Lorenzo Valla - Humanist and Grammarian

Erudite and unmatched in his pursuit of scholarly activities, Valla is regarded by many historians to be the outstanding humanist scholar of the 15th century. His criticisms of sacred documents, coupled with his acerbic style and his arrogance, gained him the enmity of fellow humanists and religious officials. Nevertheless he managed to survive inquisitorial investigations and charges of heresy.

The impact of his writings reverberated into the next century. They continued to anger church officials but had a positive influence on humanists such as Erasmus and gained acceptance in Protestant circles. Valla received a humanistic education in the Rome of his birth and was well versed in Greek and classical Latin.

He was familiar with the works of Cicero and Quintilian but preferred the Latin style of the latter. Denied employment in the papal curia, he accepted a position in rhetoric at the university of Pavia. Because of controversy over his critique of Scholastic thought, he resigned after two years.

From there, he moved to the court of King Alfonso the Magnanimous of Naples, at that time a budding center of humanism. Valla was at the king’s Neapolitan court for several years, where he served as secretary and historian to Alfonso. He participated in humanistic discussions and literary disputes while working on a number of his most important treatises.

He moved to Rome at the invitation of the humanist pope Nicholas V in 1448. In Rome he presented the pope with Latin translations of Herodotus and Thucydides, continued his writing, and taught rhetoric. Valla ended his career in the service of Pope Calixtus III.

Several of his works demonstrate the range of his scholarship. On Pleasure, 1431, later amended and retitled On the True and False Good, contrasts Stoic, Christian, and Epicurean views on pleasure. A controversial work when it was written, it continues to arouse disagreement among historians.

His Elegances of the Latin Language extols the virtues of classical Latin and condemns medieval Latin as barbaric in grammar and style and unfit for use. The Elegances influenced the content of Renaissance Latin grammar manuals and helped to shape the nature of the studia humanitatis, the liberal arts curriculum of the Renaissance. It is recognized as a precursor of modern-day linguistic studies.

From the perspective of historical criticism, Valla’s most important treatise is his critique of the Donation of Constantine, a document that was supposedly issued by the Roman emperor Constantine that allegedly transferred temporal authority in the European west to the papacy.

Valla utilized his knowledge of history, geography, and Latin to demonstrate the existence of anachronisms in the document and declared it to be a forgery. He criticized other hallowed documents, including St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate and the Apostles’ Creed, which, he argued, had not been composed by the apostles. Valla also wrote a history of Alfonso’s father, King Ferdinand of Aragon. Shortly before his death in 1457, he composed an Encomium on St. Thomas Aquinas.