Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Valla, Giorgio

Born: 1447, Piacenza
Died: 23 January 1500, Venice
  • Simon SmetsEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_762-1


Giorgio Valla was a fifteenth-century humanist who studied and worked in Pavia, Genova, and Venice. He established a remarkable collection of manuscripts that fuelled his study and translation projects. Although he also provided commentaries on Cicero and Juvenal, Valla focused on Greek scientific texts, which he translated into Latin. From around 1470 until his death, Valla was also occupied with writing an encyclopedia in which he collected all his knowledge based on mainly Greek authors. The encyclopedia’s lack of structure and the philological errors have provoked harsh criticism from the Renaissance until modern times, but it was nevertheless read by the greatest early modern scientists during their formation.


Giorgio Valla was born in Piacenza in the autumn of 1447, shortly after the death of Filippo Maria Visconti. After the attack on Piacenza by Francesco Sforza, Valla’s family fled to Vigoleno. There, the talented young man would be educated from 1457 until 1462 together with the son of Alberto Scotto, count of Vigoleno. Valla then moved to Milan, where he became the pupil of Constantine Laskaris for 3 years. He further met Cicco Simonetto, Secretary of Francesco Sforza, and Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, later Marshal of France under Louis XII. To him, he would dedicate a commentary on Cicero’s De Fato (Cicero 1485), and they exchanged ideas on Livy and Caesar. Another notable figure with whom Valla acquaints himself during his Milanese years is Jacopo Antiquari from whom he will receive support further on in his career. In 1466, Valla moves on to Pavia, where he studies and teaches Greek with Andronikos Kallistos and physiognomy, mathematics, and natural sciences with Giovanni Marliani, who puts him into contact with other humanists among whom Francesco Filelfo. After an interval of a year from 1477 to 1478, during which he teaches rhetoric at the university of Genova, Valla returns to Pavia. He becomes the tutor of Cicco Simonetta’s children and is appointed Maestro di Umanità at the university until 1484. In 1485, Valla moves to Venice, where he replaces Giorgio Merula at the San Marco School. It was Ermolao Barbaro who advised the committee in favor of Valla’s appointment, and the two humanists would remain on friendly terms during the following years. Valla’s stay in Venice coincided with his most prolific period (Heiberg 1896; Gardenal et al. 1981; King 1986). Now at the heart of Italy’s book industry, he was able to put his editorial and translation work in service of printers like Aldo Manuzio, who acknowledged more than once the value of the humanist from Piacenza (Raschieri 2012). Valla started a friendship with Lorenzo Loredan and counted among his students Vittore Pisano, Giovanni Antonio Flaminio, Pontico Virunio, Gaspara Contarini, and Giovanni Pietro Valeriano. They would have followed Valla’s courses on Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium in 1490, on Pliny’s Historia Naturalis a year later, and on Vitruvius, Euclides, Plautus along with Cicero’s Orator in 1492. In 1496, Valla lectured on Aristoteles’ Poetica and Magna Moralia. It is also the year in which he was imprisoned on the charge of espionage for the French King, who at that time was in conflict with Venice and Milan. Apparently, it was Valla’s friendship with Trivulzio that lay at the basis of this accident. He was finally acquitted of all accusations, and in October, after 8 months of imprisonment, he was released. He subsequently got back his teaching position, and 3 years later he would lecture on Cicero’s Tusculani Disputationes. Valla died on 23 January 1500 and was replaced at the San Marco School by Marc Antonio Sabellico (Heiberg 1896; Gardenal et al. 1981; King 1986). Bartolomeo Zamberti took care of the funeral laudation, in which he abundantly praised his deceased teacher and friend (Rose 1976). Valla’s encyclopedia was posthumously published in 1501 by his adoptive son Gian Pietro Cademusto, who also wrote a biography of him (Heiberg 1896).

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

While living in Venice, Valla had the opportunity to acquire a remarkable collection of manuscripts, that was well known all over Italy. Two book hunters in service of the Medici, Giano Laskaris and Angelo Poliziano, visited Valla in respectively 1490 and 1491. Some of his volumes came from Bessarion’s library, others were acquired from Byzantine immigrants and traders who had brought them in from, for example, Constantinople. The most famous exemplar is the codex A of Archimedes, which is now lost, but Valla also possessed Heron’s Pneumatica and made use of the Sophocles manuscript Mutin. α.U.9.19 (Gr. 99). After his death, the books were acquired by Alberto Pio di Carpo, and a substantial part of it is now in the Biblioteca Estense (Heiberg 1896; Cataldi Palau 1994; Tessier 2003; Bellé et al. 2014; Rose 1973).

Valla’s bibliophile interests furnished him with the material to pursue cutting edge research and translation projects. For example, his 1486 commentary on Juvenal’s Satires relied on hitherto unknown scholia which he attributed to Probus (Anderson 1965). His possession of the Parisinus Graecus 1807, containing a portion of Plato’s works, allowed him to comment on Cicero’s Timaeus while making use of the original Greek dialogue (Pagani 2008). For his first ever Latin translations of Archimedes, Eutocius, Hero, Manuel Bryennius, and numerous other Byzantine and classical Greek authors, he could also rely on his personal library (Rose 1975; Gardenal et al. 1981).

Apart from the usual humanist interest in Latin classical authors like Juvenal, Cicero and Plautus, Valla’s real focus point were Greek scientific texts. Probably inspired by his former teacher Marliani, he translated Galen, Hypsicles, Alexander of Afrodisias, Nicephorus Blemmydes, Euclid, Proclus, Aristarchus, Cleomedes, Eusebius, Psellus, Rhazes, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Timaeus of Locri, and others (Heiberg 1896; Gardenal et al. 1981). While some of these works appeared independently or bound together with either originally Latin texts or translations by different people, (Galen 1481; Aristotle 1488, 1496; Cleonides 1497; Alexandrus of Afrodisia 1994), twenty-five of them were printed together in 1498 at the presses of the Venetian printer Bevilacqua, each with their own dedication letter (Nicephorus et al. 1498). Alongside the majority of treatises on medical topics, mathematics, astronomy, and music theory, the miscellany also includes logic, rhetoric, theology, and ethics (Nicephorus et al. 1498). In addition to these translations, Valla added one work of his own, namely De expedita ratione argumentandi, a scholastic work on rhetoric that is based on Nicephorus, Cicero, Quintilian, Fabius, and Aristotle (Vasoli 1960; Gardenal et al. 1981).

Valla’s magnum opus was his vast encyclopedia De expetendis et fugiendis rebus. It was divided into seven heptads, and the largest Aldine volume ever. In its earliest stage, during the second half of the 1470s, De expetendis was titled Quibus rebus humana perfecta sit foelicitas. The ethical character of these two titles indicates the encyclopedia’s attempt to forego “a sectorial vision of sciences” in order to reach a balanced harmonization of mundane reality and the human knowledge thereof (Raschieri 2012). The work attempts to provide a compendium of all knowledge, molded in a system of subdivisions that fitted well into the Aristotelian tradition that prevailed in Venice and Pavia (Gardenal et al. 1981; King 1986).

According to De expetendis, man’s felicity is subdivided into matters that pertain to the soul, the body, and external goods. For the soul, Valla names veritas, virtus, and affectus as the tripartite goal, of which veritas can be reached by means of the mens, ratio, intellectus, iudicium, consilium, ingenium, and opinio. These are the tools for knowledge, of which Valla discerns two kinds: knowledge about things that are external to us (of a metaphysical or scientific kind) and things that pertain to ourselves (morals, economics, politics, and the trivium cum poetics). Books I–XXXIII are devoted to arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy, physics, and medicine – book XXII was finished in 1491; books XXXIV–XL contain grammatic, dialectic, poetics, and rhetoric; XLI–XLIII are about moral philosophy and were finished in 1494; book XLIV discusses economy; books XLV–XLVII have politics as their subject; and the last book before the conclusion, book XLVIII, is devoted to physiology and psychology. The work was probably finished by 1495, but Valla did not succeed in revising it for publication before his death (Heiberg 1896; Gardenal et al. 1981; Mauro 1995).

The largest part of the encyclopedia is taken up by the exact sciences, for which Valla draws much on his unique manuscript collection with rarely to never studied Greek texts. He largely ignores the medieval and Arabic heritage and makes some disparaging remarks about their achievements (Gardenal et al. 1981). His choice for sources seems to be arbitrary and generally motivated by the rarity of the manuscripts. For his books on music, he relies on Cleonides, Aristides, but most prominently on the Harmonika by the fourteenth century Byzantine scholar Manuel Bryennius, whom Valla could not date correctly. For the mythical origins of music, however, he gets his material from pseudo-Plutarch, and to explain the harmony of the spheres, he uses Ptolemy’s writings as well as Macrobius’ Somnium Scipionis. The Latin tradition is further represented in these books by St Augustine’s De Musica, which Valla borrows from Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Boethius’ De Institutione Musica, and also Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. While the section on music is primarily concerned with the theoretical and speculative side, Aristides and Bryennius provide the sources for discussing also the technical aspects of audible music (Palisca 1985; Mauro 1995).

Music is followed by geometry, where the most important classical authors cited are Varro, Proclus, Hero of Alexandria, and Euclid. The next books, on astronomy, refer to Proclus, Cleomedes, Johannes Pediasimus, Ptolemy, Euclid, Porphyry, Demofilo, Autolycus, Hypsicles, Theodosius, Antiochus, Heraclitus, Aetius of Amida, Hippocrates, and Vettius Valens (Ruffo 1977). On this subject, we also find the odd moment of original thinking by Valla, on, for example, doubling the cube and squaring the circle (Gardenal et al. 1981). The largest section, consisting of seven books on medicine, depends heavily on again Byzantine compilers, namely Paulus of Aegina and Aetius of Amida whose references to Galen Valla recycles. Celsus is the only Latin author of whom he makes extensive use, while Pliny only provides the necessary vocabulary (Gardenal et al. 1981). In the section on poetics, Diomedes and Horace are Valla’s main guides, while Aristotle is only used partially without a single mention of his concept of mimesis (Tigerstedt 1968).

Impact and Legacy

Despite his interest in collecting valuable manuscripts, Valla was not always able to make use of the most authoritative copies of a specific text. His translation of Aristotle’s Poetica, contained in the 1498 miscellany of translations (Nicephorus et al. 1498), might have been the first Latin version of the work that appeared in print, but it was based on an inferior Greek manuscript. Furthermore, Valla’s knowledge of the Greek language was not always sufficient to cope with such a difficult work and his translation was superseded by a new and better one already in 1536 (Tigerstedt 1968). His lack of understanding and philological flaws have been recognized by scholars since the sixteenth century until our age. Paolo Giovio denounced the chaotic ordering of the translated excerpts in De expetendis and in a collection of Gilles Ménage’s sayings, edited by Bernard de le Monnoye, we find a sharp epigram that criticizes the encyclopedia as a book to be shunned (Ménage and de la Monnoye 1715; Giovio 2006). In modern times, Heiberg (1896), Gardenal et al. (1981), and Palisca (1985) also questioned Valla’s abilities. The heavy encyclopedia without page numbering was furthermore difficult in use and was never reprinted (Gardenal et al. 1981).

His translation projects have nevertheless contributed to the establishment of a lasting scientific lexicon that is based on Latin (although Valla did not refrain from Grecizing neologisms or calques). Indeed, for most of the subjects that De expetendis covers, traces of its influence can be identified in the work of later scientists. For example, Francesco Maurolico makes use of Valla’s encyclopedia in his Hippocratis tetragonismus. As De expetendis was the means by which Maurolico became acquainted with Euclid’s work, and also provided him with a specific proof for the law of reflection, we could say that Maurolico was perhaps the mathematician who was most influenced by Valla. Valla’s innovative inclusion of optics and mechanics within the quadrivium furthermore inspired Maurolico to explore in his own work the idea of the geometrization of nature. Also within the mathematical field, Johann Werner’s and Pedro Nunes’ discussions of the mean proportional and the conic section draw on Valla’s geometry chapters (Bellé et al. 2014).

In music, Valla was the first one since Boethius with enough knowledge of Greek and with all the necessary manuscripts at hand to discuss in depth the tonoi theory. However, he fails to make a critical comparison of his sources, Ptolemy, Bryennius, and Cleonides. He consequently enhances the readers’ misunderstanding and thus fails to engender a revaluation of the Greek tonal system. His publication of Cleonides’ Harmonicum introductorium in Latin translation introduced a musical theory which was independent of the Byzantine and Medieval tradition. This work did, however, not find its way into De expetendis, and there are no indications in the form of marginal annotations that Valla understood the work. Its first readers don’t seem to have taken anything from it either. A method to establish ratio’s from the geometrical section of De expetendis, however, was used by the sixteenth-century music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino to develop a tuning method that makes use of the mesolabe (Palisca 1985).

Nicolaus Copernicus also profited from Valla’s translations. They helped him to master the Greek language and for his De revolutionibus (1501), he used Valla’s Latin rendition of Ps-Plutarch’s De placitis philosophorum in De expetendis. He also used the 1498 miscellany of translations (Nicephorus et al. 1498), from which he took a mistaken calculation of Mars’ revolution around the sun. Copernicus seems to have been aware of the inaccurate character of Valla’s work and never mentions Valla’s name but instead refers to him with nonnulli (Rosen and Hilfstein 1995; Goddu 2010). It is further noteworthy that Leonardo da Vinci used De expetendis, in which he read about pneumatic automata, optics, lunulae, and perhaps also the idea that science is dependent on the intellect as well as on experience or experiments (Tucci 2008; Scarpati 2000).

Valla’s minor work on rhetoric, De ratione argumentandi, contained in the 1498 miscellany of translations (Nicephorus et al. 1498; Valla 2017), had some success after it was added to George of Trebizond’s Dialectia ex Aristotele. It was printed with glosses by Peter Schade and praised for its educational usefulness by Sixt Birck in a prefatory letter to the 1529 Basel edition. The latter also used it in his teachings, while in the work of Giovanni Paolo Cesario and Philip Melanchton, at least citations from De Ratione can be found (Gardenal et al. 1981).



Primary Literature

    Independent works and commentaries

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin StudiesInnsbruckAustria

Section editors and affiliations

  • Luca Bianchi
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversità degli Studi di MilanoMilanItaly