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MLN 119.1 Supplement (2004) S66-S87
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Lorenzo Valla, "Paganism," and Orthodoxy
Christopher S. Celenza
Michigan State University
With his pointed focus on problems of language, his cultivated and precisely individual sense of the Latin language, and his vehement hatred of intellectual dogmatism, Lorenzo Valla represents much of what Renaissance humanism has come to stand for. Valla is also noteworthy for having tested, refined, pushed and pulled at the malleable boundaries of orthodoxies both intellectual and religious. Like a number of fifteenth-century thinkers, Valla was wrestling with what Christianity and, more broadly, monotheism meant in practice. One danger that Renaissance historians face when looking at the "orthodoxy" of fifteenth-century figures is the temptation to apply post-Tridentine norms of orthodoxy onto pre-Tridentine intellectuals; but orthodoxy is relative, intimately tied to heresy, and appears most clearly only when heresies are defined by their opponents. When one isolates practices or ideas that seem not so easily to fit into a later version of orthodoxy, one assumes that the thinkers under study were somehow aware that they were crossing a boundary and were taking steps to disguise that border crossing. Another danger is that one assumes a kind of medieval stasis leading up to the Renaissance, with the magisterial church and all its rules firmly established. But this was not the world in which Renaissance intellectuals lived.
Many questions concerning the nature of the church and even the nature of the ecclesiastical hierarchy were far from settled in the mid-fifteenth century or had not even been raised. And as Renaissance thinkers appropriated the diverse literary heritage of the ancient [End Page S66] world, they were exposed to developments and changes in mentality that in the thousand year course of antiquity might have taken centuries to achieve, a kind of "cultural compression" that could be explosive in its possibilities. 1 In this sense, the fifteenth century in Italy emerges as a "real" Renaissance: thinkers studied newly discovered, vital intellectual heritages and felt relatively free in using those heritages to create the world that they quite literally imagined. The totalitarianizing impulses provoked by and related intimately to the sorts of ideological conflict that would occur later in the sixteenth century were still far off. So when we recover the excitement of newly discovered ancient texts and new critical mentalities in the fifteenth century, it is not only an antiquarian excitement that we find but also a sense of possibility. This sense of possibility, however, did not last long: by the middle sixteenth century we find ourselves in a period that one historian of Italy has eloquently termed a Rinascimento perduto—a "lost" Renaissance—by which is meant the disappearance of an urbane, literate, and pious ruling class who simply assumed a certain amount of intellectual liberty and realized all too late that it was extinguished by the force of ideology. 2 For Valla and others, despite the different small intellectual communities in which they found themselves, many of those later boundaries did not clearly exist, and those that did were much more subtle. In their intellectual pursuits, some of the key textual touchstones were literary products of what we inevitably would consider "post-classical" antiquity, and this calls for comment.
Renaissance historians inevitably encounter the ancient past, since it was so important to Renaissance thinkers. Classical studies have undergone fundamental evolution in the past thirty to forty years, so it is appropriate that Renaissance historians embrace a vision of the ancient past that is not monolithic but reflective of antiquity's plurality, both temporally and intellectually. First, we should recognize that the eras of the "classical" Greco-Roman past, say fifth-century [End Page S67] BCE Athens, the Roman republic, or the early Empire, were themselves far from monolithic. When we discuss a Renaissance thinker's creative use of a figure from "classical" antiquity, are we relying on what would now be among classicists an antiquated view of the classical object? If ambivalences are possible even in the realm of "classical" sources, how much more is this the case when dealing with non-"classical...