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Valla was born in Rome, with a family background of Piacenza; his father, Luciave della Valla, was a lawyer who worked in the Papal Curia. He was educated in Rome, attending the classes of teachers including Leonardo Bruni and Giovanni Aurispa, from whom he learned Latin and Greek. He is thought otherwise to have been largely self-taught.
Bruni was a papal secretary; Melchior Scrivani, Valla's uncle, was another. But Valla had caused offence, to Antonio Loschi, and by championing the rhetorician Quintilian in an early work. In 1431, Valla entered the priesthood and tried in vain to secure a position as apostolic secretary. He was unsuccessful, despite his network of contacts.
Valla went to Piacenza, and then to Pavia, where he obtained a professorship of eloquence. His tenure at Pavia was made uncomfortable by his attack on the Latin style of the jurist Bartolus de Saxoferrato. He became itinerant, moving from one university to another, accepting short engagements and lecturing in many cities.
Older biographies of Valla give details of many literary and theological disputes, the most prominently one with Gianfrancesco Poggio Bracciolini, which took place after his settlement in Rome. Extreme language was employed. He appears as quarrelsome, combining humanistic elegance with critical wit and venom, and an opponent of the temporal power of the Catholic Church.
Luther had a high opinion of Valla and of his writings, and Robert Bellarmine called him "Luther's precursor". Erasmus stated in his De ratione studii that for Latin grammar, there was "no better guide than Lorenzo Valla."
Valla demonstrated that the internal evidence in the Donation told against a 4th-century origin: its vernacular style could be dated to the 8th century. Valla argued this thesis in three ways:
By stating that the Emperor Constantine could not have legally given Pope Sylvester the powers that the Donation claimed.
From the absence of contemporary evidence, Valla reasoned that it was implausible that a major change in the administration of the Western Roman Empire had taken place.
Valla doubted that Emperor Constantine had gifted Pope Sylvester anything at all, suggesting a mistake involving an earlier Pope.
Supplementing these points, Valla argued from anachronism: the document contained the word satrap, which he believed Romans such as Constantine I would not have used. In addition, Valla believes that the quality of Latin for such a supposedly important text was undeniably poor, evidencing this by the fact that the text constantly switched tenses from "we have proclaimed" to "we decree", for instance.
A specialist in Latin translation, Valla made numerous suggestions for improving on Petrarch's study of Livy. 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 V.
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.
Valla made a contemporary reputation with two works: his dialogue De Voluptate and his treatise De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae. Richard Claverhouse Jebb said that his De Elegantiis "marked the highest level that had yet been reached in the critical study of Latin."
"On Pleasure". In this work he contrasted the principles of the Stoics unfavourably with the tenets of Epicurus, showing sympathy for the natural appetites.
Version of 1433 as De vero bono (On the true good).
Repastinatio dialectice et philosophie
A logic text
A traditional title was Dialectica, or Dialecticae disputationes. Second version Reconcinnatio totius dialecticae et fundamentorum universalis philosophiae 1439 to 1448, printed in the Omnia Opera of 1540, third version Retractatio totius dialectice cum fundamentii universe philosophie, to 1457. He also concluded that Valla had reintroduced to the Latin West a type of argument that had fallen into disuse.
De falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione declamatio
On the Donation of Constantine.
In the Opera Omnia (Basle) as Contra Donationis, quae Constantini dicitur, privilegia, ut falso creditum declamatio. It was completely rejected by the Church. It was not formally published until 1517, became popular among Protestants, and an English translation was published for Thomas Cromwell in 1534.
Found by Erasmus in 1504, in Leuven, who published it in 1505.Collation Novi Testamenti (1447). Revised in the 1450s.
Collected editions, of Valla's works, not quite complete, were published at Basel in 1540 and at Venice in 1592, and Elegantiae linguae Latinae was reprinted nearly sixty times between 1471 and 1536.
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).
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).
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, ISBN978-3-7705-2193-7
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.