thomas dickers drayton myddellton & Webester & mondaye in fulle paymente for ther playe called too shapes’. The entries refer to the same play, which is now lost, but is thought to have been based on the fall of Julius Caesar. In October of the same year, Henslowe paid Chettle, Dekker, Webster, Heywood and a ‘mr smythe’ £5.16s for two parts of a play entitled ‘A playe called Ladey Jane’, and a month later, another £7 for ‘a playe called cryssmas comes but once A yeare’. Collaboration was a common element of playwriting, and Webster is clearly serving an apprenticeship in the theatre, perhaps with one of the more experienced playwrights acting as his tutor.

In 1604, Webster was involved in two city comedies with Thomas Dekker, Westward Ho! and Northward Ho!, plays which were performed frequently and proved very popular with audiences. However it is not until 1612 we have evidence of Webster’s first solo effort, The White Devil. A gap of seven years does not indicate Webster turned his attention away from the theatre after 1605, indeed it is possible he continued to write but those those plays have simply not survived. He may have chosen to return to work for his father in order to support a growing family. We know from existing records Webster married in March 1606 in Islington, to a woman named Sara. A marriage outside the family parish may have been the result of a rushed celebration, for only two months later Sara gave birth to their son, John, baptised on Fleet Street in May. John and Sarah went on to have at least three more children.

Title Page: The White Devil (1613)

Webster returned to the theatre (if indeed he ever left) in 1612 with The White Devil. It was first performed by Queen Anne’s Men at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell. It was not a success, as evinced by Webster’s rather bitter address to the reader in the printed edition of the play, ‘most of the people that come to that Play-house, resemble those ignorant asses (who visiting Stationers shoppes their use is not to inquire for good bookes, but new bookes)’. The Red Bull was known for its low-brow, rather bawdy entertainment, and Webster’s complex and lyrical play was clearly not to the audience’s taste. In the same year Webster also wrote A Monumental Column in response to the death of Henry, Prince of Wales.

Webster’s second great tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, was performed in 1614 at the Blackfriars by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. Its reception was far more positive, perhaps because audiences at the Blackfriars, and the Globe, where it was subsequently performed, were more sophisticated. The death scene in The Duchess of Malfi has been heralded as the climax of Webster’s writing career, and one of the most powerful moments in Jacobean tragedy.

Title Page: Duchess of Malfi (1623)

In the same year audiences were enjoying The Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Overbury’s satirical The Wife appeared in print, becoming a runaway hit. Overbury, who had died in the tower a few months before, was later suspected of having been poisoned by Francis Howard (for further reading, my post on the Overbury Affair is here). The Wife went through eleven editions by 1622, and Webster made significant contributions to the text in 1615. Some scholars have suggested Webster may even have been Overbury’s literary executor, since they both attended Middle Temple at the same time and probably knew each other well.

Webster continued to write for the theatre. His last solo play was The Devil’s Law-Case, after which he returned to collaboration with other London playwrights. The rather vicious caricature painted of Webster as a ‘Play-wright, Cart-wright’ describes him as a man who:

‘drawes his mouth awry of late,
How he scrubs: wrings his wrests: scratches his Pate
and as a critic:
Heer’s not a word cursively I have Writ,
But hee’l Industriously examine it.
And in some 12. monthes hence (or there about)
Set in a shamefull sheete’

Countering this, his biographer insists Webster worked successfully and harmoniously with his fellow playwrights. He had a good relationship with the companies which performed his plays, particularly the actor Richard Perkins, and he praises his fellow authors in his introduction to The White Devil

‘I have ever truly cherished my good opinion of other men’s worthy labours, especially of that full and heightened style of Mr. Chapman, the laboured and understanding works of Mr. Johnson, the no less worthy composures of the both worthily excellent Mr. Beaumont and Mr. Fletcher; and lastly (without wrong last to be named), the right happy and copious industry of Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Dekker, and Mr. Heywood, wishing what I write may be read by their light: protesting that, in the strength of mine own judgment, I know them so worthy, that though I rest silent in my own work, yet to most of theirs I dare (without flattery) fix that of Martial’

The date of Webster’s death is uncertain, as is his place of burial. An entry in the parish register of St James, Clerkenwell, states ‘John Webster was buried’ on 3 March 1638 which may plausibly refer to the dramatist. As his biographer states, the ‘parish of St James adjoined that of St Sepulchre, and it was there that both Dekker and Rowley were buried. There would be nothing surprising in Webster, in his last years, living close to old friends and colleagues.’

St James, Clerkenwell

Webster’s literary output was modest in comparison with playwrights like Shakespeare, Fletcher and Middleton, but his lyricism remains second only to Shakespeare.

‘O that this fair garden
Had with all poisoned herbs of Thessaly
At first been planted, made a nursery
For witchcraft; rather than a burial plot
For both your honours.’

The White Devil (1.2.263-269)

Source: Multiple, especially David Gunby, DNB.
For further reading see John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist by M C Bradbrook – an excellent book on his life and works.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Biography Italy Music

My efforts, which are perhaps spoken ill of by the critics

Following on from my post on Thomas Tallis, these fragments form an overview of the life of the baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.

Vivaldi was born in Venice on 4th March 1678, the eldest of nine children.His father, Giovanni Battista, was a tailor’s son who went on to become a professional violinist; in 1685 he was engaged as a musician at S Marco under the surname Rossi, which suggests Vivaldi’s famous red hair (his nickname was il prete rosso – the red priest) may have been inherited from his father. Antonio was baptised on 6th May, but a provisional baptism took place on the day of his birth, possibly as a consequence of a medical condition. This illness, which plagued Vivaldi throughout his life, was described by him as ‘strettezza di petto’, and equates today with a type of bronchial asthma.

Between 1693 and 1703, Vivaldi trained for the priesthood at his local churches S Geminiano and S Giovanni. He probably learned to play the violin at home, and in 1703 he became maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pieta, one of four Venetian establishments which cared for abandoned orphans and specialised in offering musical training to the girls in its care. Musical performances and services at the Pieta were a highlight of the Venetian calendar, and as such it was essential that there was a continual supply of new works for the orphans to perform. In addition to the instruction offered by musicians such as Vivaldi, a group of particularly talented young women known as the figlie privilegiate di coro was responsible for teaching the younger pupils.

Ospedale della Pieta

In addition to his work at the Pieta, Vivaldi was also working on his own career as a composer. The earliest extant work by him is dated 1705 and is his op.1, a set of 12 chamber sonatas dedicated to Count Annibale Gambara. This 1705 edition describes Vivaldi on the title-page as ‘Musico di violino, professore veneto’, making no mention of the Pieta but acknowledging, with the use of the title ‘Don’, his status as a priest.

On 30 April 1713, the Pieta granted Vivaldi permission to leave Venice for one month, and in May, Ottone in villa was given its premiere at the Teatro delle Garzerie, Vicenza. The following November Vivaldi made his operatic debut on the Venetian stage with Orlando finto pazzo at the Teatro S Angelo. Between 1716 and 1718 he also wrote three operas for the S Moise theatre.

Vivaldi spent a great deal of time travelling. According to two letters of 1737 to Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona, he spent three carnival seasons in Rome and was invited twice to play before the pope. In July 1723, the Pieta governors asked Vivaldi to supply the orchestra with two concertos every month, sending them by post if needs be, and to direct three or four rehearsals of them when in Venice. The Pieta’s accounts include payment to Vivaldi for over 140 concertos between 1723 and 1729, evidence that during this period his skill as a composer was invaluable.

op.1 1705

Around this time Vivaldi began an association with the contralto Anna Giro. The daughter of a Mantuan wig maker, Giro had become his singing pupil, and between 1723 and 1748 she appeared regularly on the stage, especially in Venice.  Both Anna and her half-sister Paolina (who acted as her chaperone) were loyal members of Vivaldi’s entourage, and despite his denials, it was widely assumed that Anna was his mistress.

In 1725, perhaps Vivaldi’s most famous piece, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione  op.8 (opening with the four concertos portraying the four seasons) appeared, dedicated to his Bohemian patron Count Wenzel von Morzin.

Between late 1729 and early 1733, Vivaldi travelled widely, promoting opera in small regional towns such as Verona, Ancona, Reggio nell’Emilia and Ferrara, and indeed, up until 1738 he was heavily involved with composing and staging works in various European countries as well as in Venice. But in 1738, Cardinal Tomaso Ruffo, Archbishop of Ferrara, refused to allow Vivaldi to enter Ferrara, on account of his relationship with Anna Giro, and by 1739 his reputation in Venice was also suffering. The time spent away from the Pieta and the theatres in his home town meant that works performed in his absence were open to a certain creative reinterpretation by musicians; Siroe, for example was criticised for alterations introduced by the harpsichordist, which resulted in Vivaldi’s patrons refusing to support the production of another opera, Farnace.


In 1740, with his finances failing and his health in decline, Vivaldi travelled with Anna to Vienna, giving the governors of the Pieta the excuse to cancel plans to buy a ‘portion of [his] concertos’. Vivaldi’s intention had been to travel to Austria for the production of one or more of his operas at the Karntnertortheater, but the death of Charles VI in October meant the closure of all Viennese theatres, further adding to his financial difficulties. In spite of this, Vivaldi stayed in Vienna. However, in July 1741 ill health finally claimed him, and he died in in a house owned by the widow of a saddler. He was given a pauper’s burial at the Hospital Burial Ground, and a statement in a contemporary Venetian commonplace book records that Vivaldi, who had once earned 50,000 ducats, died in poverty. Anna returned to Venice after his death, and a year later his opera his opera L’oracolo in Messenia was produced posthumously at the Kärntnertortheater.

Vivaldi’s vanity was apparently notorious. He bragged about his fame and his illustrious patrons, and often exaggerated the speed and fluency with which he could compose. In addition, he was also extremely sensitive to criticism; in the dedications of his opp.1 and 4, he uses the phrase ‘i miei sudori forse malignati dalla critica’ (‘my efforts, which are perhaps spoken ill of by the critics’). All his biographers cite his preoccupation with money as excessive. Despite the admiration and praise of his contemporaries, interest in Vivaldi’s music largely vanished within only a few decades after his death, not to be revived until the beginning of the 20th century. Vivaldi wrote more than 500 concertos, many for solo violin, but others for cello, flute, oboe, and bassoon, all of which instruments were played by members of the all-female orchestra at the Pieta, as were those that appear only in solo groups in his concerti grossi, including the horn, trumpet, lute, and chalumeau (the forerunner to the clarinet).

As one of his biographers concludes, between 1710–30, Vivaldi’s influence on the concerto was so strong that some established composers such as Albinoni felt obliged to modify their style in mid-career, and because the influence of the concerto affected all forms of composition, Vivaldi can quite legitimately be regarded as ‘a most important precursor to the Bach sons in the evolution of the Classical symphony.’

Sources: Eric Cross, Dennis Arnold, Michael Talbot – Oxford Music Online

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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