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Lorenzo Valla

Humanist and philosopher, b. at Rome, 1405; d. there, Aug. 1, 1457

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Valla (DELLA VALLE), LORENZO, Humanist and philosopher, b. at Rome, 1405; d. there, August 1, 1457. His father came from Placentia. He studied Latin under Leonardo Bruni (Aretino) and Greek under Giovanni Aurispa. At the age of 24 he wished to obtain a position in the papal secretariate, but was considered too young. After his father’s death he accepted a chair of eloquence in the University of Pavia, where he wrote his treatise “De voluptate” (1431), an emended edition of which appeared later under the title, “De vero bono”. On account of his open letter attacking the jurist Bartolo (1433) and ridiculing the contemporary jurisprudence he was forced to leave Pavia. He went to Milan and later to Genoa, made another effort to succeed at Rome, and finally settled at Naples (1433), where he became secretary to Alfonso of Aragon, whose Court, frequented by the most distinguished writers, was a hotbed of licentiousness and debauchery. Lorenzo confesses that his life there, like his previous life, was not free from moral stain. At Naples he wrote “De libero arbitrio”, “Dialectiew disputationes”, “Declamazione contro la donazione di Constantino” (1440), “De professione religiosorum” (1442, not printed until by Vahlen in 1869). In 1444 he had a controversy with Fra Antonio da Bitonto on the question of the composition of the Apostles’ Creed by each of the Apostles. His philosophical and theological elucubrations caused him to be tried for heresy by the Curia at Naples, but the trial was discontinued through the intervention of King Alfonso. His standard work is “De elegantia linguae latinae”, which first placed the study of Latin on a scientific basis. He had labored on it from 1435, and in 1444 it was published through the indiscretion of Aurispa. The Humanists who preceded him had formed their Latin style rather empirically, and consequently had admitted many constructions peculiar to popular Latin. Though Valla had refrained from personalities, all the literary writers considered his work a provocation, and hurled invectives against the author. This controversy is one of the most unpleasant pages in the history of the Italian Renaissance. The fiercest aggressor was Poggio Bracciolini, who did not confine himself to pointing out errors of style in Valla’s works, but accused him of the most degrading vices. Valla’s no less virulent answers are collected in his. “Invectivarum libri sex”. Poggio’s invectives could not but cre-ate a bad impression at Rome; as Valla still hoped to obtain a position in the Curia, he wrote an “Apologia ad Eugenio IV”, excusing himself for his faults and promising amendment. But it was only after the election of Nicholas V that he found favor (1448), obtaining first the position of scriptor, and later of Apostolic secretary. Callistus III bestowed on him a canonry in St. John Lateran, which he was able to hold but for a few years. By order of Nicholas V he translated various Greek authors.

His philosophical and theological works are interesting. In his “Disputazioni dialettiche” he bitterly opposes Aristotle and the Scholastics, but he treats his subjects superficially, and rather as a grammarian than as a philosopher. He made no positive contribution to philosophy, but only helped to discredit Scholasticism. His most discussed work is the dialogue “De voluptate”. In this Leonardo Bruni (Arentino) defends the Stoic doctrine that a life conformed to nature is the summum bonum; Antonio Beccadelli (Panormita) strongly favors Epicureanism, declaring that the desire of pleasure is to be restrained only lest it might be an obstacle to a greater pleasure and that continence is contrary to nature; finally, Niccolo Niccoli speaks against both in favor of. Christian hedonism, holding that perpetual happiness is the summum bonum, and that virtue is practiced only as a means of attaining it. It is uncertain whether Beccadelli or Niccoli (who is declared victor by the onlookers) expresses Valla’s personal opinion. It would seem that he had not then (1431) come to a definitive opinion. He confines himself to expounding the three opinions, but gives Epicureanism the most ardent and eloquent defender. The way in which his “Apologia” extenuates what had been said in “De voluptate”, arguing on the meaning of the Latin word voluptas, shows that he was undecided.

In the “Declamazione contro la donazione di Costantino”, probably inspired by Alfonso, who was at war with Eugene IV for possession of the Kingdom of Naples, Valla exhorted the Romans to rebel and their leaders to deprive the pope of his temporal power, which he deems the cause of all the evils then afflicting Italy. The “Annotazioni sul testo latino del Nuovo Testamento” deals chiefly with the Latinity, and less frequently with the translation itself. In the “De professione religiosorum” he denies that the religious state is the most perfect as there is greater merit in acting spontaneously than in fulfilling what one is obliged to do by vow, and he taxes the monks with arrogance for calling themselves religious, as if other Christians were not so; he refrains, however, from trying to discredit them by relating salacious stories as the other Humanists delighted in doing. In the “De libero arbitrio” he concedes that the foreknowledge of God is not incompatible with free will, but maintains that our intellects are unable to comprehend this truth. Valla first gave expression to many ideas that were taken up later, especially by the reformers. Like the other Humanists of his age he lacked firmness of character.


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