John Florio has been widely regarded as a learned lexicographer by his biographers. But his genius actually lies in borrowing and adapting works of his predecessors.

“…The dramatist’ method, therefore, consists in taking a situation and heightening its pitch by a skillful exaggeration of tone and by a hint of action in the swing and cadence of his words. Such also is Florio’s method…”

The few studies of the English Renaissance that have analysed John Florio’s life and works have always underlined the importance of his Italian-English dictionaries (1598, 1611), which are considered a great monument of lexicography, and his bilingual language lesson manuals, which made him the most famous and important Italian teacher of his time. However, these studies have usually focused the attention on Florio’s erudition, describing him as a learned lexicographer or a meticulous teacher, giving a misleading picture of the man. And they all have failed to understand that John Florio’s works are actually the result of a general process of borrowing and adaptation. Which is also the reason why he was so viciously attacked during his career.

But let’s start from the beginning.


Some studies on John Florio, like Miss Yates’ biography John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, Simonini’s book Italian Scholarship in Renaissance’s England, and Arundel Del Re’s book on First Fruits, have given a great importance to John Florio’s A World of Words, comparing his work with that of his contemporaries in lexicography, inadvertently minimising the importance of John Florio’s “To The Reader”, which offers a clue to the sources of his dictionary.

John Florio, in fact, in the author’s address “To the Reader” of A World of Words cites authors like Elyot, Cooper, Rider, Thomas Thomas, the Estiennes, Robert the elder and his son Robert II, challenging comparison with his own work. But Miss Yates, as well as Arundel Del Re and other Florio’s scholars didn’t realise that John Florio didn’t cite his predecessors just for a confrontation. He cited them because he used all their works, borrowing and adapting them for his Italian-English dictionary.


Dewitt T. Starnes, in his study John Florio Reconsidered, analysed all the terms that John Florio borrowed from Thomas Thomas “Dictionarium” of 1596, showing the full extent of his indebtedness to Thomas: 1

(Thomas) Olympia..Games instituted by Hercules in the honour of Iupiter: they were celebrated everie fiftieth moneth, and the exercises were five, Caestus, Cursus, Saltus, Discus, Palaestra.

(Florio, 1598) Olimpici giuochi, the Olimpike games among the Grecians instituted by Herculesi n the honour of Iupiter, they wer ecelebrated euery fifttieth moneth, and the exercises were fiue, that is to saie, whurle bats, which is kinde of weapon with a plumet of lead at the ende, the second running: the third leaping: the fourth a kinde of quoite or heauie stone to caste in the aire: the fift wrastling.

(Florio, 1611) Olimpici giuochi, the Olimpike games among the Grecians, instituted by Hercules in honour of Iupiter, celebrated euery fiftieth moneth with fiue ezercises, that is, the whurle-bat, that is, a kind of weapon with a plummet of leade at the end, the second, running, the third, leaping, the fourth a kind of quoite or heauie stone cast in the aire, and the fifth wrestling.

Dewitt T. Starnes, John Florio Reconsidered

Starnes explains that what Florio does with the Latin term under Thomas’s Olympia is a good example of his “disingenuous method”: 2

“Since he is translating the Latin terms in Thomas, we might expect that he would depend on his own knowledge of the language. What does he do? He turns to the Thomas dictionary of 1596 and, to use only the expanded definitions, he reads:

Caestus….A weapon with plumments of leade used in games for exercise: a whorlebat.

Discus.…also a round thing of stone, leade, or iron, hauing an hole in the middest, which men use to cast in the ayre for exercise, a quoite.

Dewitt T. Starnes, John Florio Reconsidered

Starnes then proceeds making other examples of terms Florio borrowed from Thomas, explaining that he frequently combined two or more of Thomas’s entries into one of his own. He is one of the very few critics who has really understood Florio’s technique, even accusing him of being disingenuous, borrowing and stealing terms from Thomas to make them his own.


But A World of Words is not an isolated case, this was John Florio’s technique, and he used it for other works. Let’s make another example.

John Florio’s First Fruits & Second Fruits are bilingual language lesson manuals in Italian and English, structured in dramatic dialogues. They were not manuals for school children or beginners in the language as were those of Hollyband and others. John Florio’s two works differ very considerably from other protestant refugees who kept school in London in the 16th century, and Florio himself pointed out many times that he did not intentionally set out to be a language teacher, but was forced by different circumstances to become one. In fact, his works aimed rather at the interests of the gentlemen and nobility. For this reason, First Fruits & Second Fruits contain arguments about poetry, drama, theatre, love, and women.


Here again, for First Fruits & Second Fruits, John Florio used the same technique showed by Starnes for A World of Words. For example, he used a great amount of different sources for his first language lesson manual First Fruits:

  • Hore di Ricreatione by Lodovico Guicciardini.
  • Guevara’s Libro Aureo.
  • James Sanford’s translation of Guicciardini’s work of 1573.
  • Lord Berners’s English translation of Guevara.
  • Thomas North’s version The Diall of Princes.

In short, John Florio, magpie-like, used all the possible translations available, and edited them, readapting the text in his own personal way. Therefore in the Italian column sometimes he used Portonaris da Trino’s translation adding his own words and alterations. For the English column, instead, he used his own translation taking inspiration from the English versions of Berners and Thomas North and Berthault’s French translation. He had a wide library after all, and knew very well how to use it.

All of these sources were re-written in John Florio’s unique stylistic trademark: ‘doublings’ of nouns, verbs, and adjectives; pomposity, alliteration, metaphors, parallelism, rhetorical ornament. Another most distinctive quality of John Florio was the habit of saying and seeing things dramatically. The desire for a feeling of motion is the force underlying nearly all his additions in his works. He wanted always to increase the emphasis, to heighten and magnify. And he didn’t just use this technique for his language lesson manuals, but also for his florid translations:

“The dramatist’ method, therefore, consists in taking a situation and heightening its pitch by a skillful exaggeration of tone and by a hint of action in the swing and cadence of his words. Such also is Florio’s method, and it permeates his treatment of Montaigne.”

Matthiensen, Translation, An Elizabethan art, pg 146

Furthemore, John Florio had something that other writers didn’t have: a genius for catching the very spirit of the particular time in which he was writing. In First Fruits & Second Fruits there’s a variety of topics discussed that do not appear in other language lesson manuals. In First Fruits, for example, John Florio wrote about fencing, court gossip, Queen’s Elizabeth admirable qualities, the theatre, wine, Ovid, and love. He also used proverbs as natural embellishments to the language.

In Second Fruits he wrote about journalism, courtly life, poetry, Henry Wriothesley, Giordano Bruno, Spencer, Sidney, fencing, and drama. There’s also space to talk about Petrarchism and anti-Petrarchism. Second Fruits even contains one of the earliest Elizabethan sonnets to be printed: “Pheaton to his friend Florio”. The dramatic dialogues are filled with fine sayings, pretty demands, diverse sentences, divine and profane, and many other witticisms calculated to amuse and delight. The result John Florio achieved with these two works was without any doubt an impressive picture of the Elizabethan’s England, and the most interesting of the Elizabethan language lesson manuals.

Starnes, in his analysis of Florio’s A World of Words, concluded that “It is now time to give Florio credit for what he did accomplish, not for what his admirers thought he accomplished.” These “admirers” indeed haven’t recognised Florio’s true genius. They have always described him as the meticulous teacher who spent his life compiling dictionaries and making Italian lessons to his pupils. And there hasn’t been a new analysis of Florio’s style and personality over the years, and this incorrect vision of the way he wrote has consequently created a misleading picture of the man. Many critics, in fact, have overstressed his puritanism portraying him as a “pedant”, mainly because of the (only partially) moralistic tone found in his first composition First Fruits. But those puritanical contents were actually borrowed from Plutarch, they weren’t Florio’s personal thoughts. The real John Florio was a magpie: a shrewd, smart writer, with a genius for borrowing plots, making the details his own, and often combining different books to create a new work, and better than his predecessors.


Another important element Starnes considers is the criticism that John Florio received during his career. Florio himself complained most bitterly in his address “To The Reader” of A World of Words that since the publication of his last book he had been cruelly baited:

“I knowe not how I may ageine adventure an Epistle to the reader, so are these times, or readers in these times, most part sicke of the sullens, and peeuish in their sicknes, and conceited in their peeuishnes..”

John Florio

One of the best informed critics of John Florio was John Eliot, who in his Ortho-epia Gallica, fiercely attacked the “Englishman in Italian” who admitted in Second Fruits that his enemies had “a knife at command to cut my throat.” And this storm, for Miss Yates, was mostly due to to the fear that Protestant refugees would take the bread out of of English mouths in many skilled trades and professions.

But for Starnes, another reason of these attacks comes from the fact that writers like John Eliot knew that John Florio was receiving credit in his First Fruits, Second Fruits and A World of Words for what other men had done. 3 John Eliot considered John Florio a magpie, a dangerous social climber, and he wasn’t alone. Hugh Sanford, the Earl of Pembroke’s secretary, was another enemy of John Florio who coined an offensive Latin nickname from Florio’s initials I.F.

In the address “To The Reader” of A World of Words, John Florio wrote that:

“This fellow, this H. S., reading (for I would have you know that he is a reader and a writer too) under my last epistle to the reader I. F. made as familiar a word of F. as if  I had been his brother.” 

John Florio, A World of Words

Hugh Sanford too was among John Florio’s contemporaries who believed he was stealing from other authors. And he insulted John Florio, making of his signature under the last epistle of Second Fruits (1591) in which he signed himself “Resolute I.(ohannes) F.(lorius)” an offensive Latin nickname. John Florio determined to reply in similar vein, and made rude Latin nicknames of this man’s initials, demonstrating that he could do the same thing in several other languages too: 

“And might not a man that can do as much as you (that is, read) find as much matter out of H.S. as you did out of  I. F.?  As for example H. S. why may it not stand as well for Haeres Stultitiae, as for Homo Simplex? or for Hara Suillina, as for Hostis Studiosorum? or for Hircus Satiricus, as well as for any of them?  And this in Latin, besides Hedera Seguace, Harpia Subata, Humore Superbo, Hipocrito Simulatore in Italian. And in English world without end.  Huffe Snuffe, Horse Stealer, Hob Sowter, Hugh Sot, Humphrey Swineshead, Hodge Sowgelder.” 

John Florio, A World of Words

After his (sometimes too harsh) analysis of John Florio’s technique, Starnes concludes that it’s obvious that the attacks John Florio received were not simply due to his Italian origins, but specifically for the way he wrote.

John Eliot and Hugh Sanford didn’t just see John Florio as an Italian who had success among the most important London literary circles, but also as a magpie who nicked stuff from everywhere: dictionaries, prose narratives, history books, and other manuals. A social climber who wrote his works by translating, borrowing, re-writing, and adapting European works for the English audience.

Another famous enemy of John Florio was Thomas Nashe, who criticised the young English Nobles who travelled in Italy and returned not only well versed in the language and culture, but apparently also in the vices and loose morals they had encountered by the way. But Nashe detested Florio not just for his Italian sympathies, but also for the way he wrote. He, in fact, believed that the time invested in producing art counted very much. While John Florio, in Second Fruits, replied that it is not the time (twelve weeks, months or years) but the ideas. For John Florio, the “plot” is “barren” even if you work hard for “three years” and you end up having nothing “for their labor but their travail”:

“Manie sowe come, and reape thistles; bestow three yeare’s toyle in manuring a barraine plot, and have nothing for their labor but their travail”.

John Florio, Second Fruits, To The Reader

This was the problem: John Florio and Thomas Nashe had different conception about producing art. 4 And that’s why he was so viciously attacked in his career.

Arundel del Re, in his book about John Florio and First Fruits, underlined that John Florio was involved in the Nashe-Harvey quarrel, but didn’t explain why:

“Evidences recently brought forward, shows that he [John Florio] was also involved in the Harvey-Nashe quarrel.”

Del Re, A. Florio’s First Fruites,cit., XIII

Starnes has given a final explanation, showing this was also the reason why John Florio was so brutally criticised by his enemies, even when he was protected by important patrons like Henry Wriothesley and William Herbert. There was a racism towards Italians during the Elizabethan period and a general fear for foreigners in London as Miss Yates cleverly pointed out in her Florio’s biography, but nobles were eager to learn Italian and read Italian authors, because it was considered a prestigious language. And there were other Italians who worked at court, and they weren’t attacked in the same way. Even Florio’s contemporaries, like Thomas Nashe, used to learn Italian language and read Italian books, that’s why the fact that John Florio was considered a foreign and Italian wasn’t the only reason he was attacked and cannot explain the harsh criticism he received from so many writers. The problem was not just in his Italian origins, but in his method. And this aspect hasn’t been fully investigated and requires serious attention.

Florio’s biographers have showed the world all the attacks he received during his career, but they missed a point. The Italian origins, and the way Florio defined himself as “Englishman in Italian” were only a part of the problem. These attacks were “all of a piece, intended to divert us from the real issue.” 5 The real issue is that John Florio was criticised not just because he was a foreigner, but also for the way he wrote.


John Florio had an especial sensitiveness to words, as Yates said, he “collected words into his dictionary as another might collect jewels in a cabinet”. 6 His borrowing from other tongues, we now realise, was and continues to be a major reason for the expansiveness of English language. And as himself admitted in the preface to the reader of Montaigne’s Essays, his “Old fellow Nolano” (Giordano Bruno) taught him that “from translations all sciences had its offspring.” So he understood that by borrowing words and contents from other languages, sources and authors, and translating them, re-writing and adapting those works for the English audience, a new beautiful science would have flourished in England.

“I am no thief” he wrote “since I said of whom I had it”:

“If nothing can be now sayd, but hath beene saide before (as hee sayde well) if there be no new thing under the Sunne. What is that that hath beene? That that shall be: (as he sayde that was wisest) What doe the best then, but gleane after others harvest? borrow their colors, inherite their possessions? What doe they but translate? perhaps, usurpe? at least, collect? if with acknowledgement, it is well; if by stealth, it is too bad: in this, our conscience is our accuser; posteritie our judge: in that our studie is our advocate, and you Readers our jurie.”

John Florio, Montaigne’s Essays, To The Reader

In his superbe defence of translation in the preface of Montaigne’s Essays, John Florio wasn’t simply defending the art of translation, but also himself from the attacks he had received. His translation of Montaigne’s Essays had such a huge success that it is still today a classic of literature, and among the greatest works of the 17th century up there with King James’s Bible. It was 1603, and John Florio was the most famous and celebrated “Englishman in Italian” at court, praised by the most important writers and nobles of the time, and one year later he would have become Groom of the Privy Chamber and Private secretary to Queen Anne of Denmark, having a precious job dealing with ambassadors and masques at court.

Yet, he still received attacks, defined by an English colleague who aspired at the same position as a mere “Novelist Italian”. But he always defended himself, replying to his enemies by making a good point: there’s nothing new under the sun. Resolute John Florio did what others already did, but better. That’s why his genius does not lie in his erudition or in language lessons, but in borrowing and adapting plots of his predecessors, to make better the work of others.



John Florio: Erudite Man or Notorious Magpie? by Iannaccone Marianna is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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Iannaccone Marianna, “Resolute John Florio” “John Florio: An erudite man or a notorious magpie?” ; URL= “

  1. Starnes, T. Dewitt, John Florio Reconsidered, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 6 N. 4 (Winter 1965) pp-407-422, p.409.
  2. Ivi, p. 410
  3. Ivi, p.414
  4. For further details about John Florio and Thomas Nashe, Read 4.3 Thomas Nashe in Portrait & Personality
  5. Starnes, T. Dewitt, cit., p. 414
  6. Yates, Frances, John Florio, The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, 1934, Cambridge University, p. 239.
Giovanni Florio, known as John Florio, is recognised as the most important humanist in Renaissance's England.

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