Lorenzo Valla

The textual criticism of the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla (ca. 1407-1457) provided methods and inspiration for the reappraisal of Europe's historical and religious scholarship during the Renaissance.

Born in Rome and educated there before adopting, at Florence and elsewhere, the itinerant life common among contemporary scholars, Lorenzo Valla mastered ancient Greek and Ciceronian Latin. Appointed to a chair of rhetoric at the University of Pavia in 1431, he denounced the law faculty's jurisprudence because of its medieval foundations, and he became a champion of classical scholarship based on grammar and philology.

The dispute forced Valla from Pavia in 1433, but his reputation as a man of letters and as a bold, irascible polemicist commended him to rulers who sought the adornment of scholar-publicists for their courts. His first settled connection (1435-1448) was in Naples with King Alfonso V of Aragon, Sicily, and Naples, whose campaign to wrest southern Italy from other rulers, including the Pope, occasioned Valla's most notorious tract. Issued in 1440, De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio proved, through internal contradictions and anachronisms, the forged origins of the Donation of Constantine, the document traditionally claimed as justification for the papacy's temporal authority in Latin Christendom.

Valla wrote extensively about philosophy and language in the 1430s and 1440s. He urged that man cultivate both his appetitive and rational capacities as gifts derived from God's wisdom and divinity. He also attacked the constraints on the expansion of knowledge about man and nature imposed by scholastic thinkers through their emphasis on formal logic and theological propositions. To reinforce his criticisms of Stoic and monkish asceticism and Aristotelian logic, Valla produced in 1444 his most widely used work, De elegantia linguae Latinae, a comprehensive guide to Latin usage. It flowed naturally from his previous writing, crystallizing his humanist belief that the perfected study of language could restore the full historical significance of words as guides to thought and as vehicles for shared human discourse. In this way the past might be illumined and the human condition enriched.

Like De falso, which required Alfonso's help against the Inquisition, Valla's speculative works were alleged to be pagan or heretical, and his writings endangered him until his reconciliation with the Church in 1448. He then returned to Rome as secretary to Pope Nicholas V, the first papal advocate of the humanists' endeavors. There Valla taught, translated Greek authors into Latin, and applied his philological craft to the standard Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible from Greek. The resulting Annotationes on the New Testament indirectly became his most influential work. In 1505 Erasmus discovered a manuscript version of it, and it then formed the critical model for Erasmus's translation, which printing presses quickly spread throughout Europe.

Valla promoted celebrated literary squabbles to the end of his life. Erasmus acknowledged Valla's pioneer scholarship; early Protestants acclaimed his blunt attacks on the medieval Church's legacy. He stood out among humanists and merits lasting attention for his scrutiny of "authoritative" texts. He measured knowledge, both secular and religious, against the standards of classical achievement and examined the contexts for their development through the ages.


Further Reading on Lorenzo Valla

Christopher B. Coleman, ed. and trans., provides parallel Latin-English texts in The Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine (1922). Only fragmentary scholarship on Valla now exists in English. On his philosophy see Paul O. Kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (1964), and C. Trinkaus's commentary and brief translation in Ernst Cassirer and others, eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (1948; 2d ed. 1963).