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Lorenzo Valla and the Donation of Constantine

Lorenzo (or Laurentius) Valla (1406 to August 1, 1457) was the son of a lawyer from Piacenza, near Milan in northern Italy. At the age of twenty-five, Valla entered the priesthood. He became a professor of eloquence at Pavia, and within two years he was a visiting professor at various universities. He lectured in various cities. At the age of 27 he was in Naples and the king of Naples, Alfonso V, made him his secretary.

Valla was another man of genius who was not going to be crushed or silenced. Before he was thirty, Valla acquired a reputation for two works: his dialogue De Voluptate (On Pleasure) and his treatise De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae. His dialogue on pleasure contrasted the views of the Stoics and the Epicureans, Valla siding with the Epicureans, although Stoicism was traditional among Christians. It was the first time a scholar in modern Europe had sided with Epicurus. With the Epicureans Valla was agreeing that it was okay for people to pursue their natural appetites and, moreover, that pursuing appetites was necessary for their well-being. Epicurus believed that people acquired virtue during that pursuit by having to make choices that fit with well-being. The traditional Christian view was Plato's: that pursuing appetites never produced real satisfaction, that happiness and well-being were achieved by self-denial and contemplating God and the immorality of one's soul. The Stoics were close if not identical to Plato regarding virtue. Virtue for the Stoics was not a means to anything; virtue was an end in itself, as was one's association with God's plan,. The two were inseparable. Valla was bringing morality down to earth, while he was presenting himself as a Christian and holding faith as a necessary ingredient in well-being.

Lorenzo Valla

Lorenzo Valla

Valla went on to be more troublesome regarding ideas. He held that Aristotle's logic was not a tool that led to knowledge. In Dialecticae disputationes contra Aristotelicos, Valla described Aristotle's logic as artificial constructions and as sophistry dependent on linguistic barbarism.

Valla's protector, King Alfonso, was also under attack for his opinions on theological issues, including denying that the Apostles' Creed was composed in succession by each of the twelve Apostles. A Church inquisition found Valla a heretic on eight counts, including his defense of Epicurus and his criticisms of Aristotle's categories. King Alfonso's personal intervention saved him from the stake.

Valla addressed the question of the Donation of Constantine, a document suspected of being inauthentic, a document that had been used by the Church since at least the 11th century to support the temporal power of the Papacy. It was supposedly dictated by the Emperor Constantine the Great, in the 4th century. It was supposed to grant popes, as inheritors of Saint Peter, dominion over lands in Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, Africa and the entire Western Roman Empire, while leaving Constantine with imperial authority in the Eastern Roman Empire. King Alfonso was interested in revealing the Donation of Constantine as a fraud because he was involved in a territorial dispute with the Papal States. Valla did some historical work and found the document using words that did not exist during the time of Constantine. Valla's essay began circulating in 1440, but was heavily rejected by the Church.

In 1444 Valla finished what has been called his masterwork, the six books of the Elegantiae Linguae Latinae, a philological defense of classical Latin of the ancient Romans. He described medieval and Church Latin as having been made clumsy.

In 1444 Valla visited Rome. There his enemies were numerous and powerful, and he saved his life by fleeing in disguise to Barcelona, and from there he returned to Naples.

A new pope from 1447, Nicholas V, was enthusiastic about the works and wisdom of the ancients. He employed Lorenzo Valla as a notary, and he employed hundreds of copyists and scholars. He wanted wholesale translations of Greek works, pagan as well as Christian, into Latin. Nicholas V founded a library of nine thousand volumes and contributed to a new intellectual expansion.

Into the 1500s, with the appearance of printing presses, Valla's works were available to a much wider audience, increasing his influence. His debunking of the Donation of Constantine was published in 1517, and it influenced Martin Luther.

Valla influenced that best known of 16th century humanists, Erasmus, who was some sixty years younger than Valla. Valla's investigations into the textual errors in the Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) spurred Erasmus to undertake the study of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus described Valla as having "refuted the stupidities of the barbarians," as having "saved half-buried letters from extinction," as having "restored Italy to her ancient splendor of eloquence" and as having "forced even the learned to express themselves henceforth with more circumspection."

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