Sarao, la bella maschera e sarao che si fece in Vagliadolid

While he was engaged in the service of Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, John Florio produced a work which remains a landmark in the history of Italian scholarship in England: A World of Words1 that marked him as a scholar of the first magnitude.

Florio’s Italian-English dictionary is the emblem of a writer who was constantly striving to find new words with an almost unparalleled lexical voracity. Sometimes he registered words with vague and superficial definition, and on a number of occasions, he was not able or not willing to say even this much about a word. When this happens he either registered the word in the dictionary without any definition at all, or else, he quoted the passage of the text in which the word appears. 2

Most of the words which Florio couldn’t interpret are dialectal terms, archaisms, foreign words or misprints in the texts he consulted. Among the many archaic words he registered there’s one “Sarao“, which Florio reported in the second, much augmented edition of his dictionary:

Sarao, la bella maschera e sarao che si fece in Vagliadolid” – Florio, Queen Anna’s New World of Words, 1611, f. 464.

This definition is borrowed from the book Relatione di quanto è successo nella città di Vagliadolid, 1608. The book is listed in Florio’s library as follows:

Relatióne di quánto successe in Vagliadolid del 1605.

florio cervantes
Florio, Queen Anna’s New World of Words, f. 3 of The names of the authors and books that have been read of purpose for the collecting of this Dictionarie.


This book is an Italian translation by Cesare Parona of an anonymous book attributed to Miguel De Cervantes.

The original book in Spanish is titled Relación de lo sucedido en la ciudad de Valladolid desde el punto de felicísimo nacimiento del príncipe D. Felipe Dominico Víctor nuestro Señor, and was published in Valladolid in 1605. It narrates the peace between Spain and England in 1604/1605 and put end to the hostilities that had been straining the financial resources of both England and Spain in the last two decades of the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and Philip II.

The Somerset House Conference, 1604, National Portrait Gallery. The Somerset House Conference, 1604 is an oil-on-canvas painting depicting the Somerset House Conference held in 1604 to negotiate the end the Anglo-Spanish War. It is a group portrait, depicting the 11 representatives of the governments of England, Spain and the Spanish Netherlands, seated around a conference table, probably in Old Somerset House. Delegates from Spain and the Spanish Netherlands on the left, the English on the right.

Articles of peace between the two countries were signed in London in 1604 and then in Valladolid in 1605. The Spanish ambassador who travelled to England for the purpose was Juan Fernandez de Velasco, the Constable of Castile. Henry Wriothesley, John Florio’s patron, to whom he dedicated A World of Words, was in charge of the elaborate celebrations to receive the visitors.3 It is very likely that Florio, as groom of the privy chamber and private secretary to Queen Anne of Denmark, was among the many courtiers who took part at the celebrations. Soon later, the Earl of Nottingham, Charles Howard, (late Lord Howard of Effingham) travelled, accompanied by five hundred Englishmen, to Valladolid to receive the oath of his Catholic Majesty and to offer congratulations to Philip III on the birth of a son and heir. The visit was marked by a singular display of splendour on the side of Spain. The word Florio borrowed and reported without explanation, “Sarao“, refers to a dance done in Valladolid during a masque prepared for the special event. It cannot be excluded that Florio, working as intermediary between foreign ambassadors and the English court, was among the five hundred men who accompanied the Earl of Nottingham in Valladolid.


Of this journey there are extant two distinct narratives: one by Robert Treswell, Sormeset Herald, the other by an anonymous writer, who professes to have been present. The pen of the author of Don Quixote is said to have been likewise called into service on the same occasion, the authority for this being a satirical sonnet on the Valladolid event by the poet Luis de Góngora that ends with these words: “These our exploits were commended for description to Don Quixote, Sancho, and his ass.” 4

Cervantes moved to Valladolid in 1604, and published Don Quixote while living there in 1605. Valladolid was one of the most prosperous cities in Spain. As the seat of Court, it was the resort of the most famous of the men of letters, for there were gathered the patrons. It is very likely that of the 506 English men who were in Spain with the Earl of Nottingham, some must have known Cervantes.

Despite Spanish was not as popular a modern language for Elizabethans to study as French or Italian, Spanish proverbs and witty sayings were included in the textbook of William Stepney, incorporated into the dialogues of John Minsheu, and in the dictionary of John Sanford. 5 John Florio owned Spanish books in his library as testified in his last will, and crafted new words in English borrowed from Cervantes’s language. In A World of Words, he acknowledges a number of dictionary sources, among them an Italian-Spanish dictionary. In the same dictionary he mentions many definitions related to the Spanish culture and traditions.


Both John Florio and Cervantes became closely associated with their languages.

Born to a deaf surgeon who struggled to find a lasting job in a field that was poorly paid at the time, at 20 years old Cervantes was enlisted in the Spanish army and was wounded in the Battle of Lepanto, suffering two chest wounds and the complete maiming of his left hand. While returning to Spain in 1575, his ship was attacked and captured by Barbary pirates, and Cervantes, together with his brother Rodrigo, was sold into slavery in Algiers, the centre of the Christian slave traffic in the Muslim world.  After trying and failing to make a living as a playwright (only two of his plays survive), not surprisingly, this, the most adventurous period of Cervantes’s life, supplied subject matter for several of his literary works. He finally achieved fame after publishing the first part of the novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha in 1605. The work is usually described as the first modern novel, and has been translated into dozens of other languages.

Florio undoubtedly had a major influence in changing the English language, with proverbs, metaphors, witty sayings, and words. He was the first linguist to use the pronoun “its” and is also known to have drawn from other languages such as Italian, French and Spanish, when it was useful. Florio is responsible for the first recorded use of about 1,000 words. Among the many words and compounds we know from Florio are “emotion”, “artist”, “marble-hearted”, “fresh-bleeding”, “management”, “incarnate”, or proverbs like “All that glitters is not gold”, “Fast bind, fast find”, “The end makes all men equal.”

Cervantes’s contribution to the Spanish language is so great the Spanish language itself is referred to in certain circles as la lengua de Cervantes, or “the language of Cervantes”. While Cervantes perhaps did not contribute as many words in terms of sheer volume to the Spanish language as John Florio did for English, he did contribute several words and expressions that even managed to find their way over to the English language. Cervantes is credited for introducing to us the word “quixotic”, after his most notable character, Don Quixote, meaning idealistic, unrealistic or impractical. The Spanish equivalent is Quijotesco, although it refers more often to personality than the English word. Furthermore, in Don Quixote, Cervantes mix different styles and languages and different speech genres, narrative style, elegant and simple, with rhetorical speeches and the low style of peasants and the academic, learned style, or the slang of thieves and rogues, which made him the most important and celebrated figure in Spanish literature. He is also credited with introducing several important expressions to the Spanish culture, such as por la muestra se conoce el paño, which literally translates to “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, or rather “the proof is in the pudding” as in English, ’tilting at windmills’, ‘the pot calling the kettle black’, ‘bigger fish to fry’, and ‘the sky is the limit’.


The anonymous work written by Cervantes, Relacion de lo sucedido en la ciudad de Valladolid is extremely rare and the British Library holds only one copy of the Italian translation by Cesare Parona, printed at Milan in 1608 and owned once by John Florio, the same that was also in King James’s library. Florio owned several rare and expensive books in his library: his ability to acquire extremely rare copies of books can be explained partially in a library which was inherited by his father and through his diplomatic relationship with foreign ambassadors. There are several dispatches written by Florio to Venetian and Florentine ambassadors, in which he asked them to send books from Italy that he couldn’t acquire in England. In 1609, he asked the Venetian ambassador Giustinian to send him a book from Venice 6, Descrizione delle feste fatte nelle reali nozze de’ Serenissimi principi di Toscana Cosimo de Medici e Maria Maddalena arciduchessa d’ Austria (1608), which focuses on the great celebrations and masques done during the wedding of Cosimo de’ Medici and Maria Maddalena, which later became the source for several Jacobean masques. 7.

His powerful position at court, gained in 1604 with the ascension of Queen Anne of Denmark and King James VI, gave him access to a diplomatic partnership between London and Venice, which made him a go-between who played a central role with courts entertainments as well, having access to vital and rare sources he used both for his works and for fruitful collaborations with his colleagues and friends.


Two years before his death, at 70 years old, John Florio made his last will. He bequeathed his library to the Pembroke family. Sadly, his beloved books never reached Wilton or Baynards Castle at London as requested. For unknown reasons, in fact, the executors named in the will renounced execution. Florio’s library has, since then, sadly disappeared.

Over the centuries some Florio’s scholars have tried the impossible mission to find (part of) his library. Arundel Del Re in his book about John Florio and First Fruits8 reported to have found only one book that belonged to Florio’s library. It’s The Imprese by Paolo Giovio bearing Florio’s signature. Today this book is at the British Library. Frances Yates, Florio’s biographer, asserted that she once had seen an annotated copy of Chaucer that belonged to John Florio. Two years ago this copy has been sold online by Peter Harrington. The cover contains John Florio’s handwriting: “J. Florio: Ex dono John Dony.” The copy is now at Yale university. Recently, a new article on this website analysed a copy of Montaigne’s Essays hand-corrected by John Florio. In his preface to Montaigne’s Essays, Florio specified that there were some copies of the Essays translated by him that contained typographical errors that himself tried to correct manually. This is one of the copies that Florio hand-corrected. Today this copy is at the UCLA, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles. There is also the famous copy of Volpone that belonged to John Florio signed by Ben Jonson himself to “His loving father and worthy friend, Master John Florio, the Ayde of his Muses” which is today at the British Library.

Florio’s working method was not a linear one, and he used many sources he borrowed from his predecessors and favourite authors to write his works. For this reason, the books he owned must certainly contain scribbles, marginalia, and underlined words he borrowed and used in his works. This is the case of the extremely rare copy of Relatione by Cesare Parona held at the British Library 9 which does not bear his signature, but contains various underlined words and paragraphs which can be found in Florio’s works. It can be assumed that who highlighted those archaic, quaint words was meant to use them afterwards or to record them, either for personal delight or for a literary work.

It is possible, therefore, that this book written by Cervantes was owned once by John Florio, and possibly passed to King James as well. There are indeed other examples of books Florio owned and handed to English royals. The Queen regularly purchased books from Florio, many of which were in Italian. In 1605, Florio gave the Queen a copy of the Italian Histories by Matteo Bandello and received £6.14s. Furthermore, he gave her two dictionaries, two dialogues in Italian and English, as well as some writing materials. Later, on 22 February 1607, The Queen paid Florio for a sumptuous £4 copy of ‘Italian Bible for her Maiestie’ and for a copy of ‘Plutarches lives in English’. 10 Also, in 1608 Florio purchased a French Plutarch and an English Plutarch for the use of the Queen and her daughter. 11


The copy of Cesaro Parona’s translation at the British Library contains some underlined words which can be found in John Florio’s works. The images of Parona’s book follows the underlined word as explained and reported by Florio in his dictionary.

John Florio Cervantes
Cesare Parona, Relatione, p. 11

Florio reports the word as follows:

Haziẻnda, a Spanish word as Facẻnda, but a great office in Spaine.

He also highlighted the word Casimodo without knowing its meaning, reported in the dictionary without explanation.

John Florio Cervantes
Cesare Parona, Relatione, p. 13


John Florio Cervantes

Papellóne, as Papiglióne.

John Florio Cervantes
p. 15

Frangióne, any great or deepe fringe.

Capperúccioas Capparúccio , as CapúccioAlso a cape of a Spanish cloke.

Robíglia, a iacket, a mandillion, a horsemans cote or such other garment.

Impennacchiáre, to dight with plumes.

Gianétta, a Spanish-gennet-mare.

Gianéttoa Gennet or Spanish horse.

Gianettóne, a horseman, a Gennet-rider

Another archaic word Florio underlined and reported without explanation is Cénici.

John Florio Cervantes
p. 21
p. 25

Labároa banner, a streamer or ensigne hung vp in churches ouer Princes and noble mens tombes and hearces. Also a rich banner or foure square purple cloth beset with pearles and precious stones, that vntill Constantines time, who co[m]manded the figure of the crosse to be caried from him, was wont to be caried before the Emperours of the East, wherein were richly embroydered certaine letters in golde, namely the letter Chi and Rhò, which signifieth Christ, and was worshipped of their souldiers. Also a kind of birde.

John Florio Cervantes
p. 25

Recámera, a with-drawing or backe-chamber.

John Florio Cervantes
p. 26

Patággioa Patache or flat-boate.

Almiránta, an admirall-ship.

Disarboráre, to vntree, to cut downe trees. Also to vnmast a ship. Also to vnstaue or pull any ensigne from of its staffe. Also to reduce any tree into timber or fewell, the contrary, also of Inalboráre.

Fẻlúca, a kinde of swift barke or lift barge or pinnace. Also the crew of water-waiters.

John Florio Cervantes

Ciúffolo, a whisse, a whistle.

Among the many other words he highlighted which are reported in his dictionary, there is also a marginalia he added twice (page 31 and page 62) right next the word Count of Perth [i.e., James Drummond].

John Florio Cervantes
p. 41
John Florio Cervantes
p. 62

Marginalia are fundamental to trace the owner of a book, they tell us how they personalise the annotations. In this case, the same marginalia was drawn in Florio’s personal copy of Montaigne’s Essays and corroborates the hypothesis that this was, indeed, Florio’s copy of Relatione, sometimes handed to King James.

Florio’s copy of Montaigne’s Essays. His handwriting and the marginalia of a flower.
Detail of Florio’s copy of Montaigne’s Essays. His handwriting and the marginalia of a flower.
John Florio Cervantes
p. 112

Tordiglióne, a kind of dance in Spaine

Every time the Earl of Perth, James Drummond, is mentioned in the book, Florio draws the marginalia as reference. In this case, he highlighted the whole description of the Count:

John Florio Cervantes
p. 112

Florio underlined that the King “commanded the handsome young Earl of Perth to dance, and the young man chose Dona Catalina de la Cerda, and the two of them made such an impression that it was impossible to say whether the lady or the gentleman had danced more gracefully.”

Fourth Lord Drummond, and first Earl of Perth, James Drummond was created “Earl of Perth” by Patent, dated 4th March 1605 by King James VI, to him and his heirs male whatsoever. However, he enjoyed his honours for a short time only; he died at Seton, on the 18th December, 1611, in the 21st year of his age. He was married but had no sons, wherefore his estate and honours devolved upon his younger brother.

This copy of Relatione, owned by John Florio, is the witness of Florio’s involvement in England’s peace with Spain – which he possibly experienced both during court entertainments and in Valladolid – his knowledge of Cervantes, and his method in underlining and borrowing words for his works. Another book finally placed where it belongs: in his library.

"Sarao": John Florio & Cervantes in Valladolid by Marianna Iannaccone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. For further information send email at 


  1. A worlde of wordes, or, Most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English, collected by Iohn Florio, Printed at London, by Arnold Hatfield for Edward Blount, 1598.
  2. See O’Connor, D. J. John Florio’s Contribution to Italian-English LexicographyItalica, vol. 49, no. 1, American Association of Teachers of Italian, 1972, pp. 49–67,
  3. Brenchley Rye, William, editor, England as Seen by Foreigners in the Days of Elizabeth and James the First, London, 1865, p. 117-124.
  4.   Pellicer, Juan Antonio, Vida de Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, en Madrid, por D. Gabriel de Sancha, 1800, p. 115.
  5. Minsheu, John, A Spanish Grammar, London, 1599, 75-84; Minsheu, John, Pleasant and Delightfull Dialogues in Spanish and English, London, 1599, 10-11, 21, 60; Sanford, John An Entrance to the Spanish Tongue, London, 1611; Stepney, William, The Spanish Schoole-master, London, 1591.
  6.  TNA SP 99/5/330
  7. Read John Florio, Italian ambassadors, and the wedding of Cosimo I and Maria Maddalena, Url=””
  8. Del Re, Arundel, Florio’s first fruites, Taipei: Taihoku Imperial University, 1936
  9. British Library, London, 811.d.4.(1.)
  10. Field, J., Anna of Denmark: A Late Portrait by Paul Van Somer, The British Art Journal, 18, n.2, 2017. p. 6
  11. TNA: PRO, SC6/JASI/1648.
Giovanni Florio, known as John Florio, is recognised as the most important humanist in Renaissance's England.

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