Lorenzo Valla

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Lorenzo Valla

Lorenzo (or Laurentius) Valla (Italian pronunciation: [loˈrɛnt͡so ˈvalːa]; c.1407 – 1 August 1457) was an Italian humanist, rhetorician, educator and Catholic priest. He is best known for his textual analysis that proved that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery.

Early life[edit]

Valla was born in Rome. His family was from Piacenza; his father, Luciave della Valla, was a lawyer who worked at the papal court. Lorenzo was educated in Rome, attending the classes of eminent teachers, among them Leonardo Bruni and Giovanni Aurispa, from whom he learned Latin and Greek.[1]

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.[1]

Latin stylistics[edit]

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 (On Pleasure), 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.[1]

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.[1] 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[edit]

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, which analyzed the document known as the Constitutum Constantini (or "donatio Constantini" as he refers to it in his writings), or the Donation of Constantine. 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. Valla demonstrated that it 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.[2] 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. This would have obviously discounted Pepin the Short's own Donation of Pepin, which consigned to the Church the Lombard holdings north of Rome.

Valla was motivated to reveal the Donation of Constantine as a fraud by his patron of the time, Alfonso V of Aragon, who was involved in a territorial conflict with the Papal States, then under Pope Eugene IV.[citation needed] The Donation of Constantine had often been cited to support the temporal power of the Papacy, since at least the 11th century. Valla’s work in disproving the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine could be used to weaken or possibly negate the Church's authority and claim over the territory. 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.

Textual criticism[edit]

As a specialist of Latin translation, he made countless suggestions to improve upon Petrarch's study of Livy.[3] The emendation of Livy was also a topic discussed in book IV of his Antidotum in Facium, an invective against Bartolomeo Facio. In this part of the treatise, which also circulated independently under the title Emendationes in T. Livium, Valla elucidates numerous corrupt passages and criticises the attempts at emendation made by Panormita and Facio, his rivals at the court of Alfonso the Magnanimous.[4]

In his critical study of the official bible used by the Roman Catholic church, Jerome's Latin Vulgate, Valla called into question the church's system of penance and indulgences. He argued that the practice of penance rested on Jerome's use of the Latin word paenitenia (penance) for the Greek metanoia, which he believed would have been more accurately translated as "repentance." Valla's work was praised by later critics of the Church's penance and indulgence system, including Erasmus.[5]

Biographies and critical esteem[edit]

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.[1]

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."[1] 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 Elegantiae linguae Latinae was reprinted nearly sixty times between 1471 and 1536.[1]

  • Opera omnia, Basel 1540; reprinted with a second volume (Turin: Bottega d'Erasmo, 1962).
  • Repastinatio dialectice et philosophie, ed. G. Zippel, 2 vols. (First critical edition of the three versions: Padua: Antenore, 1982).
  • Elegantiae linguae Latinae, Venice 1471, edited by S. López Moreda (Cáceres: Universidad de Extremadura, 1999).
  • De vero falsoque bono, edited by M. de Panizza Lorch, Bari, 1970.
  • Collatio Novi Testamenti, edited by A. Perosa (Florence: Sansoni, 1970).
  • De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione, ed. W. Setz (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1976; reprinted Leipzig: Teubner, 1994).
  • Ars Grammatica, ed. P. Casciano with Italian translation (Milan: Mondadori, Fondazione Lorenzo Valla, 1990).
  • On the Donation of Constantine. The I Tatti Renaissance Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  • Dialectical Disputations. The I Tatti Renaissance Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, London, 2012).
  • Correspondence, ed. Cook, Brendan. The I Tatti Renaissance Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013).

English translations[edit]

  • On the donation of Constantine translated by G. W. Bowersock, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Dialogue on Free Will, translated by C. Trinkaus. In: 'The Renaissance Philosophy of Man', edited by Ernst Cassirer et al., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.
  • The profession of the religious and selections from The falsely-believed and forged donation of Constantine translated, and with an introduction and notes, by Olga Zorzi Pugliese, Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1998.
  • De vero falsoque bono translated by A. K. Hieatt and M. Lorch, New York: Abaris Books 1977.
  • In Praise of Saint Thomas Aquinas, translated by M. E. Hanley. In Renaissance Philosophy, ed. L. A. Kennedy, Mouton: The Hague, 1973.
  • Dialectical Disputations, Latin text and English translation of the Repastinatio by B. P. Copenhaver and L. Nauta, Harvard University Press, 2012 (I Tatti Renaissance Library, two volumes).


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Chisholm 1911.
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-05-17. Retrieved 2008-08-01. 
  3. ^ See especially Giuseppe Billanovich, 'Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy', in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes XIV (1951), pp. 137-208.
  4. ^ For a critical edition, see Lorenzo Valla, Antidotum in Facium, ed. M. Regoliosi, Padua 1981, pp. 327-370.
  5. ^ Prosser, Peter E. (2001). "Church history's biggest hoax: Renaissance scholarship proved fatal for one of the medieval papacy's favorite claims". Christian History. 20 (Journal Article): 35–. ISSN 0891-9666.  – via General OneFile (subscription required)


Further reading[edit]

For detailed accounts of Valla's life and work see:

  • G. Voigt, Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums (1880–81);
  • John Addington 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).
  • John Edwin Sandys, Hist. of Class. Schol. ii. (1908), pp. 66‑70.
  • Lisa Jardine, "Lorenzo Valla and the Intellectual Origins of Humanist Dialectic," Journal of the History of Philosophy 15 (1977): 143-64.
  • Maristella de Panizza Lorch, A defense of life: Lorenzo Valla's theory of pleasure., Humanistische Bibliothek 1/36, Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1985, ISBN 978-3-7705-2193-7
  • Peter Mack, Renaissance Argument: Valla and Agricola in the Traditions of Rhetoric and Dialectic, Leiden ; New York : E.J. Brill, 1993.
  • Paul Richard Blum, "Lorenzo Valla - Humanism as Philosophy", Philosophers of the Renaissance, Washington 2010, 33-42.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Christopher S. Celenza, "Lorenzo Valla and the Traditions and Transmissions of Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Ideas 66 (2005): 483-506.
  • Lodi Nauta, In Defense of Common Sense: Lorenzo Valla's Humanist Critique of Scholastic Philosophy, Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Byrne, Phillipa (2013). "'Cast out into the hellish night': Pagan Virtue and Pagan Poetics in Lorenzo Valla's De voluptate" (PDF). Ex Historia. 5: 48–73. ISSN 2041-0824. 

External links[edit]