John Florio (1553 - 1625), known in Italian as Giovanni Florio, was an accomplished linguist and lexicographer, a royal language tutor at the Court of James I, a probable close friend and influence on William Shakespeare. He was also the translator of Montaigne.
John's father, Michelangelo Florio, born in Tuscany, had converted to the Reformed (Protestant) faith from Catholicism. He sought refuge from the Inquisition in Italy, first in Naples and then in England during the reign of Edward VI. He was appointed pastor of the Italian Protestant congregation in London in 1550 and a member of the household of William Cecil. However, he was dismissed from both on a charge of immorality, but William Cecil later fully forgave him. He dedicated a book on the Italian language to Henry Herbert, and may have been a tutor in the family of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, father of the 2nd Earl of Pembroke who was the husband of Mary Sidney, sister of Philip Sidney.
Michelangelo Florio was Italian tutor to Lady Jane Grey and to Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I. Lady Jane Grey's youth, faith and death affected him deeply and in seclusion later, in Soglio in Switzerland, he wrote a book (in Italian) describing her as a Reformed 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 (and possibly fluent English with his mother). His father would have taught him French and German. When he was seven, 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, possibly with his mother, 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 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 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 menappeared, 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 Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, 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, Third 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 is much more 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 well have gained his 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.
There is a theory that John Florio was "William Shakespeare". His vitality, wit, education, learning, facility with a wide vocabulary and with Italian literature, his knowledge of the same circle as the playwright would have offered him the opportunity to refine the language through playwriting. There is also a suggestion that one of the Florio family names is "Crollalanza" (which means "Shake-spear" in Italian, i.e. "scrolla-lancia"). Florio's primary interest was in translation and lexicography. However, both writers shared a fascination with Italy (which Florio may not have visited), with proverbs and with enriching English. Both were attracted to the Court, monarchs and aristocrats. There is an anonymous poem which calls Florio the "flower of Italy", which some commentators believe was penned by Shakespeare. William Shakespeare, however, astutely, did not draw his pension from the Court but put his finances into land investments. According to a Canadian writer, Lamberto Tassinari, professor of literature in the University of Montreal, Florio and Shakespeare would be the same person. A recent study of him would add some pieces in the puzzle.