Valla, Lorenzo

views updated May 14 2018


Italian humanist; b. Rome, 1407; d. Rome, 1457. After study in Rome, he taught eloquence at the University of Pavia (142933). He was ordained in 1431. In 1437 he became the secretary of King Alfonso V of Aragon and of Sicily, who eventually made good his claim to the throne of Naples also (1442). Finally, Valla was appointed apostolic secretary in 1448 under Pope nicholas v. Valla belongs, essentially, to the second stage in the evolution of humanism. C. salutati, L. Bruni, and the other early followers of petrarch had already enthusiastically tested in their own works the basic principles of the new movement, mainly the belief that ancient literature was an invaluable help in the attainment of a moral and Christian life. The time had come to defend this new Christian culture against the many forms of opposition arising from traditional asceticism and from the late sterile scholasticism still prevailing in the schools. Valla brought to this battle a pugnacious character and a pride that often became arrogant and quarrelsome.

With the revival of classicism and the new appreciation for moral values, stoicism seemed to be accepted with increasing favor by humanists. But Valla understood that Christian life consists of the pursuit of happiness, not of virtue as an end in itself, and he did not miss the occasion to set forth the apparently scandalous doctrine that epicureanism, insofar as it asserts that man's goal is pleasure and that virtue is only a means to achieve happiness, is much more in agreement with Christian philosophy. And thus, in Valla's philosophical dialogue De voluptate (On Praise of Pleasure, 1431), L. Bruni and A. Beccadelli respectively are made to present the Stoic and Epicurean theses in their extreme forms. Then in the third book, N. Niccoli is made to enunciate the Christian doctrine that virtue expects a reward and that pleasure and happiness (voluptas ) are the goals of human and Christian life. All three contrasting views are rather clumsily exaggerated by Valla's pen. But certainly there is no ground for attributing personally to Valla the views expressed by Beccadelli, and thus presenting the De voluptate as evidence for the centuries-old prejudice that the renaissance was steeped in paganism.

The true measure of Valla's ability is to be found in his philological and linguistic studies. His Elegantiarum latinae linguae libri sex (On the Beauties of the Latin Language, 1444) is one of the best expressions of the new sense of classicism that humanism was opposing to the corrupted taste and the arduous rhetorical technicalities of the Latin of Middle Ages. The same polemical spirit had earlier inspired Valla's Dialecticae disputationes (Dialectical Disputations, 1439). But in trying to attack the many abstract terms used in logic, such as "being" (ens ), "essence," or "substance," Valla proved his knowledge of dialectics to be poor, for he stated that the term "being" is the same as "thing" (res ) and that there is no difference between "the-act-of-being" (esse ) and "essence." By the same totally superficial deduction, Valla asserted that persona means "property" or "quality" and went on to argue that the three Persons of the Holy Trinity correspond to a "triple divine quality" (triple qualitas divina ), a conclusion the Reformation was later to exploit. But these individual propositions should not be assumed to represent Valla's vital thinking: they were rather the result of a clumsy incursion into the field of dialectics. The same holds true for his treatise De libero arbitrio (On Free Will), in which Valla stressed (in opposition to Boethius and the scholastics) the transcendence of the divine Will; this work was later praised by Martin Luther because of its Pauline implications.

Valla's Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum (Notes on the New Testament), which found some favor among Protestants, has been considered by modern historians as one of the first manifestations of the free examination of Sacred Scripture. Valla made a collation of a limited number of good manuscripts (thus initiating textual criticism of the Bible in the Catholic Church) but despite the encouragement and help of such men as nicholas of cusa and Cardinal bessarion, the achievements of the collation were objectively rather slight. The author's tendency to correct the text according to a standard of classical style proved unprofitable in this case. The system itself and Valla's clear assertions prove that he was very far from aiming at establishing the principle of personal interpretation of Scripture, as has often been assumed.

On behalf of King Alfonso, Valla embarked on a bitter attack against Pope eugene iv, notably with his work De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio (On the False donation of constantine, 1440), which demonstrated the spurious quality of that document, on which the Church had in large part based its claim to a temporal dominion (see states of the church). For centuries this work of Valla was taken as the manifesto of humanism's critical spirit of investigation; but in fact, it was only a professional plea in favor of Valla's protector as he struggled to gain Naples. As such, the attack was forgiven, and Pope Nicholas V made Valla apostolic secretary in 1448.

Bibliography: Works. Opera (Basel 1540); De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione, ed. and tr. c. b. coleman (New Haven 1922); Adnotationes in New Testament, ed. d. erasmus (Basil 1526); De libero arbitrio, ed. m. anfossi (Florence 1934) and tr. c. e. trinkaus in e. cassirer et al., eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago 1948; pa. 1956); Historiarum Ferdinandi Regis Aragoniae libri tres (Rome 1520); Scritti filosofici e religiosi, ed. g. radetti (Florence 1953). Literature. g. mancini, Vita di L. Valla (Florence 1891). r. sabbadini, Cronologia della vita del Panormita e del Valle (Florence 1891). c. e. trinkaus, Adversity's Noblemen: The Italian Humanists on Happiness (New York 1940). e. garin, L'Umanesimo italiano: Filosofia e vita civile nel Rinascimento (Bari 1952). r. r. bolgar, The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries (Cambridge, Eng. 1954). f. gaeta, L. Valla: Filologia e storia nell 'umanesimo italiano (Naples 1955). r. montano, "L. Valla" in Letteratura italiana: I minori, 2 v. (Milan 1961) 1:569586. p. o. kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (Stanford 1964) 1936.

[r. montano]

Lorenzo Valla

views updated May 18 2018

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

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). □