In 1582 John Florio confessed to the poet Edward Dyer that he was not a teacher by profession, and was forced to adopt this means of earning a living, making a virtue of necessity.

…and constrained to earn a living by taking upon me the burden of teaching the Italian language to some scholars…”

When he arrived in London at 18 years old, John Florio found a job as dyer for the Venetian merchant Gaspare Gatti. His passion for literature and writing lead him, seven years later his arrival in London, to publish his first work, First Fruits, a bilingual language lesson manual structured in dramatic dialogues.

This work is particularly interesting as an expression of Florio’s observations and opinions on various aspects of London life at the time. For instance, the opinions and many topical allusions are given as the speakers wander through the streets, meet for a meal together, or sit down on a bank for a chat. The variety of topics discussed – fencing, court gossip, Queen’s Elizabeth admirable qualities, the theatre, wine, love – indeed makes the book one of the most interesting of the Elizabethan language lesson manuals.

Richard Tarlton by Silvester (Sylvester) Harding, after Unknown artist stipple engraving, published 1792. NPG D6923.

Dedicated to the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, First Fruits contains commendatory verses written by the whole company of the Leicester’s men: actors like Richard Tarlton, Robert Wilson, Thomas Clarke, and John Bentley, offer some poems in praise of their friend Florio. Consequently, with First Fruits, John Florio left the job as dyer and officially began a new career in the language-teaching while having contacts with the theatre.


With First Fruits John Florio showed that he was able to combine his love for literature, proverbs and poetry, with language teaching. In Chapter 14, for example, titled “Amorous Talk”, a man is madly in love with a woman, and his friend tries to give him the best advice on how to win her heart:

Oh deare brother, I am in loue with a woman, the which is so cruel, that she wyl neither see me, neither heare me, the which thing maketh me almost die.

Alas brother, wil you let loue vanquish you, the which is but a boy, blind, & seeth not?

Alas, for al that he is but a boy, he hath great strenght, for al that he is blyind he seeth.

His friend suggests to follow the example of Ovid:

Folow the example of Ouid.

And what is that?

Be constant

I am costant, loyal, and alwayes wil be until death, & also after death, if it were possible, as it is not, but al preuayleth not, as farre as I haue seene, and see, I praye you geue mee some good councel.

The main character is really desperate, and believes he deserves death, receiving a poetic answer from the second character, “what death more sweete, then die for loue?”:

I should deserue death

What death more sweete, then die for loue?

Yea, dying in her fauor. I would dye gladly, but otherwise I wyl not.

Make of necessitie vertue

What wil you that I doo?

Feede on hope

Hope holdeth me alyue

Know ye not, that tyme the deuourer of al things, with tyme & a drop of water doth peirce the flint stone: so perhaps also your continual louyng of her, wil make her heart of Tiger, to become mercyful.

At 25 years old, John Florio already gave proof of his talent as writer quoting Ovid, philosophy, literature and other poets and writers he admired for a language lesson manual, using his magpie technic that will refine later in his future works.


Subsequently, by the summer of 1578, after the publication of First Fruits, John Florio was sent by Lord Burleigh, William Cecil, to Oxford at the Magdalen College, where he became servant and tutor of Italian and French of Barnabe Barnes, son of the bishop of Durham. He also gave a huge contribution to the development of Euphuism through his Italian readings to Stephen Gosson, satirist, and John Lyly, writer and dramatist. Later, he became close friend of Samuel Daniel, whom he helped translating Paolo Giovio’s The Worthy tract of Paulus Iovius from Italian to English, while for Hakluyt he translated Cartier’s Voyages to Canada in English, quickly developing an awareness of the potential of the New World. During these years John Florio matured as a writer and lexicographer, spreading his passion for Italian culture among his students and friends. His love of books and his deep-rooted belief in the noble function of literature were passionately sincere, and he saw himself as bringing European culture and literature to the English masses.


In this scenario, sufficient attention has not been paid to the important statement made by John Florio in the preface of his First Fruits that he was not a teacher by profession. He, in fact, confessed that in his first work he adapted dialogues and fine sayings taken from his favourite authors, and defined himself a simple “artigiano” 1. This statement has been taken as being a mere idle distinction made in order to forestall adverse criticism. But this should be taken into consideration as it serves to explain many features of his First Fruits. That Florio’s attitude towards the study of modern languages was far from that of men like Hollyband is made even more clear in Second Frutes. Indeed, it is not purely fortuitous that some of the longest chapters in First Fruits reiterate and exemplify mankind’s debt to literature and to great writers. Furthermore, Second Fruits even contains dialogues about sonnets and Brunian thesis like the infinite universe and Petrarchism, themes that other language lesson manuals never dared to include.

For this reason, John Florio knew he would have received harsh criticism for a work in which he took the excuse of language teaching to write about Latin authors, poetry and drama. And in fact, he was attacked by men like John Elliot, who really made teaching their profession, but used a much simpler and puritan method. Unintentionally, Florio’s technic soon became successful, and that’s why he decided to continue his job as teacher, despite it wasn’t his primal intention, neither his officially job as other language teachers in London. He decided, then, to make a virtue of necessity.


When he left the job as dyer to become teacher of Italian in Oxford, John Florio met Sir Edward Dyer, poet and courtier. He dedicated to him the first version of Giardino di Ricreatione, a collection of proverbs he published in 1591 along with Second Fruits.

Sir Edward Dyer, poet and courtier.

The first version, handwritten by Florio, is today at The British Library. It contains a handwritten dedication from John Florio to Edward Dyer dated November 12, 1582. Dr. Warren Boutcher, in his article dedicated to John Florio published in the second volume of Reformation 2, draws attention to this manuscript in which Florio confessed to Dyer that he was constrained by necessity 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 gentleman pupils and patrons, thus becoming an anonymous foreign humanist who contributed to the unofficial development of the arts curriculum in the area of modern languages: 3:

“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. They complemented and overlapped with a body of teachers employed in private households. This pedagogical activity gained, however, no official recognition.”

Boutcher Warren, New Documents on John Florio, p. 49.


Not only John Florio became a teacher by chance, but his role wasn’t officially recognised either. And he remarked, in the manuscript of Giardino di Ricreatione to Edward Dyer, that he made a virtue of necessity:

“…[..] Costretto a far di necessità virtù, e per viver sforzato a pigliar quel carico sopra di me, d’insegnar la lingua Italiana a qualche scolare in cotesta tanto celebre Academia d’ossonia, et ivi stravolgendo, e leggendo qualche libro, mi venne questo capriccio in testa, di cogliere, scegliere, e notare que’ più proverbii, à riboboli, e motti, che leggendo io trovavo, et parlando mi venivano alla mente, et che di continuo in Italia, od in altri luoghi da gli’ Italiani s’usano (fols 7v – 8r)”


“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, and here altering some books I read, I had this fancy idea to pick, choose and to note those proverbs, fine sayings and counter-proverbs that are frequently used in Italy.”

John Florio, Giardino di Ricreatione, Manuscript.

Miss Yates observed that John Florio regarded teaching as a pis aller undertaken because he could not get any other preferment.4

Certainly, by discovering that John Florio had confessed that he had been forced in his life to pursue a career as an Italian teacher, Warren Boutcher has unconsciously thrown a new light upon his true ambitions and personality, too often distorted over the centuries by various critics and scholars.

John Florio’s dedication to Sir Edward Dyer, fac-simile. Image attribution: Giovanni Florio, Un Apôtre de la Renaissance En Angleterre a l’Époque de Shakespeare by Clara Longworth De Chambrun, pg. 34.

The dialogues he wrote, underlines Boutcher, offer “dramatic scenes thus must owe something to Cinquecento Italian comedy”. 5, as well as the proverbs 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. 6

Michael Wyatt recognizes a “theatrical structure” in Florio’s bilingual dialogues 7 William N. West notes in a discussion on Jacobean theatre how “the dramatic potential” of Florio’s bilingual language manuals could be brought to the stage 8

Even in his florid translations, for Francis Ottho Matthiessen, John Florio used the “method of the dramatist”, always increasing the emphasis, to heighten and magnify his translations. 9 This attitude is corroborated by Miss Yates, who remarked that John Florio always tried to produce a shock of delighted surprise when translating, writing with the “instinct of the dramatist”, which was his most distinctive quality. Ultimately, his career was always associated with arts and drama: patrons like Robert Dudley & the Leicester’s men in 1578 with First Fruits, Henry Wriothesley when he published Second Fruits in 1591, and Queen Anne of Denmark when he became Groom of the Privy Chamber in 1604, dealing with ambassadors and masques at court.


In these circumstances, despite John Florio was the most prominent and successful Italian teacher of London, many are the traces he left in other writers’s works that show he was more interested in other creative activities rather than teaching, which also explain his statement that he wasn’t and didn’t want to become a teacher by profession.

The most famous of these traces left by John Florio in other works not associated with teaching is, for example, his contribution in writing Volpone with Ben Jonson. There’s a dedication written by Ben Jonson to John Florio in a copy of Volpone, in which Jonson defined John Florio not just his “loving father” and “worthy friend”, but also the “Ayde of his Muses.”

Volpone was written in 1604, First Fruits and John’s collaboration with the Leicester’s men appeared in 1578. This shows John Florio spent all his career in drama, an aspect very few scholars talk about.

Another proof of his contribution in other literary activities is the patronage he assured to his friend Thomas Thorpe for John Healey. Florio, in fact, secured the patronage of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke for Healey’s work The Discovery of a New World. This work was an extremely free and humour version of the “Latin Mundus Alter ed Idem”, a satire of England.

This translation, despite signed by John Healey, has Florio fingerprints all over the work. For F. A. Yates, in some points of Healey’s translation Florio was probably “looking over Healey’s shoulder as he translated”, 10 alluding at the fact that he most likely revised and edited the work. Furthermore, the fact that Healey signed himself as Resolute I. H. suggests that “Resolute” John Florio was “writing under the cloak of Healey”. 11

Another proof of Florio’s other activities connected with literature and drama is how his friend William Vaughan described him in his Golden Fleece. Published one year after Florio’s death, this work describes him as a rather eccentric writer who loved to perform salacious sonnets at court. Vaughan also writes that when John Florio was attacked by a colleague for the scandalous content of his sonnets, he preferred to answer that “sometimes is necessary to temper gravity with brightness to suit the tastes of one’s pupils and patrons.” 12

This story described by Vaughan lead Miss Yates to highlight that in 1609 John Florio gave to Thomas Thorpe both his translation of Healey’s Discovery of a New World written under the cloak of Healey, and the collection of Shake-Speares sonnets”, hinting that he was involved in this production:

“It might be interesting to inquire why Thorpe was so keen on publishing old material in this year. […] Yet in that year Thorpe addressed to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke – via Florio – a translated satire, Healey’s Discovery of the new World, and to a “Mr W.H.” a sonnet-sequence by William Shakespeare.”

Yates, F. p. 291

The last example of Florio’s involvement in other activities beside teaching, (but this list doesn’t profess to be absolutely complete), is his involvement in the production of John Webster’s play The White Devil. Gunnar Boklund, author of The Sources of the White Devil, suggests that this play took inspiration from John Florio’s work A letter recently written from Rome that he published in 1585 behind the initials I.F., today officially regarded as a work written by John Florio.

Dr. Boklund proposes that John Florio may have acted as a personal intermediary between the dramatist Webster and the source material. He also underlines Florio’s importance in writing useful material for his colleagues, acting as editor, ghostwriter and “ayde” of his muses. This statement justifies Ben Jonson’s dedication to John Florio in his Volpone, which throws a new light upon the role he had during the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. A role that requires further investigation and serious attention.

One wonders how many writers John Florio helped anonymously as editor, or how many plays he has written in collaboration under the cloak of other dramatists.

But his “official” and most remunerated job was indeed teaching, and that’s how he introduced himself to his pupils. Certainly, he was the greatest. John Florio’s dictionaries were inclusive rather than exclusive, he was creative by making more than one thousand new words and compounds for the English language. Daring when reading books banned by the Roman Inquisition to enrich what he called his “sweete mother tongue”. Provocative when adding many sexual terms taken from Aretino’s works. And brave when he understood that English language needed foreign words to expand itself, accomplishing what his colleagues didn’t dare to accomplish in the past. Finally, his love for words was infinite, and his works were landmarks of lexicography and were of tremendous importance in their time.

John Florio made a virtue of necessity, working as teacher among the most famous and important aristocratic circles of London, while secretly doing what he loved most in the world: collaborative plays.



"MAKE A VIRTUE OF NECESSITY" DID JOHN FLORIO REALLY WANT TO BE A TEACHER? by Marianna Iannaccone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
How to cite this entry:

Iannaccone Marianna, “Resolute John Florio”, “Make a virtue of necessity: Did John Florio really want to be a teacher?”, URL= “”

  1. artisan
  2.  Boutcher, Warren, 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, Reformation, Vol. 2, 1997, Tyndale Society.
  3. Ivi, p. 48-49.
  4. Yates, Frances. A., John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, Cambridge University Press, 1934, p. 53.
  5. Boutcher, W., A French dexterity, cit., p. 64
  6. Ivi, p. 65
  7. Wyatt, Michael, The Italian Encounter with Tudor England, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 167.
  8. West, William N., Talking the Talk: Cant on the Jacobean Stage,  English Literary Renaissance 33, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 228-251, p. 234
  9. Matthiessen, F. O., Translation, an Elizabethan art, Oxford University Press, 1931, p. 147
  10. Yates, F., John Florio, cit., p. 288
  11. Ibidem
  12. Vaughan, William, The golden fleece diuided into three parts, vnder which are discouered the errours of religion, the vices and decayes of the kingdome, and lastly the wayes to get wealth, and to restore trading so much complayned of. Transported from Cambrioll Colchos, out of the southermost part of the iland, commonly called the Newfoundland, by Orpheus Iunior, for the generall and perpetuall good of Great Britaine, 1626
Giovanni Florio, known as John Florio, is recognised as the most important humanist in Renaissance's England.

Leave a Reply