Valla, Lorenzo 1407–1457 Italian Scholar and Humanist
Italian scholar and humanist
Lorenzo Valla, a central figure of the humanist* movement in Italy, focused his attention chiefly on the subjects of religion and language. Valla's writings greatly advanced the study of classical* Latin, the language of ancient Rome. They also encouraged the re-examination of many religious traditions dating from the late Middle Ages.
Born to a minor noble family in Rome, Valla studied under many of the Greek and Latin scholars who served at the court of Pope Martin V. At the age of 20 Valla produced his first scholarly work, a comparison of the ancient Roman writers Cicero and Quintilian. Valla favored Quintilian's detailed, grammar-based approach to rhetoric*. However, his support of Quintilian angered followers of Cicero, including the scholar Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio became a lifelong critic of Valla and influenced the pope not to employ him in his Curia (the body that aided the pope in governing the Roman Catholic Church).
Valla took up a career teaching rhetoric. He spent time in several Italian cities, including Naples, where he served at the court of Alfonso of Aragon, king of Naples and Sicily. There he completed one of his major works, The Elegances of the Latin Language (printed in 1471, after his death). This text analyzed the Latin tongue in detail and praised its immense variety. Valla stressed the importance of Latin as the basis for Europe's high level of civilization. He claimed that recovering the language in its ancient form would revive cultures that had fallen into decay during the Middle Ages. This emphasis on language has led some scholars to call Valla the founder of philology*.
In 1439 Valla completed the first version of another work on language that would come to be known as the Dialectica. This text challenged the views of the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle, whose works had formed the basis of scholarship throughout the Middle Ages. Aristotle's philosophy had centered on abstract ideas such as "the good" and "the true." Valla, by contrast, focused on the concept of verba et res, or words and things. Thus, his work made grammar and rhetoric central to the study of philosophy. The Dialectica greatly influenced many later humanists, including Angelo Poliziano and Desiderius Erasmus.
The following year Valla issued two works attacking powerful church institutions. The first revealed that the Donation of Constantine, an ancient document used by the papacy* to defend its political powers, was actually a forgery. The second criticized the idea that members of religious orders had a better claim to salvation than ordinary Christians. Outrage over these works caused Pope Eugenius IV to ban Valla from Rome and investigate him for heresy*. Valla made a formal apology to the pope and earned the right to return to Rome in 1447. That same year, Eugenius died and the humanist Nicholas V became the new pope. Nicholas welcomed Valla back to his beloved Rome and showered him with honors and church offices. Valla remained in Rome until his death, writing texts on religion and translations of ancient Greek works.
- * humanist
referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * classical
in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome
- * rhetoric
art of speaking or writing effectively
- * philology
scholarly study of language
- * papacy
office and authority of the pope
- * heresy
belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church