“Who could have been his literary ‘ghost’, if not John Florio?”

During his stay at Titchfield as tutor of Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, between the years 1589 to 1598, John Florio got in contact with an Italian fencing master who published the first manual on fencing to be available in the English language: Vincentio Saviolo.

Born in Padua, Italy, Saviolo studied his art under leading Italian and Spanish masters. Later, he came to London in 1590 to teach in the fencing “colledge” of the Italian master, Rocco Bonetti; Bonetti had opened his school in 1576, and was a master of fence elect to Elizabeth’s courtiers. His work was continued by his assistant Jeronimo, after Bonetti’s death in 1587.

Saviolo’s appointment as instructor would have brought new life to London’s tremendous interest in the code duello 1. George Silver, an English fencing master whose Paradoxes of defence appeared in 1599, tells us that Jeronimo and Vincentio Saviolo taught “Rapier-fight at court, at London, and in the country, by the seven or eight years or thereabouts2”. When Jeronimo was killed in a duel and Saviolo remained to dominate the scene, he seems to have excited much jealousy among his confreres, and even though he died in 1599, he was arguably the most significant and controversial teacher of fence in England at this time.

It is possible that the young Earl of Southampton learnt fencing from Saviolo, in view of the fact that “Fencing and military arts would absorb as much of his time as he dared3.” This habit among gentlemen and nobles was not uncommon; most Englishmen of the period wanted to associate themselves with the practice of swordplay and London burred with talk of Continental-fencing masters who claimed followings in their schools and in print, teaching to the gentlemen that fencing was both physical and mental, a palpable conflict and the basis for intellectual dialogue. 4

Moreover, duelling was a daily reality for the Elizabethan playwrights too, and theatre audiences relished the expert fencing of actors: in the 1590s Cristopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Gabriel Spencer, were involved in life-and-death duels that incurred a variety of legal penalties; in 1596 James Burbage acquired the lease on the fencing school in Blackfriars, intended to part of his theatre, the second Blackfriars playhouse5. In the same area were also based both Vincentio Saviolo and John Florio, and they could have encountered as early as 1591 or before, given that Florio already mentions him in his Second Fruits (1591), providing the first example of “product placement” and advertising in fencing history, with a perfect thumbnail sketch of the Paduan master thinly disguised under initials 6:


G. But to come to our purpose againe, of whome doo you learne to plaie at your weapon?

E. Of master V.S. 

G. Who, that Italian that lookes like Mars himselfe?

E. The verie same.

G. Where dwels he?

E. In the little streate, where the well is.

G. Alas we have a great waie thether yet.

E. Pardon me sir, it is but hard by.

G. At what signe dwels he?

E. At the signe of the red Lyon.

G. Dooth he plaie well? Hath hegood skill in his weapon?

E. As much as any other man.

G. Is he valiant, and a talle man of his hands?

E. More valiant than a sword itselfe.

G. How much doo you give him a moneth?

E. I have made no price with him.

G. What weapon doo you plaie at moste?

E. At rapier and dagger, or rapier and cloake.

G. The true and right gentleman-like weapons.

E. Truelie he teacheth verie well and verie quicklie.

G. Have you learned to give a thrust?

E. Yea, and towarde it also, and I knowe all the advantages, how a man must c harge and enter upon his enemie.

G. You have spent your time verie well then.

E. I cannot tell what I shoulde doo else.

G. What place in Italie was he borne in?

E. I take him to be a Padoan.

G. I have heard him reported to be a notable talle man.

E. Hee will hit any man, bee it with a thrust or stoccada, with an imbroccada or a charging blowe, with a right or reverse blowe, be it with the edge, with the back, or with the flat, even as it liketh him.

G. Is he left or right handed?

E. Both, all is one to him.

G. What dooth he commonlie take a moneth.

E. But, little, and there is no man, that teacheth with more dexteritie and nimblenes than he.

G. Can he doo nothing esle, but plaie at fence?

E. Yes, hee hath good skill in everie kinde of weapon, hee shootes well in a peece, he shootes well in great ordinance, and besides he is a verie excellent good souldier.

G. All these are good qualities doo verie seldone times, concur in anie one of our fencers. 

E. Moreover, hee is a good dancer, hee danceth verie well, both galiards, and pavins, hee vaultes most nimblie, and capers verie lostilie. 

G. He differs verie much from other fencers.

E. Yet there are manie honest and proper men among them.

G. There be some, but one swallowe brings no sommer, nor one divell makes not hell.

E. Is he a great quarelour, and a brauler?

G. Hee is most patient, neither dooth he goe about to revenge any iniurie that is offered him, unles it touch his credit and honour verie far.

E. He should bee no Italian then, but what did you meane by saying that one divel makes not hell?

G. Is that were true, then hell should be in my hostes house.

E. Whie, hath he anie divels in his house.

G. noe he-divels, but she-divels.

E. Belike-he hath a froward, wayward and troublesome wife.

G. You have hit the nayle on the head.

E. Make mee a sooth sayer, and I will make you a rich man.


Florio, J., Second Fruits, Chapter 7, f. 117, 119.

Four years after this dialogue appeared in print, Vincentio Saviolo published his book under the title Vincentio Saviolo’s His Practice, a guide devoted to the art of settling a duel in a gentlemanly manner, published by John Wolfe, a stationer specialising in publishing Italian books. It is divided in two parts: the first of which is a guide to the use of the rapier and dagger; the second advises about the use of “Honor and honourable quarrels” and amounted to an abbreviated translation of Girolamo Muzio’s tract Il Duello 7, in which Saviolo considers his honour code virtue a true standard of nobility, and the mortal resolution of the duello reserved for the purpose of establishing truth and justice; the result is a brilliant, humorous and instructive guide to Elizabethan etiquette.

Saviolo’s work is also beautifully illustrated: different woodcuts show the right fencing positions to the reader, while twice appears a woodcut depicting a full skeleton lying on the earth at the feet of a ragged man on one side, and on the other a gorgeously arranged horse and rider, the rider wearing a sword at his side.

vincentio saviolo

Fig. 1
vincentio saviolo

Fig. 2
An illustration from “The Thyrde dayes, discourse of rapier and dagger”. 

Both the illustrations and the enjoyable dialogues of Saviolo’s guide demonstrated that he undoubtedly did an excellent work. But the Italian master was struggling to express himself in good Tudor English, which raises the question of whether he really did all by himself, or if he had a secret collaborator. 


The first scholar to suggest that behind Saviolo’s work there was the hand of his good old friend John Florio was J. D. Aylward, who in an article published in 1950, remarked that Vincentio Saviolo had not been in England long when his book was printed, and was not likely to have command of the fluent and racy English in which his book is written. He therefore suggests that Saviolo’s fellow-country-man John Florio, whose style is similar to that of the Practise, did  the actual writing, defining him “Saviolo’s Ghost”:

“In view of Saviolo’s apparently notorious imperfection in our English tongue, we cannot but wonder whether the hand that held the pen was actually the hand that grasped the sword-hilt. [..] There remains, then, the theory of an occult collaborator”

Aylward, J.D., Saviolo’s Ghost, Notes & Queries, 27 May 1950, p.227

Alyward supposes that it must be his acquaintance, and a man speaking English and Italian with equal ease, for one of courtly speech, for one of literally attainment. His inquiry doesn’t last long, as he concludes that “there is but one who fulfils all these requirements; John Florio.”:

“Who could have been his literary “ghost”, if not John Florio?”

Many other scholars have shared doubts about Saviolo’s paternity, mostly asserting that we are dealing with a work born in the ambience of “the ceaselessly active John Florio whose friends Saviolo was8”. One of them, Sergio Rossi, argues that John Florio is the likely author of the sword-fighting manual attributed to Saviolo, pointing out:

“How does Saviolo come to write this book in English? In my view he was encouraged and assisted by his friend John Florio.”

Rossi, S., Vincentio Saviolo His Practice: A problem of authorship, in England and the Continental Renaissance: Essays in Honour of J.B. Trapp by E. Chauney, P. Hack, (eds), 165-175. Bury St Edmunds: Boydell Press, p. 172.

For Rossi, John Florio made “better use of the text by Muzio9”. This hypothesis is corroborated by the way the book was written; Florio’s writing method, and his greatest talent, indeed lied in borrowing and adapting the works of his predecessors. He already used this technique for his First Fruits (1578) and for A letter lately written from Rome (1585). In this context, for Saviolo’s book, he translated Muzio’s work, edited it, and adapted the work for the English readers. The book, therefore, is the result of a collaboration between John Florio, “the only person capable of such an undertaking in London at the time10.”, who translated and edited the book of Muzio’s Il Duello, and Saviolo’s practical knowledge and experience on the use of arms.

Moreover, the structure of His Practise clearly reminds of Florio’s First and Second Fruits, for different reasons: Saviolo’s work is preceded by a high-flown dedication to the Earl of Essex in the Epistle to the Reader with references to Minerva, Achilles, and  Maecenas, in exactly the Ercles’ vein of the introductions to Florio’s works. Also, Saviolo’s dialogues are just as natural as those in Florio’s phrase-books and they have the same stylistic features. The first scene, with recollections, perhaps, of Castiglione’s admired Cortegiano, which Florio read and used frequently in his works, is laid in a shady garden where, for three long summer days, Vincentio, the Master, and Luke, the Scholar, discourse gravely of practice and punctilio, varying debate by action. Finally, when the earnest Scholar has grasped the elements of defence, the Master lectures on honour and on honourable quarrels. Three days in which the dialogues are scattered with the same classical allusions, the same involved sentences, the alliteration, the repetition, (“Knightes, Captaines and valiant Soldiers.”) and the proverbial philosophy Florio loved so well 11

Another Florio’s fingerprint can be recognised when Vincentio discusses about Charles V or the other Emperors, mentioning Paolo Giovo and Guicciardino, both authors dear to Florio:

V.  “Moreover, if a man follow the warres and converse with Captaines, and incurre a quarrell, and have no knowledge of this arte, what shift shall hee make? Or how shall hee behave himselfe being challenged the combat for his Countrie or his Prince, which hath often happened, not onely in the time of the Romanes, but in our dayes, as we may read in the life of Charles the fifte, and of other Emperours: Paulus Jouius and Guicciardino do make mention of many combats fought in the kingdome of Naples betweene French-men and Italians for theyr Countrie, whereunto were required and chosen men most famous and skilfull men both of the French and Italian Nation.”

A linguistic analysis demonstrates that Florio’s style is scattered through Saviolo’s work, for example, the persistent use of the word “Certis/Certes”, a non Standard-English word cognate with the Italian “Certo.” Modern equivalents are “Truly” “Certainly”. This bizarre word is frequently used in his First and Second Fruits and occurs in Saviolo’s manual too:

Certis lady, I render you a thousand thankes.”

“Me thinkes it is very darke.

“So me thinke certes.” 

(First Fruits, 1578)

“V. Certes (my loving friend L) as well for that I have found you to be a man of a noble spirite, as in regard of the great love which I bear unto you, as also to the end that hereafter when time shall serve, you may be better knowen unto sundry Gentlemen my good friends, I am content to yeeld unto your request, and therefore demand bodly any thing wherein you desire to be resolved.”

“V. Certes we may graunt, that nature may doo very much to frame a man apt and fit for this exercise..[..]” 

(Vincentio Saviolo, His Practise, 1595, f. 5.)

Florio’s shadow is also visible by the way the author creates dialogues, often beginning with the sentence “I pray you tell me”:

I pray you tel me, where doth it seeme you best to dwel, in Italie or in England.”

(First Fruits, f. 42)

“Why then you are promised

Yea sir, long agoe.

And to who? I pray you tel me.”

(First Fruits, f. 5)

“L.But I praie you tell me whether the master may save himselfe when the scholler makes this remove uppon him in circular wise, without being hurt.

“L. But tell mee I praie you, is it not all one if I take hold of the arme of my teacher or adversarie, in sted of laying my hande uppon his warde?”

(Vincentio Saviolo, His Practise.)

In Second Fruits (1591) John Florio anticipated the use of words like “thrust”, “blowe”, “reverses”, a technical vocabulary used in His Practice four years later. Some of these words are still used today, e.g. “stoccata” “passata” or “passado” “imbrocata” “incartata” “punta riversa” “stramazone” “mandritta”, and they all appear in Florio’s dictionaries. 

Furthermore, some references to teaching and language in His Practise hint that the hand writing the dialogues is well accustomed with that world: Luke, the “loving friend” and “scholler” whom Master Saviolo instructs through his text’s transcription of their dialogue, implies that the word punta riversa is particular recent: “..make me understand the other kind of fight which heretofore you have told me of, and you call it Punta riversa”; Luke emphasises the new language when he again requests, “teach mee the other worde, which you call Puncta riversa”.

Some particular Italian words are also translated from the Italian to English in Florio’s style. Stoccata, for example, is a crucial term for Saviolo; in his Second Fruits, Florio describes Saviolo as particularly adept at the stoccata and he translates the term from the Italian Stoccata to the English Stocata, as in His Practise. Same process happens for “Imbroccata” which, this time, becomes the more Spanish “Imbrocada”, in which the author consciously alters the words to give more colour and more rhythm to the dialogue; or “Adio” which is a go-between for the Italian “Addio”, and the Spanish “Adiós”, another mark left by the polyglot and multicultural reader Florio.

There are also many proverbs which correspond to those collected by Florio in Giardino di Ricreatione (1591), or in his conversational manuals: “Not to catch at everie flie that passeth by” (Saviolo) is the translation of “Non pigliare mosche in aria” (Florio); “Summer is not come because one swallow is seen” (Saviolo) is the translation of “Una rondine non fa la state” (Florio); “One flower maketh not a spring” (Saviolo) is the translation of “Un fiore non fa primavera” (Florio);  “All is not golde that glistereth” (Saviolo)  is the same proverb in Florio’s First Fruits “All that glistereth is not gold”(f. 32).12

Overall, it is almost certain that this work was thought, written and promoted by John Florio, who also intended it as an opportunity to recommend himself to the Earl of Essex, friend and intimate of his pupil Henry Wriothesley. John Florio was a follower of Essex and he mentioned him in A World Of Words (1598) with the pseudonym used by Devereux among his inner circle: “A.B.” It is also very plausible, since the Paduan was fencing master of both Earl of Essex and likely of young Southampton too, that it was this interesting connection between the two nobles and the two Italians, as well as Henry’s interest in Italian studies, to give John Florio the idea to ghostwrite Saviolo’s work which would have caught the attention of the English aristocracy as well as the English audience.

“Florio’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, lived on terms of intimacy with the Earl of Essex, protector of Saviolo; the gentlemen attached to the two noblemen followed the example of their lords, and our Italian and our Anglo-Italian must have been drawn together by their common love for arms and letters no less than by their common tongue”

 Aylward, Saviolo’s Ghost, p. 227

Saviolo’s work provoked a violent reaction on the part of English fencing masters, who were hit economically since they lost pupils to the Italian masters. The reason why John Florio decided to not expose himself and to ghostwrite His Practise is not casual and can be traced in the anti-foreigners attacks that shook London in the early years of 1590s. The Epistle to the reader of the Second Fruits shows that the Anglo-Italian had recently been meeting with adverse criticism because of his Italian sympathies:

“As for me, for it is I, and I am an Englishman in Italiane; I know they haue a knife at command to cut my throate, Un Inglese Italianato é un Diavolo Incarnato.”

Recalling Roger Ascham’s proverb that “Un Inglese Italianato é un diavolo Incarnato” (An Englishman in Italian is a devil incarnate) Florio’s statement shows that he was most certainly verbally attacked and perhaps even received death threads. Although he was born in London, described himself “Italian tongue, English at heart13” and defined the English language as his “sweet mother tongue”, he was always classified throughout his life as a foreigner, due to his Italian origins and his mediterranean physical features, like the curly black hair and the dark lively face. John Florio’s unique life story, which could be summed up as transcultural formation14 with a stroke of Italian pride, gave him instant access to prestigious jobs at court as tutor of Italian language and as ambassador of Italian culture, but to live and walk through the streets of London as, de facto, a stranger in his homeland, exposed him to several dangers.

In the dedicatory epistle of Second Fruits, defined by Yates a “remarkably comprehensive sketch of current publication in the various fields of journalism, poetry, and the drama15.” Florio hints that these attacks came mostly from Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene, and he replied writing a two-fold defence of Italian culture in England and of the practise of translation, signing himself with a “new name”: Resolute Iohannes F.

This nomme de plume suggests a career change, the stern decision to keep writing and publish literary works despite the risk, with an adjective that stuck to him through life and death, “Resolute”.

Today, there’s a fencing school based in London which is inspired by Saviolo’s fencing method: the “1595 Club”, that in 2014 saw a new opening in both Italy and Ireland 16. A beautiful new edition of Saviolo’s His Practise has been made in the recent years by graphic designer David Knight17. Saviolo’s career in London was brief but intense, and his fame still lasts in England today. And the promoter, influencer, and first active collaborator was his resolute friend and ghostwriter John Florio.



“DRAW IF YOU BE MEN: JOHN FLORIO, SAVIOLO’S HOST.” by Marianna Iannaccone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

How to cite this entry: 

Iannaccone Marianna, “DRAW IF YOU BE MEN: JOHN FLORIO, SAVIOLO’S HOST”, “Resolute John Florio”, URL= “”

  1. Holmer, J. O., “Draw, If You Be Men’: Saviolo’s Significance for Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 2, 1994, pp. 163–189, p. 165
  2. “Then came Vincentio and Jeronimo, they taught rapier fight at the court, at London, and in the country, by the space of seven or eight years or thereabouts.” Brief Note of three Italian teachers of defense, Silver, G., Paradoxes of Defence, Edward Blount, London, 1599
  3. Stopes, C.C., The life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare’s Patron, Cambridge University Press, 1922, p 38
  4. Bloom, H., William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Infobase Publishing, 2009, p. 188.
  5. Bonetti had originally obtained the lease for this school from John Lyly, John Florio’s student in Oxford; Holmer, p. 165.
  6. Aylward, J.D., Saviolo’s Ghost, Notes & Queries, 27 May 1950, p. 228
  7. Peltonen, M., The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness and Honour, Cambridge University Press, p. 2003, p. 51.
  8. Rossi, S., Duelling in the Italian manner: the case of Romeo and Juliet, in Michele Marrapodi, A., J. Hoenselaars, Marcello Cappuzzo and L. Falzon Santucci eds., Shakespeare’s Italy: functions of Italian locations in Renaissance Drama, rev. edn, Manchester, pp., 112-24, p. 113. 
  9. Ivi, p. 173
  10. Rossi, Vincentio Saviolo, p. 173
  11. Aylward, p. 228
  12. Rossi,Vincentio Saviolo, p. 173.
  13. “Italus ore, Anglus Pectore” is the description in his 1611 portrait.
  14. John Florio was born in London. At one years old he escaped with his father Michelangelo and came back to Soglio, a little village in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. At ten years old he was sent by his father to a college (Paedagogium) in Tübingen, Germany. Although there are no historical documents that can prove he travelled to France, Yates and other Florio scholars have suggested that he had also spent some years in France too before coming back to London at eighteen years old.
  15. Yates, F., John Florio, The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, Cambridge University Press, 1922, p. 128.
Giovanni Florio, known as John Florio, is recognised as the most important humanist in Renaissance's England.

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