John Florio - Work in England

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 reformed 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 working 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 as 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.

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