Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: Lorenzo Valla, "Correspondence"

Lorenzo Valla: Correspondence. Edited and translated by Brendan Cook. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 60. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674724679. xxii + 417 pp.

Valla was a 15th-century humanist author, whose work seems to fall mostly in the area of philosophy and classical philology. I had read a couple of his books before — first his debunking of the Donation of Constantine and, more recently, his Dialectical Disputations. I enjoyed the former quite a bit, the latter not so much as it was too technical for me, but even in that book I couldn't help feeling that he has a knack for writing in an engaging and enjoyable manner whenever he stepped away for a moment from the more technical philosophical stuff.

So it is perhaps not surprising that I also enjoyed the present volume, containing his correspondence, more than the similar volumes of letters from earlier in the I Tatti Renaissance Library — those of Angelo Poliziano and Bartolomeo Fonzio.

Unlike some of the other humanists, he doesn't seem to have taken any steps to systematically preserve his letters or edit them for publication, so what we have in this volume is a relatively small and more or less random subset of things he had written over a period of many years. One thing that I particularly liked is that it also includes letters to him, not just from him, and in a few cases we are even so lucky that a letter and a reply to it have both been preserved and are included here.


In terms of subject-matter, the letters here cover relatively similar topics as in the previously mentioned volumes by other authors. One frequent topic are Valla's writings and other people's reactions to them; sometimes he sends copies of manuscripts to others, sometimes other people ask for such copies, etc. “I have just finished my book On Dialectic and Philosophy, which none will criticize save those few that regret wasting their time on dialectic.” (#11, p. 67.) I must admit that while reading that book of his I did think that the whole subject is a bit of a waste of time :P

Another topic is business, with Valla writing to current or prospective patrons (#9), sucking up to popes (#5) and cardinals (“I am currently exhausted from writing three letters to as many cardinals today”, 40.1, p. 213), and occasionally writing letters of recommendation on behalf of other people (often impressively glowing ones; #27, 42, 49, 53).

There are a couple of interesting letters (#22, 25) where Valla wants to return to Rome for a visit (he grew up there but later moved to Naples, where he worked for king Alfonso) and is asking for a safe conduct from the pope — apparently his debunking of the Donation of Constantine pissed off the church quite a bit and he was worried that they might prosecute him if he entered the Papal State. But this scandal calmed down after the death of pope Eugenius (p. 330), and we later find Valla living in Rome and evidently on quite good terms with the popes. I guess there was no such thing as tenure back then; there's a letter from Valla to a papal official, asking for clarification whether his teaching job in Rome got cancelled by the pope or not (#50, p. 249).

Due to his reputation as a philologist, people occasionally approached him with questions, leading to some of the more interesting letters in this book. See e.g. #19 with Valla's translation and explanation of a Greek inscription from Naples.


One particularly prominent topic of his correspondence, which is not present to the same extent in the aforementioned volumes by other authors, are his quarrels, which he seems to have been somewhat notorious for. He was by all accounts a very brilliant Latinist, but he also seems to have had a disappointingly strong urge to not only be right, but to prove other people wrong, and to do that in a needlessly combative manner.

“I send you this little work which I have just completed; the subject is canon law and theology, though it contradicts all canonists and all theologians.” (#12, p. 71.)

“Meanwhile I have written on dialectic with the object of humiliating Boethius, among others. [. . .] I criticize Priscian, Servius, Donatus [etc. etc. etc.] — no one escapes.” (17.1, pp. 109–11.)

Probably the longest letter in this volume is #13, in which Valla attempts some sort of self-defense. He argues that he is just criticizing incompetent (mostly recent) authors who deserve it, while upholding the authority of good (mostly ancient) authors; that the ancients themselves did the same — pointing out the errors of their predecessors if there was a good argument for it, etc. But clearly he is one of those who believe that the best defense is a good offense, and he goes all-out on his hapless victims: “[. . .] not one of those I mention can be numbered among even the modestly learned” (13.8, p. 81); later he calls them the “dregs of humanity” (13.10, p. 83) and lists a large number of them by name. “If they [= the ancients] were to rise from the dead and return to life, I think they would be much more savage than I am in correcting these persons who stray needlessly from the footsteps of the ancients” (13.9, p. 83).

Another fine example of his brazen approach to self-defense: “I will readily confess, and actually accuse myself, of giving the appearance of sparing neither man nor god, as Lactantius says of Lucian. Anyone who wants to criticize me will in consequence not lack for material.” (25.2, p. 163.)

One of the few instances in this volume where we have a letter and a reply to it are #29A–30. A humanist named Lauro Quirini took issue with Valla's tendency to denigrate all sorts of earlier authors, and even had the guts to ask Valla for copies of his works so he could scrutinize them further. Valla replies with a hefty dose of rage and concludes by pointing out mistakes in Quirini's letter: “we say ‘on the Ides,’ not ‘on the First Ides.’ I omit your other barbarisms and solecisms. Again farewell.” (30.3, p. 187.)

After all these examples, I had a hard time believing Valla when he says: “I should prefer, in fact, to be and seem a good man than a learned one.” (51.3, p. 265.)

While reading this book, I was often reminded of the famous line from The Big Lebowski: you're not wrong, you're just an asshole. We often find him having quarrels with people that used to be his friends, e.g. Panormita (see #18, Valla even includes two scurrilous poems against him), then Antonio da Rho (pp. 115–9), and later Poggio Bracciolini. The last of these quarrels was particularly intense, with both Poggio and Valla writing invectives against each other. There's an interesting letter from Francesco Filelfo (#51A), who tried to mediate between them and pointed out, very reasonably, how unseemly it is for two grey-haired intellectuals to be bashing each other like that (51A.3, p. 269). There are also a couple of letters (#3A, 17A) from Maffeo Vegio, urging Valla towards moderation: “why do you consider it so important to prolong your grudges, why do you find so much beauty in strife?” (17A.5, p. 119.)


On a less important note, an interesting recurring feature of these letters are comments or complaints about the people that were carrying them. Clearly there was no regular postal service yet in Valla's day, so people like him had to rely on messengers, acquaintances travelling to the destination city, etc. See e.g. #2E (p. 31: “Such is the unreliability, or at least the carelessness, of those disgraceful couriers”), 10.1 (p. 65), 15.2 (p. 103), #29 (p. 177: “to be brief, with the messenger waiting and urging me to hurry up”), 33A.1 (p. 193: “I had resolved to write to you whenever I found a messenger making the journey to your parts”), #50A bis (p. 255: “the messenger is just about to depart, and he has made a nuisance of himself demanding this letter once again”).

An interesting factoid from the translator's notes, p. 385: at some point Valla translated Homer's Iliad into Latin, but changed it “from poetry into the sort of prose associated with the Roman orators”. What a very odd idea; I never had a good opinion of people who translate poetry into prose (which sadly includes a lot of translators in the ITRL series!).

In one letter he complains about “my head, which aches from the wind” (31.1, p. 189). The translator adds in the notes: “Valla is suffering from a colpo d'aria, an ailment unknown outside Italy” (p. 388). I hadn't heard of this phrase before (I see that the wiktionary explains it as “a cold, speficially one caused by bad weather or cold air”), but I am surprised that the translator says it's unknown outside of Italy. The belief that drafts of air can cause cold or headaches seems to be unknown in the English-speaking countries but is widespread in many parts of Europe, as can be seen from e.g. frequent reddit threads on this topic: 1, 2, 3. From what I understand, there is supposed to be no medical foundation for this, but even knowing this there seems to be some sort of negative placebo (nocebo?) effect at work here, such that being exposed to a draft does actually give me a headache, and I wouldn't be surprised if it gave me a cold as well.

A fine contribution to the ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ category, from a letter from Niccolò Perotti to Valla (43A.1, p. 219): “I may declare with Cicero in his letter to Brutus that ‘I regard epistles as Aristophanus did the iambics of Archilochus: the longer the better.’ ”

It's funny to see what sort of things the popes used to have to deal with. There's a letter from Valla to a papal official, complaining about his living arrangements in Rome: “when I had you intercede with the Holy Father on my behalf, I did so in the hope that you would also get for me the kitchen next to the two smaller chambers [. . .] The beadle is keeping this room for a certain fellow who actually sleeps in the kitchen” etc. etc. (46.2, p. 235). In another letter, this time directly to the pope, Valla is asking for help in assigning a guardian to his orphaned cousins (48.1, p. 243).

In a letter from Niccolò Perotti to Valla, there's an interesting anecdote (52 bis A.2, p. 299) about a certain Tisias who studied rhetoric with Corax and promised him a huge payment if (and only if) he won his first case in court. Corax then sued him, arguing: ‘if I win, he must pay me because the court will have ordered him to; if I lose, he must pay me because this is his first case and he will have won it’. Tisias defended himself along the lines of ‘if I win, I don't have to pay him anything because this is what the case is about and I just won it; but if I lose, I don't have to pay him because our deal was that I pay him only if I win my first case’. A nice paradox, but I particularly liked the court's reply: “A bad egg comes from a bad crow” (p. 301). I was reminded a little of that old xkcd comic where one guard always lies, one always tells the truth, and one “stabs people who ask tricky questions” :))


I think this is definitely the most interesting volume of letters I've read in the ITRL series so far.

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