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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 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

Art Florence Italy Renaissance

A smile so pleasing

This snippet comes from Vasari and tells the story of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-5).  Vasari (1511-74) was an Italian artist and writer, often credited as being the first modern art historian.

For Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook to execute the portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa.  He worked on this painting for four years, and then left it still unfinished; and today it is in the possession of King Francis of France, at Fountainbleu. If one wanted to see how faithfully art can imitate nature, one could readily percieve it from this head; for here Leonardo subtly reproduced every living detail. The eyes had their natural lustre and moistness, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution. The eyebrows were completely natural, growing thickly in one place and lightly in another and following the pores of the skin. The nose was finely painted, with rosy and delicate nostrils as in life. The mouth, joined to the flesh-tints of the face by the red of the lips, appeared to be living flesh rather than paint.

On looking closely at the pit of her throat one could swear that the pulses were beating. Altogether this picture was painted in a manner to make the most confident artist – no matter who – despair and lose heart.  Leonardo made use of this device: while he was painting Mona Lisa, who was a very beautiful woman, he employed singers and musicians or jesters to keep her full of merriment and so chase away the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits. As a result, in this painting of Leonardo’s there was a smile so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human; and those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original.

Art Florence Italy Renaissance

Botticelli’s Joke

This snippet comes from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Vasari (1511-1574) is regarded as the first Italian art historian, and his biographies of Renaissance painters, first published in 1550, went on to become an instant classic. As well as outlining the lives and works of various painters, Visari was also fond of amusing anecdotes and gossip. The following is taken from his life of Sandro Botticelli:
One of Sandro’s paintings, a very highly-regarded work to be found in San Francesco outside the Porta a San Miniato is a Madonna in a circular picture with some angels, all life-size.  He was a very good-humoured man and much given to playing jokes on his pupils and friends.  For example, the story goes that one of his pupils, called Biagio, painted a circular picture exactly like the one of Botticelli’s mentioned above, and that Sandro sold it for him to one of the citizens for six gold florins; then he found Biagio and told him, ‘I’ve finally sold that picture of yours. Now you must hang it up high this evening so it looks better, and then tomorrow morning go along and find the man who bought it so that you can show it to him properly displayed in a good light, and then he’ll give you your money.’ ‘Oh, you’ve done marvellously,’ said Biagio, who then went along to the shop, hung his picture at a good height, and left.

In the meantime, Sandro and another of his pupils, Jacopo, had made several paper hats (like the ones the citizens wore) which they stuck with white wax over the heads of the eight angels that surrounded the Madonna in his picture. Then, when the morning came, Biagio arrived with the citizen who had bought his painting (and who had been let into the joke). They went into the shop, where Biagio looked up and saw his Madonna seated, not in the midst of angels, but in the middle of the councillors of Florence, all wearing their paper hats!  He was just about to roar out in anger and make excuses when he noticed that the man he was with had said nothing at all, and was in fact starting to praise the picture, so Biagio kept quiet himself. At length he went home with him and was given his six florins, as the price agreed by Botticelli. Then he went back to the shop, a moment or two after Sandro and Jacopo had removed those paper hats, and he found that the angels he had painted were angels after all and was so stupefied that he was at a loss for words.

Eventually he turned to Sandro and said, ‘Sir, I don’t know if I am dreaming or if this is reality, but when I was here earlier those angels were wearing red hats, and now they’re not. What’s the meaning of it?’ ‘You’ve taken leave of your senses,’ said Sandro. ‘All that money has gone to your head. If what you say were true, do you think he’d have bought your picture?’ ‘That’s so,’ said Biagio, ‘He didn’t say a word. But all the same it struck me as very strange.’ Then all the other apprentices flocked around him and convinced him that he had had some kind of giddy spell.

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