An extensive analysis of John Florio’s 1591 literary exercise

“Who do you think invented proverbs?”

“I believe it was a poet” – John Florio, First Fruits

This article is part of “Giardino di Ricreatione” in “In his Pay and Patronage: John Florio’s Years at Titchfield with Henry Wriothesley”, a forthcoming book written by Marianna Iannaccone.

Along with Second Fruits, in 1591, John Florio published a corollary work, six thousands Italian proverbs without their English equivalents: Giardino di ricreatione, nel quel crescono fronde, fiori e frutti, vaghe, leggiadri e soavi; sotto nome di auree sentenze, belli proverbii, et piacevoli riboboli, tutti Italiani, colti, scelti, e scritti, per Giovanni Florio, non solo utili ma dilettevoli per ogni spirito vago della Nobil lingua Italiana.

There’s only one proverb he translates from Italian to English, and it contains a sexual allusion: “Affibbia quella, Crack me that nut”. Both the Italian and the English version metaphorically express the act of fornicating with the nut, which represents the feminine genitals. 1

Giardino di Ricreatione, 1591.

The title, Giardino di Ricreatione, perhaps echoes a book that was certainly well-known to Florio: James Sanford’s Garden of Pleasure, and another text for teaching Italian written by Claudius Hollyband, the Campo di fior, or the Flowery Field of Four Languages (1583). Proverbs until then weren’t unfamiliar to Florio: in First Fruites, he wrote Chapter 19 titled “Proverbii. Proverbes.” in which he collected 272 proverbs, partially taken from Sanford’s collection.

Dedicated to Master Nicolas Saunder of Ewel, in the Dedicatorie Epistle of Giardino, Florio is conscious to have opened up new fields of Italian studies:

“I dare vaunt without sparke of vaineglory that I have given you a taste of the best Italian Fruites, the Tuscan Garden could afforde […] I have for these fruites ransackt and rifled all the gardens of fame throughout Italie (and there are the Hesperides).”

Looking at the sources of the book, it is certain that Florio had a knowledge of what had been published previously both in Italy and England, and was very careful in collecting as much proverbs as possible, all taken from the best authors of the Italian tongue 2 and classified in alphabetical order.

As he did with his First and Second Fruits, he ransacked the best Italian and English authors: he borrowed 196 proverbs from James Sanford’s Garden of Pleasure and 485 from Charles Merbury’s A Briefe Discourse of Royall Monarchie…Whereunto is added by the same Gen., a collection of Italian proverbs3, 36 proverbs from Giordano Bruno’s works. He also used Stefano Guazzo’s Civile Conversazione extensively, even borrowing from Dialoghi Piacevoli, a chapter not consulted by Merbury.

Moreover, from Merbury Florio also plagiarised the whole Dedicatorie Epistle, translating from Italian into English the most important concepts regarding proverbs and adapting them for his manual. 4 Machiavelli, Ariosto, Boccaccio, and Tasso’s quotes are also present in Giardino, which prove the book is a little encyclopeadia of the best fine sayings and witty comments which the author found most amusing. It’s quite surprising to not find Florio’s favourite author amongst the writers he consulted: Pietro Aretino. From Commedie, Le Carti Parlanti, and Ragionamenti, he could have used many proverbs that, instead, do not appear in Giardino.

From Giordano Bruno he only borrows from Cena delle Ceneri and from Il Candelaio, despite Florio never cited the latter. Sometimes a proverb is repeated several times with some slight changes, mostly those coming from the Venetian dialect. From Antonio Cornazano’s Proverbi in Facetie, Florio borrows eight proverbs, from Aloyse Cynthio delli Fabritii’s Libro della origine delli volgari proverbi thirty two of forty five; but the greatest number is borrowed from the anonymous work Libretto copioso5 from which Florio borrows 720 proverbs, mostly of Venetian inflection.

From Anton Francesco Doni’s Zucca 188, and he most certainly knew Antonio Vignali too, known as Arsiccio Intronato. He was a member of the Academy of the Dazed Ones, “Intronati”. He published Lettera alla gentilissima Madonna in 1557, a collection of 365 proverbs written for the city of Siena. Florio borrowed 237 proverbs from his work.6

One of Florio’s greatest concern was to give as a great number of proverbs as possible. Such a huge number, 6.500, was sometimes given thanks to repetitions, in which the proverb was slightly altered. By sorting the material alphabetically, he preferred sometimes to write them in two or more lines:

 Amore di donna è come una castagna
 di fuor bella, e dentro ha la magagna. 

Sometimes he also concentred all the proverbs he found from one author all together, while in the original work they can be found in different pages.7For example, in Vignai’s Lettera piacevole, these proverbs are all situated in different pages, while in Florio they are written in the same page:

A chi rincresce, pongasi a sedere

Andar presso alle crida

Attaccarsi la mente al petto

Asino del pignattaio 8

Same with Doni’s Marmi:

In ogni stato, c’è tanta carne quant’osso

I pazzi maggiori, portan più grosse le catene

Io mi spicco mal’volentieri da bomba

I Fiorentini sono cattive doghe da botte9

Other proverbs are written all together to give rhythm and rhyme:

Non dir ciò che fai.

Non far ciò che puoi.

Non creder ciò che odi.

Non giudicar ciò che vedi.

Non dar ciò che hai 10

Others are repeated with some slight variations:

Ella è più pesta che la strada Romea 11

Più pesto che la strada Romea 12

The most common theme is about women and love, but there are also numerous proverbs about seasons and anti-catholic traits. A detailed analysis of Florio’s borrowings made by Spartaco Gamberini 13 demonstrates that Florio had the original sources of the proverbs published in Italy before him, and not through English translations. Gamberini also points out that Florio’s Giardino is not merely a paremiological collection, but he defines it a linguistic notebook in which Florio collected phrases, thoughts, considerations, which strike him in his readings. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find quotes from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso 14, or Dante, Boccaccio, Aristotle, and Cicero.

Finding some amusing sayings, thoughts that appealed to him, Florio proceeded to alter them, giving them rhythm or a rhyme, probably as a literary exercise. These are phrases, rhetorical questions, witty statements, august indignations, that give the tone and the colour to the collection, and show Florio’s creativity which confirms, once again, that he wasn’t a mere compiler of proverbs but was genuinely an artist who loved words with an aesthetic delight in their strength and had a noble sense of rhythm.

This is in fact John’s first work in the lexicographic sense, based on the same texts that would nourish the dictionaries of 1598 and 1611, and was certainly prepared following his father’s style and inclinations. 15 We can find, in fact, some of the colloquial expressions used in Apologia, like “Darsi la scure sul piede”,16 “Gittar la pietra nel pozzo”,17  “Chi lava la testa all’asino, perd’il sapone e la liscia” 18

John Florio too considered proverbs important from a pedagogical point of view: in the Epistle to the reader of Second Fruits, he pointed out that he used a particular technique to arrange the proverbs in the dialogues, organised as a kind of “paroemeological struggle” or “servant and master dialectic” that has something in common with the conversational dynamic developed in certain scenes in Shakespearean comedy.19 They are also starred to indicate that they are listed among the six thousand Italian proverbs collected in the Giardino.

The first who realised the pedagogical value of the proverb was the Italian humanist and scholar Polidoro Virgilio, who began to collect Proverbiorum Libellus (Adagia), a collection of Latin proverbs, chronologically preceding Erasmus, who also devoted much time to a similar endeavour. Both humanists were the first to begin this practice, which then spread throughout Europe. Virgilio attributed a mainly pedagogical value to proverbs, while with Erasmus they also had an enigmatic and allegorical value, expressions concentrated, in their brevity, to identify the full sense of the English wit. Florio cleverly used the works of his predecessors and adapted them to his own purposes. The proverbs were not only meant to have a pedagogical value or as “gems” for the external ornamentation of literary style, he rather sought to enrich the language by weaving proverbs into common speech so that expression would come spontaneously and gracefully. He also pointed out, in Second Fruits, the importance of Erasmus that for the Greeks and Latins had been as important as Heywood was for the English, defining the proverbs “the proprieties, the proofes, the purities, the elegancies, as the commonest so the commendablest phrases of a language.”

He specially endeavoured to “finde matter to declare those Italian wordes & phrases, that never yett saw Albions cliffes,” yet the proverbs used in the Second Fruits seem to have been especially selected as those which could be transported from the Italian to the English without strain or loss of meaning20

There’s another important document regarding Giardino, which throws a new light upon Florio’s writing technic. It’s a manuscript of Giardino di Ricreatione, held at the British Museum. 21  It includes related poems in Italian and Latin by Florio and others in different hands, one (f. 12v) in the hand of the playwright Matthew Gwinne (1558-1627), and others by Lionel Ghest, Thomas Drope and Samuel Daniel, who wrote a Latin dedication with a pun on Florio and “flower” (ff. 6r-10r).

Florio’s dedication to Sir Edward Dyer is dated 12 November 1582, 145 octavo leaves, in a modern half blue morocco volume. The title indicates that Florio, at the time, had collected 3.400 proverbs.

In the letter addressed to Dyer, we learn that Florio regarded teaching at Oxford as a pis alley undertaken because he could not get any other preferment 22

In fact, Florio writes:

“Having been for some time forced to make a virtue of necessity, and constrained to earn a living by taking upon me the burden of teaching the Italian language to some scholars in this celebrated University of Oxford. 23

In this letter, Florio considers his job a “burden”, and underlines that he was forced to join the ranks of the private language teachers at Oxford and to become a professional reader concerned with the collection of Italian copia for his pupils and patrons.

As Professor of Renaissance Studies Warren Boutcher points out, Florio:

“..became one of a number of largely anonymous foreign humanists who contributed to the unofficial development of the arts curriculum in the area of modern languages. These teachers formed a tutorial subspecies answering to the same demands as the college tutors: the need for a personally directed course of cultural education broader than that expected in the university statutes. […] This pedagogical activity gained, however, no official recognition.”

The manuscript of Giardino is written in beautiful Italian hand, and each page contains around thirteen proverbs with twenty lines. The erasures are very rare.

From the three thousand proverbs of the first manuscript, only a part of them will be transported into the 1591 complete edition of the book. Florio decided to pick the best Italian proverbs, and he seemly decided to delete those which were harder to interpret. He certainly already knew Libretto and Merbury’s work by this time, but many of these were deleted in the new edition. Of the 3.346 proverbs collected in the first manuscript, only 2.266 will be passed in the 1591 collection; the first half is from various collections of the same kind, the other half from personal readings of the author.

The Italian paremiology had a fruitful moment England in between the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and Florio surely represented its most creative and important enthusiast.

GIARDINO DI RICREATIONE: NOT JUST A COLLECTION OF PROVERBS by Marianna Iannaccone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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  1. See also Williams, Gordon, Shakespeare’s sexual language, Bloomsbury, 2006
  2. “Raccogliendo da’ migliori scrittori della Italica favella”
  3. A briefe discourse of royall monarchie, as of the best common weale: vvherin the subiect may beholde the sacred maiestie of the princes most royall estate, VVritten by Charles Merbury Gentleman in duetifull reuerence of her Maiesties most princely Highnesse, Whereunto is added by the same gen a collection of Italian prouerbes, in benefite of such as are studious of that language, Imprinted at London: By Thomas Vautrollier dwelling in the Blackefrieres, by Ludgate, 1581
  4. S. Rossi, Ricerche sull’Umanesimo e sul Rinascimento in Inghilterra, Milano 1969, p. 130
  5. Libretto copioso di bellissimi Proverbij, motti & sententie, quali si usano nella commune conversatione de gli huomini, Con molti ammaestramenti morali, & detti di sapientissimi Filosofi. Accomodati per ordine di Alfabeto,Venezia, 1550
  6. Another work Florio most certainly used and never cited from Vignali is La Lettera
  7. Rossi, S., Ricerche sull’Umanesimo, p. 134
  8. They are all on p. 7 of Giardino while on page 1 and 2 of Vignani’s Lettera.
  9. They are on page 13, 84, 129, and 130 of Doni’s work while they are all on page 125 of Florio’s Giardino
  10. Florio, Giardino, p. 85.
  11. Giardino, p. 100
  12. Giardino, p. 182
  13. Gamberini, Spartaco, Lo Studio dell’Italiano in Inghilterra nel ‘500 e nel ‘600, G. D’Anna, Messina-Firenze, 1970, p. 110- 115
  14. “Ben s’ode ragionar, si vede il volto, Ma dentro il petto mal giudicar puossi”
  15. Bocchi, Angelo, I Florio contro la crusca, in La nascita del vocabolario. Convegno di studio per i quattrocento anni del Vocabolario della Crusca, Udine, 12-13 marzo 2013, a cura di Antonio Daniele e Laura Nascimben, Padova, Esedra, 2014, pp. 51-80, p 76
  16. Apologia cc 73v and 76r, Giardino p 88
  17. Apologia c 72v, Giardino p 108
  18. Apologia c 87r, Giardino p 27
  19. Boutcher, W., A French dexterity, & an Italian confidence, New documents on John Florio, learned strangers and protestant humanist study of modern languages in Renaissance England from c. 1547 to c. 1625, in Reformation, Vol. II, Tyndale Society, 1997, p 65
  20. Simonini, R., C., Jr., Italian scholarship in Renaissance England, in The University of North Carolina Studies in Comparative Literature, Nr. 3, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina, 1952, p. 63
  21. Add. MS, 15214,  ff. 5r, 14r-145r
  22. Yates, Frances, John Florio, the life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, Cambridge university press, 1932, p. 53
  23. “…Costretto a far di necessità virtù, e per viver sforzato à pigliar quel carico sopra di me, d’insegnar la lingua italiana à qualche scolare in codesta tanto celebre Academia d’Ossonia
Giovanni Florio, known as John Florio, is recognised as the most important humanist in Renaissance's England.

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