- Valla, Lorenzo
- (1407-1457)Italian humanist, active mainly in Rome and Naples, often regarded as the ablest humanist scholar of the 15th century. He is remembered especially for his innovative approach to linguistic and textual criticism. He was critical of his fellow humanists, most of whom he regarded as incompetent, and en-gaged in many of the bitter personal feuds for which Italian human-ism is notorious. Valla was born in Rome, where his father was an of-ficial in the papal curia. His early education was under the direction of private tutors, but prominent curial humanists coached him, in-cluding Leonardo Bruni, the future Florentine chancellor, and Gio-vanni Aurispa, a prominent Hellenist. Later, Valla studied under Vit-torino da Feltre at Mantua.From the very beginning of his career, Valla seemed to have a knack for offending people and stirring up controversy. In an age when other humanists idolized Cicero, he wrote a book (1428) com-paring Cicero's Latin style unfavorably with that of the recently re-discovered works of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian. This brash act won for him the enduring hostility of the influential humanist Poggio Bracciolini. His treatise on moral philosophy, De voluptate / On Pleasure (1430) shocked readers by arguing that pleasure is the high-est goal of human life, a claim that made most readers regard him as a pagan and an Epicurean. When he taught at the University of Pavia in 1431-1433, his open contempt for the leading medieval commen-tators on Roman law infuriated the powerful law faculty and was the probable reason why he was not reappointed. He taught briefly at Mi-lan and Genoa and spent time in Florence, where he met some of Italy's leading humanists. He seems to have got along well with the Florentines, but he found no enduring place there. In fact (with good justification in some cases) he regarded most earlier and contempo-rary humanists as incompetent, and he was not at all shy about letting his opinions become known. He became involved in several of the vi-cious personal feuds which are one of the least attractive characteris-tics of Italian humanism. Before he was 30, he had gained a reputa-tion for arrogance and quarrelsomeness. He obviously thought himself brighter and more learned than any of his peers, and while he probably was right, making this opinion known through constant negative shots at others was not a way to promote his own ambition for recognition and reward.Valla's fortunes took a turn for the better when he entered the ser-vice of Alfonso of Aragon, king of Naples, in 1435. The years he spent at Naples (1435-1448) were the most productive period of his life. About 1437-1440 he completed the work that had the greatest influence on his own contemporaries, De elegantiis linguae latinae/ The Elegances of the Latin Language. This book was a practical guide to classical Latin style, vocabulary, usage, and grammar, im-mensely useful to all who wanted to develop a genuinely classical style of Latin. Its method was inductive, drawing on instances of ac-tual usage in ancient texts and basing its conclusions on ancient prac-tice. Elegances was a huge literary success. When printing was in-troduced into Italy, the book was printed early (1471) and often. By the time of the death of the Dutch humanist Erasmus in 1536, 59 edi-tions of this lengthy text had been published, not counting more than 50 editions of the widely used epitome or abridgment that Erasmus produced in 1529.In the long run, Elegances was even more important than contem-poraries realized because it was the most systematic statement of a linguistic principle that became the foundation of later Renaissance textual scholarship and all modern philology. Valla seems to have been the first person to realize clearly that language is a social prod-uct, undergoing constant change from generation to generation. This principle meant that the efforts of earlier humanists to write a vaguely "classical" Latin were inherently misguided, because they regarded the language written by authors separated by several centuries as one single language, and thus they wrote an eclectic jumble of words and usages that no ancient author had ever used. Instead, Valla insisted, the good stylist must focus attention on a single author, or at least on the authors of a single generation, and must confine vocabulary and grammatical practices to those used by the model generation. This idea of linguistic evolution, which is the foundation of all subsequent philological scholarship, explained why Valla found the Latin of his humanistic predecessors deficient.Valla's awareness of the constant changes that occur in any lan-guage over time made it possible for him to attain a new level of pro-ficiency in the critical evaluation of manuscripts and the philological reconstruction of ancient texts. It also set a standard by which corrupt texts and forgeries could be detected. Valla applied this philological approach to his editions of Latin authors and to translations of Greek authors such as Aesop's Fables, Xenophon's Cyropedia, and part of Homer's Iliad. The most famous application of Valla's philological criticism, however, was De falso credita et ementita Constantini do-natione declamatio / A Declamation on the False and Forged Dona-tion of Constantine (ca. 1440), a short treatise that was really in-tended to be a political tract defending his employer, the king of Naples, against the attempts of the pope to claim political overlordship over the kingdom of Naples. The papacy for centuries had cited the Donation of Constantine, which purported to record the gift of political overlordship over Rome and the whole Latin half of the Ro-man empire to Pope Sylvester I by the Emperor Constantine, as one of the major foundations for papal claims to political (rather than just spiritual) authority over the western half of the Roman empire. Valla's tract subjected this document to critical examination. He eas-ily demonstrated on grounds of law, political propriety, lack of con-temporary corroborating evidence, and (most important) linguistic analysis that the Donation of Constantine is a crude forgery that has no value at all as the legal foundation of a territorial and political claim by the pope. The papacy simply ignored his tract, continuing to cite the Donation until the early 19th century as if it were valid his-torical evidence. Since both King Alfonso and Valla himself soon set-tled their political quarrel with the pope, the text was not widely cir-culated. It was first printed in 1519 as part of a general attack on papal authority by the humanist Ulrich von Hutten. The book thus became Protestant propaganda reflecting negatively on the spiritual as well as the political claims of the papacy, a use that Valla himself never intended.One other product of Valla's insights into philology was a set of textual notes on the New Testament, in which he applied his thorough mastery of Greek to clarify obscure passages in the traditional Latin Vulgate text and to suggest corrections of what he regarded as obvi-ous errors in the Latin translation. This work attracted little attention among his contemporaries and remained unpublished. In 1504, how-ever, the Dutch humanist Erasmus discovered a manuscript copy in a monastic library, and he published it the next year. His study of Valla's Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum /Notes on the New Tes-tament was one of the influences that impelled Erasmus toward the preparation of his famous edition of the Greek New Testament.Valla was far more interested in philosophical and theological questions than most humanists of the early 15th century. His Dialec-ticae disputationes / Dialectical Disputations (1439) was an assault on the categories of Aristotle and his followers and hence a funda-mental attack on the underlying assumptions of medieval scholastic philosophy. The effect of his criticism was to shift emphasis from metaphysical issues to linguistic (especially rhetorical) ones. Also in 1439 Valla addressed a more specific philosophical issue in his Dia-logus de libero arbitrio /Dialogue on Free Will. Contrary to the pre-dominant opinion among scholastic theologians, he maintained that while humans can determine the outcome of secular affairs through reason, their actions cannot determine their eternal salvation, since this depends exclusively on faith and divine grace. In the 16th cen-tury, Martin Luther remarked favorably on Valla's opinions on free will and grace.Valla was a prolific author. In 1440 he published a tract, De pro-fessions religiosorum / On the Profession of the Religious, which challenged the idea that members of monastic communities had a bet-ter claim on salvation than laypersons. Also while still at Naples, he composed a History of King Ferdinand of Aragon (1446), his royal patron, and in a rebuttal to an attack on it by a rival Neapolitan hu-manist, Bartolomeo Facio, he produced an Antidotum to Facio which is mostly invective but contains a remarkable reconstruction of the text of Book Four of Livy's History of Rome.Valla had long desired appointment as a curial official. His reputa-tion for disputatiousness may have kept him from securing his de-sired position early in his career. The hostility of the influential hu-manist papal secretary Poggio may also have barred his way. His views on moral philosophy, assiduously misinterpreted as anti-Christian by his rivals, his unwelcome criticism of the monastic life, and his critical assessment of the Donation of Constantine, to say nothing of some theological and philosophical issues that brought him to the attention of the Neapolitan Inquisition, made Pope Euge-nius IV suspicious. The accession of the humanist Pope Nicholas V (1447-1555) opened the way for Valla's advancement. In 1448 the new pope invited him to Rome, initially as a lecturer at the pontifical university, then as a curial official. He was named a canon of St. John Lateran and in 1455 became an apostolic secretary, thus completing his rise to the upper ranks of the papal bureaucracy.After moving to Rome in 1448, Valla composed two "antidotes" to his most persistent and dangerous critic among contemporary hu-manists, Poggio, and two satirical dialogues. More significant was his inaugural lecture for his course at the papal university, which em-phasized the historic importance of the church as an agency in pre-serving Latin language and literature during the chaotic centuries af-ter the dissolution of the western Roman Empire. One of his last works, pronounced before members of the Dominican order at Rome, was Encomium Sancti Thomae Aquinatis / An Encomium of St. Thomas Aquinas (1457). In it, Valla praised the Dominican saint and theologian as a holy man but belittled his philosophical and theolog-ical work because it was based on the pagan philosopher Aristotle rather than on the Bible and the early Church Fathers. The most he would grant was that Aquinas was a man of great ability and had done remarkably well, considering the barbarous age into which he had the misfortune to be born.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.