King's College London
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'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Florio's Italian dictionary

Decorative title page with British and Italian motifs, including a lion, a unicorn, a rose, and a thistleDecorative title page with British and Italian motifsDuring Shakespeare’s lifetime the English vocabulary was enriched by the incorporation of numerous ‘oversea words’, as they were called, drawn from over 50 different languages.

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, a country of past and present cultural glories and a centre of international commerce, Italy was of increasing interest to English travellers, whether they were merchants trading in luxury goods or aristocratic gentlemen completing their education by a period of exposure to Italian civilisation. Italianate words, often relating to architecture or music, began to appear in English writings; balcony, design, stucco, trill and violin are all Italian imports of this period.

The traveller’s growing interest in the Italian language is reflected in the success of John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary, first published in 1598 as A worlde of words and displayed here in the revised and expanded edition of 1611, dedicated to James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark.

The son of an Italian Protestant exile, Florio (1553-1625) earned his living by teaching the language to private pupils, probably supplementing his income by serving as a minor cog in Sir Francis Walsingham’s vast machinery of state espionage. His dictionary, which by its 1611 edition contained over 70,000 entries, catered for both the potential visitor to Italy and the reader who wished to read Italian books, now being imported to England in large numbers. 

Florio probably knew Shakespeare; literary London was a small circle, they shared patrons in the Earls of Pembroke and Southampton and Love’s labour’s lost and The tempest both contain passages indicating a familiarity with some of Florio’s other published works. That Shakespeare shared the contemporary interest in all things Italian is suggested by the large number of his plays which are set wholly or partly in Italy, but that Shakespeare was in fact Florio, a theory first advanced in 1927 by the Italian journalist Santi Paladino in a fascist literary magazine, L’impero, is, to say the least, unlikely.

The decorative title page, reproduced here, combines British and Italian motifs; the lion, unicorn, rose, thistle and other national emblems reflect the book’s dedication to James I’s queen, while the pillared portico and trailing vine leaves are common motifs of Italian Renaissance design.

In this exhibition


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