John Florio (1553-1625), known in Italian as Giovanni Florio [d?o'vanni 'fl?:rjo], was a linguist and lexicographer, a royal language tutor at the Court of James I, and a possible friend and influence on William Shakespeare. He was also the first translator of Montaigne into English. He was born in London, and in 1580 he married the sister of poet Samuel Daniel. The couple had three children, Joane Florio, baptised in Oxford in 1585; Edward, in 1588 and Elizabeth, in 1589. He died in Fulham, London in 1625.
Born in London, John Florio was of Anglo-Italian origin. He referred to himself as "an Englishman in Italiane", a phrase which indicated, writes Manfred Pfister, that he was "an Englishman with an Italian inflection or streak". John's father, Michelangelo Florio, born in Tuscany, had been a Franciscan friar before converting to the Protestant faith. He got into trouble with the Inquisition in Italy, after preaching in Naples, Padua, and Venice. Seeking refuge in England during the reign of Edward VI, he was appointed pastor of the Italian Protestant congregation in London in 1550. He was also a member of the household of William Cecil. He was dismissed from both on a charge of immorality, but William Cecil later fully forgave him. Little is known of Florio's mother; she may have been English.
Michelangelo Florio then became Italian tutor to Lady Jane Grey and in the family of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, father of Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke who would become the husband of Mary Sidney, sister of Philip Sidney. He dedicated a book to Henry Herbert and Jane Grey, his highest-ranking pupils: Regole de la lingua thoscana (Rules of the Tuscan language). Lady Jane Grey's youth, faith, and death affected him deeply and later, in seclusion, in Soglio in Switzerland, he wrote a book about her life. It was written around 1561/1562, but was not published until 1607.. He describes her as a martyr and innocent "saint". It is possible that he had witnessed some of the events surrounding her or had told her about the persecutions in Italy.
Anthony à Wood says that the Florio family, which now included infant John Florio, left England on the accession of Queen Mary. In Strasburg, Florio met members of the aristocratic de Salis family of Bregaglia (Bergell), in the Alpine canton of the Grisons (in Italian-speaking Protestant Switzerland). Count de Salis offered Michelangelo the post of pastor at Soglio, which offered him the manse (now a restaurant) on the edge of a precipice, the post of local school teacher and a Reformed pulpit. Soglio was remote from the Inquisition and was situated near Chiavenna (north of Lake Como in Italy), a centre of Reformed preaching. John Florio grew up speaking Italian with his father; he states that he knew no English when he arrived in England as an adult. His father would have taught him French and German. When he was ten, he was sent to live with and to be schooled in Tübingen in Germany by the Reformed Protestant theologian, Pier Paolo Vergerio, a native of Venetian Capodistria (who had also lived in Swiss Bregaglia) and later to attend university in Germany. John returned to England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the early 1570s, in possession of a formidable Christian Reformed and humanist education.
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 reformer 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.
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.
In about 1583 Florio worked as tutor and spy (for Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham) in the home of the French ambassador Michel de la Mauvissière. He became a friend of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher staying with Mauvissière, and he is mentioned as interlocutor in Bruno's dialogue Cena delle ceneri. Florio had many patrons. He says that he lived some years with 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. She gave him a gilt cup for his grandchild's christening in 1605.
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 Labour's Lost, but it is 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 first 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. Their children included Joane who was born in Oxford in 1585 and Edward who was born in 1588. A second daughter was born in 1589. John and his first wife had another daughter named Aurelia who is thought to have been born in about 1582.
Florio 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.
The death of Florio's first wife is not recorded but on 9 September 1617 at St John's Church, Clerkenwell he married one Rose Spicer. On the death of Queen Anne in 1619 he lost his position at court. After a succession of illnesses, through which he was nursed by Rose, he died at Fulham, London in the autumn of 1625 in apparent poverty, because his royal pension had not been paid. His will however which favours his daughter, Aurelia Molins, discusses his debts but also debts to him and valuable diamond rings. 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.
Florio is one of the many individuals who have been proposed as the real author of the works of William Shakespeare by advocates of the Shakespeare authorship question. The case for an Italian, either John or his father Michelangelo Florio, as author of Shakespeare's works was initially associated with resurgent Italian nationalism of the Fascist era. The theory is linked to the argument put forward by other anti-Stratfordians that Shakespeare's work shows an intimate knowledge of Italian culture and geography. Florio was proposed by Santi Paladino in 1927, but Paladino mixed up John and his father Michelangelo. He claimed that Florio came from a Calvinist family in Sicily. Forced to flee to Protestant England, he created "Shakespeare" by translating his Sicilian mother's surname, Crollalanza, into English. John Florio was first specifically proposed by Erik Reger, in a review of Paladino's pamphlet entitled "Der Italiener Shakespeare" contributed during 1927 to the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. Paladino later argued that the two Florios worked together. He continued to publish on the subject into the 1950s; in his later writings he argued that Michelangelo Florio wrote the works in Italian, and his son John rendered them into English. One or both of the Florios have since been promoted by Franz Maximilian Saalbach (1954), journalist Martino Iuvara (2002), and Lamberto Tassinari (2008).
Tassinari in his book states that Florio's style was highly appreciated, by his friend playwright Ben Jonson; brother-in-law poet Samuel Daniel; critics Felix Otto Matthiessen (1931) and André Koszul (1931); by Florio's biographers Clara Longworth de Chambrun (1921) and Frances Yates (1934). Frances Yates rated Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essays a classic of English literature, second only to the translation of King James Bible. Scott McCrea, author of The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question (2005), reviewing Tassinari's book, declared that it is full of "inconsistencies and ridiculous logic". McCrea refers to Tassinari's argument that Shakespeare purposely massacres the Italian language in the plays because Florio is "concealing his identity by mangling his Italian", a claim which, according to McCrea, contradicts "his mission of improving English culture". McCrea compares Florio's own poetry to Shakespeare's, observing that "Reading Shakespeare alongside Florio makes one painfully aware of how beautiful and poetic even the two dedications to Southampton are, and how prosaic and fundamentally different is Florio's mind". However, Saul Gerevini and Giulia Harding have argued that John Florio's language appears poetically similar to that of Shakespeare.