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Lorenzo (or Laurentius) Valla (c.1407 – 1 August 1457) was an Italian humanist, rhetorician, and educator. He is best known for his textual analysis that proved that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. In this he demonstrated that the document known as the Constitutum Constantini (or "donatio Constantini" as he refers to it in his writings), or the Donation of Constantine, 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. 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. 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. 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 of Aragon, who was involved in a territorial conflict with the Papal States, then under Pope Eugene IV. 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 proving the Donation of Constantine to be a forgery was written at the behest of his patron, Alfonso V of Aragon. Alfonso was in conflict with the Papal States over disputed territory and Valla’s work could be used to weaken or possibly negate the Church’s authority and claim over the territory. Valla did not expose the donation out of any hatred of Christianity however. He was a Christian himself after all; he simply wished to expose the leaders of the Church who he felt had been gaining too much power and were beginning to act more as sovereigns than religious officials.
In his most famous work, De Falso Credita et Ementita Constantini Donatione, Valla proves the donation of Constantine to be false and deceitful. He does so by comparing the document philologically to surviving documents from the time of Constantine to show that the language used in the document does not match with the language used as the time of in which the Donation of Constantine was supposedly written. Valla also points out a number of logical impossibilities that exist within the document.
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.
From Naples, Valla continued his philological work. He showed that the supposed letter of Christ to Abgarus was a forgery, and by throwing doubt upon the authenticity of other spurious documents, and by questioning the utility of monastic life, he aroused the anger of some of the faithful. He was compelled to appear before a tribunal composed of his enemies, and he only escaped by the special intervention of Alfonso. He was not, however, silenced; he ridiculed the Latin of the Vulgate and accused St Augustine of heresy. In 1444 he visited Rome, but in this city also his enemies were numerous and powerful, and he only saved his life by fleeing in disguise to Barcelona, whence he returned to Naples. But a better fortune attended him after the death of Eugene IV in February 1447. Again he journeyed to Rome, where he was welcomed by the new pope, Nicholas V, who made him an apostolic secretary. This entrance of Valla into the Roman Curia has been called "the triumph of humanism over orthodoxy and tradition."
On March 7, the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas the studium generale of the Dominican Order at Rome, the future Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum, invited Valla to deliver the annual encomium of the "angelic doctor," pressing him not only to praise but also to voice humanist criticism of scholastic thomism.
Valla also enjoyed the favour of Pope Calixtus III.
One of Valla's most remarkable achievements lay in his emendations of Latin texts. He made countless suggestions for better readings in his manuscript of Livy's Ab urbe condita, which, in the previous century, had belonged to Petrarch, who, likewise had inserted emendations. 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.
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. 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." 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 De Elegantiis was reprinted nearly sixty times between 1471 and 1536.
For detailed accounts of Valla's life and work see: