Lorenzo (or Laurentius) Valla (c. 1407 – August 1, 1457) was an Italian humanist, rhetorician, and educator. His family was from Piacenza; his father, Luca della Valla, was a lawyer.
In 1431 he entered the priesthood, and after trying in vain to secure a position as apostolic secretary, he went to Piacenza, whence he proceeded to Pavia, where he obtained a professorship of eloquence. His tenure at Pavia was made unpleasant by his attack on the Latin style of the great jurist Bartolus de Saxoferrato. Valla wandered from one university to another, accepting short engagements and lecturing in many cities. In 1433 Valla made his way to Naples, and the court of Alfonso V of Aragon Alfonso made Valla his private Latin secretary and defended him against the attacks on account of his public statements about theology, including one in which he denied that the Apostles' Creed was composed in succession by each of the twelve Apostles. These charges were eventually dropped.
By this time Valla had won a high reputation for two works: his dialogue De Voluptate
, and his treatise De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae
. In De Voluptate
), he contrasted the principles of the Stoics
with the tenets of Epicurus
, openly proclaiming his sympathy with those who claimed the right of free indulgence for man's natural appetites. It was a remarkable utterance. Here for the first time in the Renaissance
the ideas of Epicurus found deliberate and positive expression in a work of scholarly and philosophical value.
De Elegantiis was no less original, although in a different sphere of thought. This work subjected the forms of Latin grammar and the rules of Latin style and rhetoric to a critical examination, and placed the practice of composition upon a foundation of analysis and inductive reasoning. It was a basis for the movement of the Humanists to reform Latin prose style to a more classical and Ciceronian direction on a scientific basis. Valla's work was controversial when it appeared, but its arguments carried the day. As a result, humanistic Latin sought to purge itself of post-Classical words and features, and became stylistically very different from the Christian Latin of the European Middle Ages. This was thought to be a major improvement in style and elegance in Latin usage.
Exposing historical hoaxes
Valla's originality, critical acumen, and knowledge of classical Latin style were put to good use in an essay he wrote between 1439 and 1440, De falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione declamatio
. In this he demonstrated that the document known as the Constitutum Constantini
(or "donatio Constantini" as he refers to it in his writings), or the Donation of Constantine
, could not possibly have been written in the historical era of Constantine I
(4th Century), as its vernacular style dated conclusively to a later era (8th Century). One of Valla's reasons was that the document contained the word satrap
which he believed Romans such as Constantine I would not have used. The document, though met with great criticism at its introduction, was accepted as legitimate, in part owing to the beneficial nature of the document for the western church. The Donation of Constantine suggests that Constantine I "donated" the whole of the Western Roman Empire
to the Roman Catholic Church
as an act of gratitude for having been miraculously cured of leprosy
by Pope Sylvester I
. This would have obviously discounted Pepin the Short
's own Donation of Pepin
, which gave the Lombards land to the north of Rome.
Valla was motivated to reveal the Donation of Constantine as a fraud by his employer of the time, Alfonso of Aragon, who was involved in a territorial conflict with the Papal States, then under Pope Eugene IV. The Donation of Constantine had often been cited to support the temporal power of the Papacy, since at least the 11th century.
The essay began circulating in 1440, but was heavily rejected by the Church. It was not formally published until 1517. It became popular among Protestants. An English translation was published for Thomas Cromwell in 1534. Valla's case was so convincingly argued that it still stands today, and the illegitimacy of the Donation of Constantine is generally conceded.
From Naples, Valla continued his philological
work. He showed that the supposed letter of Christ
was a forgery, and by throwing doubt upon the authenticity of other spurious documents, and by questioning the utility of monastic life, he aroused the anger of some of the faithful. He was compelled to appear before a tribunal composed of his enemies, and he only escaped by the special intervention of Alfonso. He was not, however, silenced; he ridiculed the Latin of the Vulgate
and accused St Augustine
. In 1444 he visited Rome
, but in this city also his enemies were numerous and powerful, and he only saved his life by fleeing in disguise to Barcelona
, whence he returned to Naples. But a better fortune attended him after the death of Eugene IV in February 1447. Again he journeyed to Rome, where he was welcomed by the new pope, Nicholas V
, who made him an apostolic secretary, and this entrance of Valla into the Roman Curia
has been called "the triumph of humanism over orthodoxy and tradition." Valla also enjoyed the favour of Pope Calixtus III
Biographies and critical esteem
All the older biographical notices of Valla are loaded with long accounts of his many literary and theological disputes, the most famous of which was the one with Poggio
, which took place after his settlement in Rome. It is almost impossible to form a just estimate of Valla's private life and character owing to the clouds of dust which were stirred up by this and other controversies, in which the most virulent and obscene
language was employed. He appears, however, as a vain, jealous and quarrelsome man, but he combined the qualities of an elegant humanist, an acute critic and a venomous writer, who had committed himself to a violent polemic against the temporal power of Rome. In him posterity honors not so much the scholar and the stylist as the man who initiated a bold method of criticism, which he applied alike to language, to historical documents and to ethical opinions. Luther
had a very high opinion of Valla and of his writings, and Cardinal Bellarmine
calls him praecursor Lutheri,
while Sir Richard Jebb
says that his De Elegantiis
"marked the highest level that had yet been reached in the critical study of Latin." Erasmus
stated in his De ratione studii
that for Latin Grammar, there was "no better guide than Lorenzo Valla."
Collected, but not quite complete, editions of Valla's works were published at Basel in 1540 and at Venice in 1592, and De Elegantiis
was reprinted nearly sixty times between 1471 and 1536. For detailed accounts of Valla's life and work see G Voigt, Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums
(1880-81); JA Symonds
, Renaissance in Italy
(1897-99); G Mancini, Vita di Lorenzo Valla
(Florence, 1891); M. von Wolff, Lorenzo Valla
(Leipzig, 1893); Jakob Burckhardt
, Kultur der Renaissance
(1860); J Vahlen, Laurentius Valla
(Berlin, 1870); L Pastor, Geschichte der Päpste,
Band ii. English trans. by FI Antrobus (1892); the article in Herzog
-Hauck's Realencyklopädie, Band xx.
(Leipzig, 1908); and JE Sandys
, Hist. of Class. Schol.
ii. (1908), pp. 66‑70.
- Lodi Nauta, In Defense of Common Sense: Lorenzo Valla's Humanist Critique of Scholastic Philosophy, Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2009.
- Peter Mack, Renaissance Argument: Valla and Agricola in the Traditions of Rhetoric and Dialectic, Leiden ; New York : E.J. Brill, 1993.
- Melissa Meriam Bullard, "The Renaissance Project of Knowing: Lorenzo Valla and Salvatore Camporeale's Contributions to the Querelle Between Rhetoric and Philosophy," Journal of the History of Ideas 66.4 (2005): 477-81.
- Brian P Copenhaver, "Valla Our Contemporary: Philosophy and Philology," Journal of the History of Ideas 66.4 (2005): 507-25.
- Matthew DeCoursey, "Continental European Rhetoricians, 1400-1600, and Their Influence in Renaissance England," British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660, First Series, DLB 236, Detroit: Gale, 2001, pp. 309-343.
- Lisa Jardine, "Lorenzo Valla and the Intellectual Origins of Humanist Dialectic," Journal of the History of Philosophy 15 (1977): 143-64.