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Welcome to Episode #101 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

The term “hand-and-a-half sword” is often used in reference to long-swords but is not considered a historical description of the weapon. There is no evidence of the term “hand-and-a-half” having been used during the Middle Ages when the sword saw its heyday in popularity and there’s no reference to hand and a half sword either in English or other languages before the 16th century. But the term does show up during the life of William Shakespeare. Why is that term appearing at this moment to describe a weapon that never went by that name when the weapon was popular? It seems that fencing language, and indeed the English language’s description of weapons overall, was influenced heavily by a man whose greatness is often eclipsed by that of Shakespeare and Jonson–that man is John Florio.

Words like “hand and a half sword” are just one example of the power Florio’s contributions are to both the English language, and it seems, to early modern plays themselves. Credited in print by Jonson personally, as well as praised and sponsored by by people like Salviolo, Henry Wriothesley, Philip Sydney, and other prominent figures from the 16th century, John Florio operated at the highest levels of English society. 

Here this week to share with us the unique and often overlooked life of John Florio, how he came to be in England, and the unlikely friendship he seems to have had with Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, is our guest Marianna Iannaconne.

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Marianna Iannaccone, is an independent researcher with a master’s degree in Foreign Languages, Literature and Drama. She studied in bot hItaly and London, and while speaks Italian as her native language also knowsn English Spanish and French. She had studied in drama and screenwriting, with her latest short film about John Florio premiering at Brigham Young University in Idaho. She attended the John Florio event at The Globe theater in Rome, Italy as a guest speaker on the connection between John Florio, Giordano Bruno, and William Shakespeare. She is the administrator of Resolute John Florio, the website dedicated to the life and history of John Florio. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Marianna Iannaconne about :

  • Vincentio Salvolio wrote a fencing manual in the late 1590s with descriptions, and specifically terminology on fencing. With his focus on grammar, did John Florio help write this fencing manual?
  • Were there many English going to Italy for theater and performance?
  • We see the unique fencing terminology from Salviolo’s treaty show up in in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. Salvolio is often credited with being the primary influence of Shakespeare’s fencing terms, but is it possible Florio was actually closer to Shakespeare and therefore a more likely influence on that play in particular?
  • … and more!

Books & Resources Marianna Iannaconne recommends:


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What’s Inside:

  • Example of Italian immigration to England in the 16th century
  • History of the Wars against religion
  • Portrait of John Florio
  • John Florio’s role as ambassador for Italy
  • Image of Salviolo’s fencing manual
  • Story of Florio working as translator for Salviolo
  • Picture of Titchfield Abbey
  • History of John Florio living with Henry Wriothesley
[ppp_patron_only level=”5″]
Those girls of Italy, take heed of them
King of France

Alls Well That Ends Well (II.1)

c. 1857 Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti (1824-1904) Source


Wars Against Religion

John Florio was born in London, England, but he represents the massive move to England from Italy that was going on as Shakespeare was writing plays like Romeo and Juliet which is set in Verona, Italy. 

In Rome, and across Italy, the Roman Inquisition was cracking down on Protestants, often executing them. To escape this persecution, Italians who converted to Protestantism moved to England where the atmosphere under Henry VIII, and then briefly his son Edward VI (The first English monarch to be raised Protestant), was much more supportive of Protestantism, providing a safe haven for Italian Protestants.

John Florio’s father converted to Protestantism in Italy and was imprisoned by the Roman Inquisition. Whe He escaped from prison, he fled to England and aquired a position working for Lady Barkley. Nobility and aristocracy in England sought out Italians in particular to work for them, as the Italian language, culture, and lifestyle was in vogue for the 16th century. 

He was appointed tutor to Lady Jane Grey and to a young Elizabeth I. Tudor to lady jane gret and young Elizabeth I. When John Florio was just a small child, only 1-2 years old, the religious atmospher in England exploded with the rise of Mary Tudor, who took the throne at the death of her brother, Edward VI. Mary Tudor was Queen of England from 1553 until her death in 1558, but those five years were known for Mary’s extreme measures to try and reverse the English Reformation which had begun under her father, Henry VIII. 

As a result of this upheaval, Catholicism was restored in England and Protestants again found themselves under persecution, including the Florio family. John Florio was moved with his family to Switzerland, where he was raised for the next decade until he was sent to school in Germany around age 10. 

By the time John Florio turned 18, Elizabeth I was now on the throne in England and Protestantism again in place. The land of his birth once more safe for him, John Florio moved to England and re-connected with the aristocratic connections established by his father nearly two decades before.

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I have a kinsman who
Is bound for Italy;

Cymbeline (III.6)

Florio, engraving by William Hole, 1611. Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum. Source

John Florio self styled ambassador for Italy

It was very common for the aristocracy to go to Italy to learn Italian language and culture. Being able to speak Italian, and to emulate Italian lifestyle qualities was very prestigious at court. That meant, if you could say you had been there, or had connections there, you went up a few notches on the cool meter, which was essential in the highly political world of England’s court society. 

To attain this status as cultured, many English nobles travelled to Italy on the regular. As an example, Philip Sydney spent a year travelling in Italy. Henry Wriothesley, patron of John Florio and William Shakespeare, travelled to Italy 1598 and was well travelled to several places in the Italian counry.

When Shakespeare was writing plays set in Italy (the location Shakespeare used more than any other as the setting his plays) it was the most fascinating location for his target audience. Writing the heart of the Renaissance, theater was an important focus of attention and being able to emulate the famous Italian theater, Comedie d’el arte was hugely popular in Europe. Italian authors also revolutionized theaterand literature, as well. Interestingly, while it was hugely popular to travel to Italy and a pervasive expectation that England’s premiere artists would be influenced by Italian artists, there was also a consistent racism in England towards anyone not purely English. While learning the language and culture was popular and prestigious at court, but you could also be beaten up in the street. As an example of the complicated love/hate relationship between Italy and England during Shakespeare’s lifetime, one record by Rager Asham published a book “the Schoolmaster” he specifically warns English nobles against travelling to Italy. 

Another example closer to Shakespeare is Thomas Nashe. Styled by Marianna Iannaonne as an “enemy of John Florio”, Nashe believed English nobles who travelled to Italy did indeed return more cultured, but that they also picked up several vices and loose morals for their pains. John Florio styled himself as an ambassador to England for Italy, seeking to represent Italians in a good light for the English, but he was not always well received. 

I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round
hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his
behavior every where.

Merchant of Venice (I.2)

The title page from Vincentio Saviolo, His Practise, Saviolo’s fencing handbook published in 1595. Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection Source


Translator for Vincento Salviolo

In 1595, Vincento Salviolo published a manual titled “His Practice.” The manual is staged as a dialogue between teacher and student and served, when published, as a handbook for those wishing to learn good Italian swordsmanship. 

The handbook comes in two books, with the first one focusing on teaching rapier/dagger fencing, while the second is about quarrels in particular. Marianna shares that the second book is considered an English translation of the Italian book Duello. Woodcuts litter both books, demonstrating the proper form and action. 

Salviolo’s book remains a respected guide to Italian fencing in the 16th century, and demonstrates Salviolo’s unique mix of Spanish and Italian styles. As a close friend of John Florio, Vincento Salviolo could have asked John Florio to write the translation (John Florio being known for his professional work as a translator.) It is notable that Florio was such a translator, since it was uncommon for Italians to be willing to writ in English. At this time, English was not the international language we know it for today. Instead, the written word in English was undergoing massive development and at court, the nobles spoke either in Italian, French, or Latin. (Latin being the international language for the 16th century). For an international market, English was considered not only a common tongue unworthy of the upper classes, but also unique to England. Marianna suggests this reputation of the English language among Italians could explain why Salviolo, teaching in England, still wrote his manual in Italian. She believes it was Florio who translated the manuals into English for Salviolo. Marianna relays that it would have been well within Florio’s wheelhouse to offer this service. The additional personal connection between the two men strengthens this theory’s plausibility. 

Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy apish nation
Limps after in base imitation.
Edmund of Langely

Richard II (II.1)

Titchfield Abbey, renamed Place House after the Dissolution. Owned by by Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton in the 16th century and converted from an abbey into a mansion by Henry’s grandfather, Thomas Wriothesley (1505-1550). This photograph was taken in 2014, by Adam Greenough. Source

John Florio lived with Henry Wriothesley

Historians and scholars of literature alike have grappled with the closeness of John Florio to Shakespeare personally. We know that John Florio was in close proximity to The Globe and maintained connections to key players from William Shakespeare’s life. When it comes to determining if these peices of evidence constitute proof that John Florio was friends with William Shakespeare, we cannot know for usre, but Marianna points out some interesting peices of evidence to suggest such a friendship was possible.

John Florio and William Shakespeare shared the same circles of friends such as Philip Sydney and Ben Jonson. Both men shared the same professional patronage in a series of patronages that match up chronologically. First with Robert Dudley, then they were both patronized by Henry Wriothesley, and they both finished their careers under the patronage of William Herbert. Interestingly, John Florio even lived with Henry Wriothesley. Shakespeare and Florio both held the position of Groom of the Privy Chamber, and had the same publisher of their folios. 

Ben Jonson, whom we can reliably say knew William Shakespeare personally (having written Shakespeare’s eulogy), it was Ben Jonson who would dedicate his play, Volpone, to John Florio. 

In about 1583 Florio worked as tutor and spy for Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham in the home of the French ambassador Michel de la Mauvissiére. Florio can be verified as a friend of Giordano Bruno, as he is mentioned as such in Bruno’s writings. Florio had many patrons, and claimed to live some years with Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton at Titchfield Abbey (pictured above) and there is at least one incident tied to Florio at Titchfield Abbey.