AND WHY RENAISSANCE SOCIETY OF AMERICA NEEDS TO TALK ABOUT JOHN FLORIO
I have had the pleasure to receive an email and a comment on this website from Dr. Richard Waugaman, who has kindly sent me his recent article on the 1620 translation of Decameron. Wugaman’s new thesis focuses on Edward De Vere. He claims that the real author of 1620 English Decameron was the Elizabethan courtier, “the author of Shakespeare’s works”. This “new” thesis was introduced at Renaissance Society of America on April 2021, and since I sadly read a great amount of wrong and distorted information about John Florio in this article, publicly given at such important place, I feel obliged to answer.
First of all, I want to thank Mr. Wugaman for his interest in my work and John Florio, I really appreciate it, and I hope my answers to his many mistakes on Florio will be received as a new challenge to achieve bigger and better works in the future.
His seminar, hold at Renaissance Society of America, is titled “Did Florio indeed write the 1620 translation of Boccaccio’s The Decameron?”, while his article is far more straight-to-the point: “Did Edward de Vere Translate Boccaccio’s Decameron into English, Published in 1620?” In this article, Dr. Waugaman suggested that Florio is not a suitable candidate for a bunch of different reasons that I will present here.
First of all, I want to point out that Mr. Wugaman is right. Some recent scholars are indeed undermining the authorship of John Florio as the ghostwriter of 1620 Decameron. I’ve read it occasionally in some recent books on Boccaccio’s masterpiece.
To be more precise, they claim to be “skeptical” about the idea that Florio translated Decameron. However, these scholars haven’t proposed a new candidate. Their scepticism should also offer a new, different stylist-linguistic analysis, like Herbert Wright did when he first proposed John Florio. His work, in fact, carried on such conviction that has never been challenged. If these scholars claim that Florio is not a reliable author without giving any explanation, one might suppose that their claims are mere biased assumptions and oversimplifications of Florio’s style and personality, which has been sadly distorted too often throughout the centuries, as I will show here.
I believe that it is time to make a more modern, accurate analysis of the anonymous writer of 1620 Decameron. Computer analysis, like function word adjacency networks, are used to compare different authors styles to spot authorship in anonymous works: this could be done with 1620 Decameron.
Oh, I’d love to see the results.
Dr. Guyda Armstrong, an author that Waugaman cites in his article, in her book about Decameron has explained why, in the recent years, some scholars seem to be skeptical about Florio:
“Armstrong also notes the paradox that Florio would have concealed his role in translating this book, when he took credit for his highly regarded 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essays.”
But Armstrong, in the same book and in the same page, explained also the reason why Florio wrote anonymously, a quotation that Dr. Waugaman didn’t add:
“It must be emphasised that English translators of the Decameron long remained unwilling to state who they were, and, indeed, it was not until the nineteenth century that this responsibility was taken” – The English Boccaccio, 2013, p. 219.
The question is, therefore, answered.
With this brief introduction, I’d like to point out that Dr. Waugaman and I live in two different planets: he lives in a planet in which Edward De Vere wrote Shakespeare. I live in a planet in which Shakespeare-wrote-Shakespeare.
But I know yours is much funnier, Richard, that’s why I want to join it for a brief moment. So, let’s sail this ship.
1) You assert that these qualities – that the anonymous writer of Decameron has – do not describe Florio:
“In addition to his competence in both French and Italian, [he] manifests a special interest in dogs and horses, the sea, the law, drama and fine arts and music; a courtly relish for ceremony and rank…While many of those qualities describe Oxford, Bush does not agree with Wright that they describe Florio.”
Richard, have you and Mr Bush ever read Florio’s works? Because these are current themes in his dialogues, and he loved them deeply. Specially horses, he couldn’t shut up about them. He wrote whole dialogues on horses. Even Miss Yates in her biography on Florio and Matthiessen in his analysis of Florio’s Montaigne underlines his love for horses. In the Essay “Of Steeds, called in French destriers”, Matthiessen points out that Florio twice enlarges the text, and the reason for the riot of language obviously lies “in the translator’s devotion to this subject”:
“Ce que j’ay admiré autresfois, de voir un cheval dressé à se manier à toutes mains, avec une baguette, la bride avalléè sur ses oreilles – I,400 – Montaigne
That which I have other times wondered at, to see a horse fashioned and taught, that a man having but a wand in his hand, and his bridle loose hanging over his eares, might at his pleasure manage, and make him turne, stop, run, cariere, trop, gallop, and whatever else may be expected of an excellent ready horse. I. 337.
[The words in bold are Florio’s own addition.]
And don’t get me started with the sea theme. That man had the ocean in his mind (I never understood why, he grew up surrounded by the Alps.)
If his work failed it was a “Shipwreck”, Montaigne’s Essays were a “Rockie-rough Ocean”, his friend who helped him was a “Guide-fish to the whale”. If instead he was working on a big project, he likened it to a “Seafaring adventure” and when he was alone at work he was “But one to turne and winde the sailes, to use the oare, to sit at asterne, to pricke my carde, to watch upon the upper decke, boate-swaine, pilot, mate, and master, all offices in one, and that in a more unruly, more unweildie, and more roome-some essel, then the biggests hulke on Thames, and that in a sea more divers, more dangerous, more stormie, and more comfortless then any Ocean.” When the work was finally finished he could not remark that “I sweat, I wept, and I went on, til now I stand at bay.” If he was making the same old mistake he mentioned the Italian/English proverb “Et a torto si lamenta del mare, chi due volte ci vuol tornare, who loves to be more on the sea, then they that have been most on it?”
And music: where to begin?
Giordano Bruno, in the Ash Wednesday Supper, portrayed him singing old stanzas from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso:
“Dove, senza me, dolce mia vita, sang Messer Florio, thinking of his loves.” In his works, Florio wrote many dialogues on music. I particularly love this statement on a dialogue on Music: “Music is said to be the rejoicing of the heart; music comforteth the mind and feareth the enemy”. Chapter 31 “On Music”, First Fruits.
When he worked at court as Groom of the privy chamber, he also selected musicians for the courts entertainments. (Once he was corrupted by a Florentine ambassador who offered him a tobacco pipe and a dinner to choose an Italian musician.)
And, last one: he wrote a madrigal!
His knowledge on law was acquired when he worked as secretary and legal representative of the French ambassador Michel De Castelnau at the French Embassy in London between 1583 and 1585. He kept working at the embassy also after the ambassador’s departure in 1586, with an office of his own.
In his dialogues there are also many mentions on law. Some have eere connotations:
“I would that there were such a Lawe, that if one shold bring up his children, without teachyng them somethyng, and especially to reade write and speake divers languages, that he should be beheaded, or els punished greevously.”
“Why I can’t love her? – Because the law forbids it – What law? – The law of God, and the law of Men.”
“Let us make a lawe, that no man put of his cap, or hat at the table.“
Let us make a lawe, that whosoever fals asleep at the table shall loose his hat.”
That man wanted to make a law on everything. Thank God he chose to be a writer, England would have been hell.
Florio’s father was also a notary, and one of Florio’s closest friend was friend Alberigo Gentili, whose book De Legationibus was an important turning-point in the history of international law. Gentili wrote a dedication to his friend Florio in his second edition of his Italian-English dictionary.
I could go on, but this is only the first point.
2. You also assumed that Florio is not a suitable candidate as ghostwriter of Decameron because he wasn’t acquainted with poetry and theatre:
“Florio (Desmond O’Connor citation) lacked the inspiration and originality of the poet and playwright.”
John Florio, dear Richard, was also a poet. He wrote poems in both Italian (following the Petrarchan structure) and English sonnets (iambic pentameter), and collaborated with playwrights (like Ben Jonson and Webster)
It has been also emphasised by his scholars (like Wyatt and Boutcher, for example) that his works were written in the form of dramatic dialogues.
“The dialogues Florio wrote offer dramatic scenes thus must owe something to Cinquecento Italian comedy. The proverbs he wrote are organised as a kind of parameological struggle or servant and master dialectic that has something in common with the conversational dynamic developed in certain scenes in Elizabethan’s theatre”. – Warren Boutcher, Reformation, 1995.
Wyatt recognises a theatrical structure in Florio’s bilingual dialogues and how his dialogues had a “dramatic potential” that could be brought to the stage.
Regarding this subject, it is important to underlined that to write his dialogues in First and Second Fruits, Florio also borrowed from Commedia dell’Arte’s plots. (there are more books on theatre than on grammar in his library)
It is also relevant to not forget Matthiessen’s analysis of Florio’s “theatrical translation” of Montaigne’s Essays. (Part of the analysis can be read on this. website.)
Florio was also in contact with theatrical companies. Just to name one: he collaborated with Leicester’s Men and actors like Richard Tarlton, Robert Wilson and Thomas Clarke.
3. You assume that Florio is not a suitable candidate because “There have been no other anonymous works attributed to Florio.”
John Florio published several works anonymously throughout his career. After a bit of “identity crisis”, signing himself in several different ways, Giovanni, John, Iohannes, Resolute, he seems to have realised that he could also work anonymously (maybe the choice of the name was too hard.)
In 1585 he published “A letter lately written from Rome”, a pamphlet in which he translated news from Europe and rewrote them as novels.
In 1591, he wrote another anonymous pamphlet “Perpetual, and Natural Prognostications of the change of weather.” (And was mocked by Nashe)
In 1594 he collaborated anonymously with Italian fencing master Vincentio Saviolo for his fencing manual, in which he translated and readapted an Italian fencing manual and wrote dialogues between a master and his servant with Saviolo’s technical knowledge on fencing.
He collaborated anonymously with several playwrights
He translated Basilikon Doron of King James anonymously
He wrote love poems to his patron Queen Anne of Denmark anonymously (he loved to praise his patrons)
4. You assume that Florio is not a suitable candidate because he chose a French source as primary source:
“A major objection to Florio as translator was the heavy use of the Antoine Le Maçon French translation as a primary source (probably its 1578 edition). Florio knew Italian well—probably better than Oxford—so it is difficult to explain why he would have relied on the French translation as a primary source text.”
Florio would have laughed out loud at this assumption and here is why. You should know that Florio’s working method was to select as many sources as possible, in many different languages, translating them and readapting them for the English readers.
I’ll make one example just for you:
To write the dialogues of First Fruits, John Florio used the following sources:
- Ludovico Guicciardini “Hore di Ricreatione”
- James Sanford’s English translation of Guicciardini’s work
- Anthonio Guevara’s “Libro Aureo”
- Lord Bernes’s English translation of Guevara
- Francesco Portonaris da Trino’s translation of Guevara’s work
- Thomas North “Diall of Princess“
- The French translation of Thomas North’s work
- The French translation of Lord Bernes’s English translation
John Florio would never use one source if he could fine ten. That man had a lot of books at command, and loved them ravenously. Same method was used for other works. In his testament, he cited 400 books, and many French and Spanish books. Your assumption that Florio “knew Italian well” and for this specific reason couldn’t pick a French source is laughable for a scholar who knows Florio deeply. He used as many sources as possible, and French was a source he used very often. (That man was a walking human library.)
5. In the same statement, you defined Florio a man who knew better Italian “So why did he choose the French source?”
Florio knew Italian better? This is also wrong. John Florio was born in London. His father was Italian. His mother most probably English. He grew up in a little village in between Italy and Switzerland. He never set foot in Italy. At 10 years old he moved to Germany for several years. Miss Yates suggested that he probably travelled to France as well. At (about) 18 years old he came back to London. He was a multicultural man, an hybrid identity who knew Latin, French, German, Spanish, Greek, probably even Hebrew (his grandparents were Hebrew). To define him a man who “knew better Italian” is hugely incorrect.
Proposing a new candidate by making personal assumptions on his style, personality and works without knowing him is not the correct way to bring forward a serious, compelling candidate. Comparison is made by an objective point of view, not personal speculations. I honestly suggest you not to downgrade Florio, but to make a stylistic-linguistic analysis as Herbert Wright did, that, still today, is considered the most reliable and correct.
I would also like to point out (and I do it to give you another perspective on your modus operandi) that you are comparing DeVere, an Elizabethan courtier, to a great humanist and translator of English Renaissance, a crafter of words and serial neologist, the third greatest linguist of the English language. A man who made of his style (doublings of nouns, amplifications, rhetorical ornament, musical translations) his trademark. You should bring more challenging arguments if you want to have a small chance to see your candidate as the “new author” of Decameron’s work.
I know 1620 Decameron looks appetising to anti-strafordians: the dedications to William Herbert (patron of John Florio) and the editor Jaggard are connected to the First Folio published three years later, and Decameron itself is a source for Shakespeare’s works.
I almost forgot to give another information about Florio and Decameron: In 1591 he already translated Boccaccio’s work in his Second Fruits, readapting and rewriting 2 novels for his work. He later decided to publish these two novels in a pamphlet (1591) without citing Boccaccio and making the work his own. Today there are only 12 copies of this book in the world.
Dear Richard, I won’t bore you with Florio anymore. Your thesis is fascinating, but probably fit for those who don’t know him. (But now I’m confidant you know him better than before)
You pointed out that some scholars are undermining Florio’s authorship, and you are right. But if these are the kind of topics they bring forward to find a new candidate, the more legitimate, suitable and acceptable one will ever be the same: Resolute John Florio.
I’m confidant that such an important Society as RSA, who focuses on discussions about important Renaissance figures, will, one day, give also space for panels on the life and works of John Florio, one of the most important apostles of Renaissance in England.