By Everett Harbaugh
Lorenzo Valla. Not exactly a household name, but relatively well known in certain circles. He’s most known for his work titled Treatise on the Donation of Constantine, a scathing criticism of The Donation of Constantine. This work detailed how Constantine gifted the entire western half of the Roman empire to Sylvester I, the bishop of Rome (the Pope). It was regarded as absolute truth, validating the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal authority over Europe.
Lorenzo Valla, a literary critic and Latin language expert, decided to dig into this work a bit. He criticized the grammar, claiming too many words in the book weren’t accurate to the time the church claimed The Donation had been written. Along with this, there were locations and specific roads that were mentioned that hadn’t been built or existed at the time The Donation was written. This is enough evidence to convince me that the book is probably a forgery, but his last piece of evidence is the most convincing to the Renaissance reader. He claims that Constantine wouldn’t have given half of the empire that he’d spent most of his life gathering away. That’s ridiculous, Valla claims. No man that’s built an empire gives it away, certainly not half of it. This prompted the Catholic church to condemn the work, giving Valla the answer he desired.
Now, my first thought after reading this was, to quote, “so, how long was he alive before the church assassinated him.” So, I fell down the metaphorical rabbit hole, trying to find out how this man died. I couldn’t find anything. The most I got was from the Encyclopedia Britannica, which said he died on August 1st, 1457, a few months after giving a speech celebrating the anniversary of Thomas Aquinas (7th March). He was supposed to deliver an encomium, but instead railed against the saint’s writings. Nothing further than that is written about his death. I’ve poured over tome after tome to no avail. Everything only gives the date of his death. For context, I looked up a few of Valla’s peers, to see if anything about their deaths was written. Poggio Bracciolini, Valla’s enemy, has two paragraphs written about his death on a few different websites. What about Valla’s death caused it to be so shrouded in mystery?
Personally, the romantic inside me wants to believe Valla was assassinated. There’s a good amount of evidence stacked behind that theory. His speech against Aquinas in a crowd of the saint’s supporters, he had been called to court in Aragon by his enemies to defend his works against their potentially heretical nature several years before his death—both of those aren’t good looks. He had a lot of enemies; a main reason for his writings was to infuriate his peers. A favored technique of his was to criticize the Latin of the writings of philosophers and thinkers he didn’t like. He’d spend half of his response criticizing their grammar before even starting to argue against their main points. That’s humiliating, especially in the society he lived in. You don’t make friends that way. You make people want to assassinate you. This entire thing is very strange. Why is there nothing about how he died anywhere? Have I accidentally stumbled onto some kind of Papal coverup? Am I going to follow Valla into suspiciously vague death?