[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail:
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]
Italiano

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home

What's He Doing Here?

or, The Church Moves in Mysterious Ways


[image ALT: zzz]

The tomb of Lorenzo Valla in the Lateran Basilica.

The Catholic Church is an extraordinary institution; she never ceases to amaze me.

Imagine with me for a moment that you were the pastor of this church, the bishop of this cathedral — OK, the Pope (since the Lateran Basilica is Rome's cathedral) — and you were about to bury a man who, although one of your priests, proclaimed the pursuit of pleasure to be the supreme good, was saved from a heresy trial only by the intervention of the King of Naples, spent his entire life trying to poke holes in Scripture, and worse yet, had exhaustively, conclusively, and embarrassingly debunked the foundation of your power as a civil authority and a nation-state by demonstrating it to be based on fraud: on a forgery that to boot, was in bad Latin; even inciting the inhabitants of Rome to take their city back from you.a

Where would you have this man buried?

How about in an elegant marble tomb in a place of honor in your cathedral?

The man is Lorenzo Valla, a humanist who with a keen eye for what was correct Latin prose and what was not, and an equally keen taste for virulent criticism, set the stage for Martin Luther. The fact that he was right, that the so‑called Donation of Constantine (purporting to be a legal document by which the emperor Constantine handed the entire Roman empire over to the Popes, proved by him to be a forgery) was in mediocre, scarcely classical Latin, peppered with gross anachronisms, only made things worse, and it was only after 400 years of digging in its heels that the Church admitted as much. What earned Valla the fiercest enemies, though, was his blanket condemnation of most of his contemporaries for writing poor Latin! For his pains, he was accused of sexual depravities by Poggio Bracciolini, another great humanist scholar of the time who knew a thing or two about sodomy himself, mind you. Not to worry, Valla paid them all back, and then some.


[image ALT: zzz]

Renaissance interpretation of an ancient Roman strigil sarcophagus.
(For ancient examples and further explanations,
see S. Silvestro in Collepino, Umbria and S. Sabina in Rome.)


[image ALT: zzz]

The Church is not all about divine forgiveness, though. As a human institution she sometimes prefers to see people very dead before burying the hatchet; here, in 1825. The Pope (Leo XII) is not mentioned, rather the next couple of bureaucratic layers below him, but I can't imagine him not approving the belated honor:


[image ALT: zzz]

LAURENTIO LUCAE Filio VALLAE ORTU ROMano PLACENTIA ORIUNDO
A NICOLAO V SCRIPTORE APOSTolico A CALLIXTO III SECRETARIO
ET CANONICO LATERANENSI RENUNCIATO
QUI VIXIT ANnis LI Plus Minus DECESSIT KALendas AUGUSTI ANno MCDLVII
AD SERVANDAM SCIENTISSIMI VIRI MEMORIAM A CATHARINA
DE SCRIBANIS PLACENTina GENETRICE HUMI EXTRA CELLAM
PRAESEPIS ERECTAM ET AB ANno MDC IN CLAUSTRO SERVATAM
FRANCISCUS CANCELLIERIUS ROManus ANno SACRO MDCCCXXV
INTUS EAMDEM CELLAM HONORIFICE PONENDAM CURAVIT
Viro Eminentissimo JULIO Maria DE SOMALIA CARDinali DECANO ARCHIPRESBYTERO
FRANCisco MARAZZANO VISCONTIO PRAEPosito Sacri PALATII VICARIO
PROCERIBUS PLACENTINIS

To Lorenzo Valla, son of Luca, born in Rome, his origins in Piacenza,
Apostolic scribe to Nicholas V, secretary to Callixtus III,
and retired canon of the Lateran basilica
who lived approximately 51 years and died on August 1st, 1457:
In order to preserve the memory of a most erudite man, this tomb
was erected by Catarina Scribani of Piacenza, his mother, in the earth outside the Chapel
of the Manger, and after 1600 was preserved in the cloister.
In the Holy Year 1825 Francesco Cancellieri, of Rome,b
arranged to have it placed as an honor within the same chapel,c
when the Most Eminent Giulio Maria della Somaglia was Cardinal Dean Archpriest
and Francesco Marazzano Visconti was Provost and Vicar of the Holy See
to the authorities of Piacenza.


Notes:

a See for example the biographical sketch of Valla by Paolo Giovio, a contemporary — in fact, a student of Valla's. Notice that he gives a very different epitaph.

b While I'm not absolutely certain of it, this can surely be no other than the eminent church historian of that name (Rome, 1751‑1826), who would have had both the interest and the influence to rehabilitate a fellow antiquarian.

c Here we have a minor mystery. The inscription carefully notes the name of the chapel: the Chapel of the Manger. Yet the chapel where I photographed Valla's tomb in 2000, immediately next to the choir and the Pope's throne (greater honor really couldn't have been paid him, as a look at the plan of the church makes clear) is the Chapel of the Crucifixion, sometimes called the Chapel of St. John. I have been quite unable to find the slightest record of it, or indeed any other chapel in the Lateran, being referred to as the Chapel of the Manger.


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 22 Apr 07