“Fleeting shadow is external grace”

When in 1604 John Florio became Groom of the Privy Chamber, he was living at court, holding a prestigious position at the centre of power. His activities were varied: he was royal language tutor to Queen Anne of Denmark and her private secretary. Furthermore, he wrote her letters and interviewed people for her.

From Ottaviano Lotti’s dispatches, the representative of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in London, we know that John Florio had a major and confidential role with the Queen at court:

“…and I do not know if it is by chance that this Florio, who is with the Queen all day long teaching her the Italian language and hearing her conversation on all subjects and who writes all her most confidential letters, said to the Pincess, “Madame, I shall see Your Royal Highness made a Queen one day.”

And the Princess promised him if that came to pass a large gift, and added, “Whoever thinks that I will marry a Prince who is not absolute is mistaken.”

Lotti was one among many emissaries visiting the English court to try to negotiate marriage matches with the Royal children, and they all had to deal with Florio before they could hope for an audience with the Queen. Lotti also reported that he had some difficulty at receiving the queen at Greenwich. He wanted to attend about Charle’s matrimonial prospects, and obtained it through Florio:

“I gained over Florio by standing him a dinner and by presenting him with a tobacco-pipe, things which they use…”

Ottaviano Lotti

Thanks to Lotti’s reports, Florio is shown not only as the first and most important confidant of Queen Anne, but also as a man who had a strategic relationship with both the ambassadors and a significant role in the arrangement of court entertainments. 1

But another anonymous and less-known activity has surfaced thanks to new documents about the Anglo-Italian. While living at court, John Florio wrote Italian sonnets dedicated to Queen Anne of Denmark.2 Two of these are today in a manuscript at the British Museum, certainly holographic, bound together with Florio’s Italian translation of James VI’s Basilikon Doron, along with a pastoral poem highly influenced by Torquato Tasso, all unsigned. 3

The two poems present a remarkable appreciation of scenic splendour that closely resemble the style found in the interludes of the time, especially the masques, and shows that Florio’s gusto for the scenographic style in the poems “recalls his collaboration with Ben Jonson.”4

john florio's sonnets
Anne of Denmark, ca 1600.jpg – Source.

The two poems are written following the Italian Petrarchan structure, two quatrains and two tercets. In the first one, Anna is a “temple of honour, eternal glory and noble virtue,” because the poet reminds us, “fleeting shadow is external grace.” She sits on an emerald throne, where among the multitude of flowers she is “The Rose,” the Queen of them all. One of the most repeated image patterns used by Florio involves the interplay of light and darkness. Anna is likened to “the sun,” “the light,” “the clear sun of beauty and honesty,” “adorned with a thousand rays,” while the poet, thanks to her, walks away from the shadow, finally finding the light, and the truth.

In the second poem, Florio, drawing a “portrait” of the Queen, praises her beauty, by writing that under the moon there is no wonder equal to her: even the Hesperides Gardens give way before such an immortal goddess, such a miracle of sovereign beauty. She has “blonde manes,” hair like “rows of the finest gold,” encircled with stars. Her forehead is a ribbon of pure milk, the lips are threads of coral, the eyelashes are ebony, her cheeks vermilion, the same colour of the rising dawn. Her mouth, like a quiver, lets fly sweet words that flow from the Queen’s lips resembling a divine harmony. Her soul is a temple of honesty which gives resemblance to the fabulous one at Ephesus. 5

The sonnet ends with a beautiful final verse in which the poet almost scolds his Muse to have overshadowed Anna’s beauty, and remarks that with the feather, he was able to render only a fragment of her grace, like “a little drop of infinite abysses.” 6

These sonnets are a hint that Florio’s career as tutor, linguist, and translator was only a fragment of a much intriguing, gifted genius who was able to pen sonnets with unusual power of imagination and astonishing dexterity of mind, who carried on this activity for many years, and mostly unfamiliar to the general audience, but well known in his inner circle, mostly by his pupils and patrons.

  1.  Iannaccone, Marianna, John Florio, Italian ambassadors, & the wedding of Cosimo II and Maria Maddalena, URL:
  2. Iannaccone, Marianna, John Florio’s Italian & English Sonnets, 2021, Lulu Press.
  3. British Museum, MS.14.A.IV.
  4. John Florio’s Italian and English Sonnets, p. 10-14
  5. John Florio’s Italian & English Sonnets, p. 33
  6. John Florio’s Italian & English sonnets, p. 32
Giovanni Florio, known as John Florio, is recognised as the most important humanist in Renaissance's England.


    • Fabrice Collot

    • 3 years ago


    “La Ninfa del Tamigi” and the “Ritratto della Serenissima Madama Reina d’Inghilterra” are beautiful poems. You were right to call attention to them in your book. Who can read the line “Picciola stilla d’infiniti abissi” and not think of both Giordano Bruno and “Hamlet”?
    But these two poems are not sonnets. This term should be reserved to a single stanza made up of fourteen iambic pentameter lines with a specific rhyme scheme, such as “Concerning the honour of books”. Thanks for calling attention to that one too!

    Best wishes,

    Fabrice Collot

    1. You are right, the exact term for the verses he wrote to Queen Anne is “poems” and not “sonnets2, since he followed the Petrarchan structure. While for the English ones I discuss in my book they are sonnets, following the iambic pentameter. Since I followed part of what I wrote in my book, that also include the English sonnets, I referred to them as such. Thank you for your useful and kind answer.

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