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Florio, John (c. 1553–1625) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

italian english translation fruits

John, or Giovanni, Florio, was born about 1553 in London, the son of an expatriate Italian clergyman. His father, Michael Angelo Florio, had left his Franciscan friary in Italy and had been arrested in 1548 by the Inquisition in Rome. In 1550 he fled Rome and arrived at last in London, where for a short time he held a pastorate for Protestant Italian refugees and was patronized by William Cecil. He was later deprived of this pastorate. The elder Florio then turned to teaching Italian to support himself and his little family and became Lady Jane Grey’s Italian master. This connection was later to lead Michael Angelo Florio to write a semihagiographical work about her. Upon the accession of Mary Tudor, Michael left London, taking his family with him and settling as the pastor of the Reformed church in Soglio, in the Grisons canton of Switzerland. John Florio spent his first few years here, presumably instructed by his fiery and religiously unorthodox father, and was placed in 1563 at school in Tübingen.

It is unclear when Florio emigrated to England. He may have spent some time in France, as his mastery of that language certainly suggests personal contact. Ironically, the one place in Europe he may never have visited is Italy, given his and his father’s devout Protestantism. Yet he was to be heavily responsible for the spreading of Italian culture and letters in educated English society. In Queen Anna’s New World of Words , published in 1611, John Florio indicated that he had been teaching Italian for thirty-five years, which would set the date of his emigration at 1576 or before. He published his first book, appropriately enough called Florio his First Fruits , in London in 1578, and made the acquaintance of the puritanical Stephen Gosson, whose name appears on the title page. He later went to Oxford, matriculating at Magdalen, the Puritan college, in 1581. At this time he seems to have become friendly with Samuel Daniel* and married Daniel’s sister. Sometimes it has been maintained that this woman was named “Rosa” Daniel and was the model for Edmund Spenser’s* Rosalind, and Florio for Menalcas in The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), but there is no objective evidence for this. In 1580 Florio translated Cartier’s voyages out of Italian into English. From 1583 to 1585, he worked at the French Embassy for Michel Castelnau, lord of Mauvissière, until the latter’s hasty departure from England, and seems to have stayed on to work for the latter’s successor, during which time he became acquainted with Giordano Bruno.* It has been suggested that Florio was employed by the efficient Elizabethan spy system under Sir Frances Walsingham, and certainly his linguistic versatility and loyal Protestantism would have made him an excellent candidate for this sort of work. Mauvissière asked him to present his respects to a number of highly influential people in the English court, including Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and his nephew, Sir Philip Sidney,* in whose literary circle he became active. He was later patronized by Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southhampton, to whom he dedicated his Worlde of Wordes in 1598 and through whom he probably became acquainted with William Shakespeare.* The year 1603 saw the publication of perhaps his most famous work, the translation of Montaigne’s* Essays , which he dedicated to Lucy, countess of Bedford, Lady Anne Harington, Lady Penelope Rich, the countess of Rutland, and two of his pupils, Lady Elizabeth Grey and Lady Mary Neville.

Upon the accession of James* in 1603, Florio became Italian reader to Queen Anne, acting as her secretary and as Italian tutor to the Princess Elizabeth and probably to Prince Henry, a position of artistic and political influence. He held this position until Queen Anne’s death in 1619. At this time he lost his position at court and died in debt in 1625. His literary colleagues and associates included, in addition to Shakespeare and Daniel, Ben Jonson,* Thomas Nashe,* and John Donne.* Signing himself “Risoluto” or “Resolute,” and using the motto “che si contenta gode” (‘‘who contents himself, enjoys”), Florio held a small but secure position in the world of English Renaissance letters.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Florio’s work can be divided into three major areas, all of which involved his polyglot ability: his Italian–English dialogue books (the First and Second Fruits ), his dictionaries ( Worlde of Wordes, Queen Anna’s World of Words ), and his translation of Montaigne.

The First Fruits (1578) is a self-teaching guide to Italian. It is obvious upon a perusal of this and the Second Fruits that Florio considers himself to be an instructor not merely in language but in classical Italian culture and good taste. It is clear that in the xenophobic English atmosphere of the 1570s Florio has to make a case for studying other languages, and he makes it by pointing out the limited utility of English: “[W]hat think you of this English tongue, tel me, I pray you?” “It is a language that wyl do you good in England, but passe Dover, it is worth nothing.” He criticizes English theater as well, both from the social standpoint: “I beleeve there is much knaverie used at those Comodies; what think you? So beleeve I also” and from the neo-Aristotelian viewpoint: “[B]ut they are neither right comedies, nor right tragedies.” The First Fruits contains a long section on proverbs, one of Florio’s weaknesses, and Shakespeare put his “Venetia, chi non ti vede, non ti prese” (‘‘Venice, only those who do not see you, do not prize you”), into Holofernes mouth in Love’s Labor’s Lost , a fact that has led many scholars to conclude that Holofernes is, in part, a parody of Florio. In any event, the First Fruits and its companion the Second Fruits , with their dialogues and phrase lists, may well be what Shakespeare had in mind when he had Sir Toby Belch make the preposterous remark of Sir Andrew Aguecheek that “he knows three or four languages word for word without book,” when his French does not include a knowledge of the word “ pourquoi .”

Florio delighted in collecting words, and in his dictionaries ( Worlde of Wordes, Queen Anna’s World of Words ) he continually updated and augmented his collection. Verbosity is much in evidence in his translation of Montaigne. Florio was the first translator of Montaigne in English and an inventive one, but his euphuistic style is very unlike Montaigne’s succinct rumination—he often doubles words and whole phrases. Unlike Montaigne, he was a staunch Protestant, and this led him to alter and add to statements that supported Montaigne’s Catholicism. Yet the same Protestantism is his justification for translation itself in his preface: “[H]old we ignorance the mother of devotion, praying and preaching in an unknowne tongue.” Perhaps his own challenge stands as the best reply to his critics: “[I]f any thinke he could do better, let him trie; then will he better thinke of what is done…. If this doone it may please you, as I wish it may, and I hope it shall, I with you shall be pleased: though not, yet still I am the same resolute IHON FLORIO.”

CRITICAL RECEPTION

During his lifetime, Florio had a number of influential Italian students and literary patrons and was much respected and indeed copied. He has been credited with promoting the literary prose fashions of euphuism, proverbs, and Arcadianism. He was the subject of admiring poetry by his brother-in-law Daniel and probably assisted Ben Jonson, especially with the Italianisms of Volpone . He was also the subject of attacks by Gabriel Harvey* and of probable satires by Shakespeare and John Donne, among others.

The Essays have been continuously successful and have largely fulfilled Florio’s wish to the countess of Bedford: “[I]t may not onely serve you…to repeate in true English what you reade in fine French, but many thousands more, to tell them in their owne, what they would be taught in an other language.” His translation has been criticized as wordy and overly artistic, what Frances Yates called “Florio’s Montaigne,” an entirely different work. Recently, post-structuralist criticism has redeemed Florio’s translation, suggesting that his usage of multiple words and thereby refusing to choose is more faithful to the open spirit of translation, eluding as it does the concept of a “right translation.”

Finally, Florio has been numbered among the candidates for anti-Stratfordian authorship of Shakepeare’s works. This idea rests largely upon the grounds of the rather limited unknowns of Shakespeare’s life but also upon the incidence of Montaigne (especially in Hamlet and The Tempest ) and the Italianate content of Shakespeare’s plays. It does not, however, satisfactorily explain why he might wish to satirize himself.

Flourens, (Marie Jean) Pierre [next] [back] Florey, Howard Walter, Baron Florey of Adelaide

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