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.
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 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.
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
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