May 27 2021
Michelangelo Florio’s manuscript grammar (1553): Tuscan language learning and ‘spiritual denizenship’ in Tudor England

Che portasti tu d’Italia? (What did you bring from Italy?)
Io ne portai a fatica la vita (Barely I brought my life)

Michelangelo Florio’s (1518-1566) biography as an Italian religious refugee in London transpires in this short dialogue in his manuscript grammar Regole de la Lingua Thoscana (Rules of the Tuscan language) dedicated to his young aristocratic student Henry Herbert (c.1538- 1601) in August 1553.

Around a year before, the Florentine Florio interrupted his public role in the Italian Church in London after economic and doctrinal contrasts with other Italians, and an accusation of sexual abuse. Thanks to the interest of powerful figures (the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the King’s Secretary William Cecil, and the Lord Protector of England John Dudley,) Florio became private tutor of Henry Herbert and his sister-in-law Jane Grey. In fact, another undated version of the grammar was dedicated to Jane Grey who became queen for few days (10th - 9th July 1553), just one month before Florio’s dedication to Herbert.

Florio’s grammar was an advanced and less schematic alternative to William Thomas’s Principal Rules of Italian Grammar (1550), the first printed Italian grammar for English speakers. The Florentine praised Guilielmo Thomas’ grammar, but in his opinion, he proposed a better version thanks to more precise and extended explanations, especially in regard of the adverbs. However, the Italian could not publish his grammar in London. As the new Queen, Mary I, ordered the execution of Jane and the banishment of protestants in England, Florio had to flee once again in March 1554, starting a new life in Soglio, in the Swiss Grisons.

In his Regole, Florio included Italian exemplary sentences provided of Latin translations for maggiore chiarezza (better clarity) following each explanation of grammatical rules regarding articles, nouns, verbs, adverb, and other parts of speech). Most of these sentences tell us between the lines that the author was a religious refugee and anti-papist, i.e. a new kind of immigrant compared with the Italian merchants and bankers that had traditionally operated in England since the thirteenth century CE.

Indeed, Florio did not send clothes to Italy and bring wine back as did the merchant protagonist of few examples in part xvii of the grammar. In fact, Florio’s dramatic story appears in the subsequent example where a person brought his life from Italy instead of goods. Here he alluded to the twenty-seven months that he spent imprisoned and tortured in Rome, and the other persecutions encountered, due to his preaching of reformist doctrines in several Italian cities such as Rome, Naples, Padua, and Venice in the 1540s. Finally, Florio fled Italy reaching England on 1st November 1550 and taking on Bernardo Ochino’s position as minister of the Reformed Italian Church in London. Ochino was a celebre reformist preacher who had, since 1547, consolidated a corridor to the country of the protestant king Edward VI for Italians escaping religious persecutions.

Numerous sentences show Florio’s attempts to suggest an assimilation between his situation of unjustly persecuted individual to the one of the Church of England. For example: Quando fui tenuto in pregio dal Papa, non ero amato da Dio. Hora che dal Papa sono perseguitato, son’ certo che da Dio sarò tuttavia difeso (When I was appreciated by the Pope, God did not love me. Now that I am persecuted by the Pope, I am sure that God will defend me in any case). These models created to explain grammatical points (e.g. passive sentences and past participles in the previous sentences) offered Florio chances for fashioning himself to enter the grace of his new powerful anti-Catholic English protectors i.e the Greys, the Herberts, William Cecil Lord Burghley, and John Dudley Duke of Northumberland.

Moreover, Florio believed that language students and Christians both needed to find truth for themselves in their reading; even against authorities as it emerged in the sentence La dottrina del Vangelo piace à ognuno in fuori che al papa (Anyone likes the doctrine of the gospel but the Pope). So, often facing the impossibility of giving a regola ferma (firm rule) the personal preferences and explanations of grammarians, such as Florio himself or Pietro Bembo, could be ignored if more convenient for the language learning process. Ultimately the students had to find their way reading the authors: [...] qui potrei confermar’ quanto v’ho detto con l’autorità di Dante, del Boccaccio, e del Petrarca; ma sarei troppo lungo; leggendogli voi troverete la verità. (Here I could confirm what I said with the authority of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. But I would be too verbose. Reading them you will find the truth).

Florio described himself as a povero forestiero (poor stranger) in the dedication to Herbert, but at the same time signalled in the entire grammar that he was not a ’spiritual stranger’ in England. Also, his grammar shows how his religious beliefs, and the practicality acquired teaching Italian language to foreigners, shaped his vision of the wide theoretical discussion on Italian codification (la questione della lingua). This discussion stimulated, during the same years, the valorisation of English language, in a nationalist and religious key, by Italianate and reformist authors such as William Thomas and Thomas Hoby.

Michele Piscitelli
University of Birmingham
Midlands4cities Doctoral Training Partnership:

Michele Piscitelli is a Ph.D. candidate at University of Birmingham, with a thesis on the presence, teaching and learning of the Italian language in sixteenth century England; in particular the project aims to certain gaps in the literature focusing on the pre-Elizabethan period and alternative sources for language learning beyond Italian-English manuals and vocabularies.