Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.33

Brendan Cook, Lorenzo Valla, Correspondence. The I Tatti Renaissance library, 60.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2013.  Pp. xxii, 417.  ISBN 9780674724679.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Clementina Marsico, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies, Innsbruck (

Thirty years after the publication of the fundamental critical edition of Lorenzo Valla’s letters, edited by Ottavio Besomi and Mariangela Regoliosi (Laurentii Valle Epistole, Padova, 1984), Brendan Cook has brought his important epistolary literature back into the limelight. Despite being composed of only 57 epistles (96 including those addressed to Valla), his correspondence represents an invaluable tool for reconstructing a substantial portion of the humanist’s life. It allows the scholar to follow (at least in part) the affairs of the humanist in his younger years within the circle of the Visconti up until his well-known and fierce dispute with Poggio Bracciolini which began in the '50s. By the same token, the epistles have proven absolutely essential in the reconstruction of the editorial process of several of Valla’s works, the Elegantie lingue latine in particular. In fact, the numerous epistles to Giovanni Tortelli provide information about the various phases of this work, Valla’s readings and corrections, and the definitive publication plan. Never collected by the humanist himself, the letters – thanks to their immediate and genuine nature – offer a different view of Valla as the philologist, the philosopher and the polemicist from the one that we gather from his work. They are decidedly informal in tone, revealing aspects that are particularly and surprisingly domestic. A number of the letters show a man who was often burdened by practical problems, such as the search for a house (letter 46), illness (letter 31), and the death of a loved one (letter 54). As underlined in Cook’s dense introduction, variety is the main characteristic of the epistolary, which extends throughout Valla’s lifetime, providing the critic with a great deal of decisive information.

Cook’s book essentially re-publishes Besomi and Regoliosi’s critical edition, with the addition of the corrections proposed by these two editors and by Martin Davies in his Addendum published in Lorenzo Valla e l’Umanesimo italiano. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi umanistici. Parma, 18-19 Ottobre 1984 (Padova, Antenore, 1986). A merit of the volume under review here is that it provides a English translation of the Latin text, the first translation into any modern language. Moreover, it also supplies the letters of Valla’s correspondents (which appear only in the form of a summary in the 1984 critical edition), which Cook has drawn from previous editions, all cited in the Notes to the texts. An unpublished epistle by Gian Pietro da Lucca to Valla discovered by Martin Davies, author of the detailed commentary to this text found in the Appendix I, is also included in Cook’s edition. The volume is completed by Appendix II, which includes the list of Valla's correspondents and some succinct biographical information about them, a brief Note on the Text, a list of Abbreviations, the Notes to the Texts, followed by the Notes to the Translation, a synthetic Bibliography and a useful Index of names. Cook can be credited with having united the entire collection within a manageable volume, integrating previously published letters with Davies’ discovery and the correspondents’ epistles. This provides the reader with a fairly ordered vision (albeit a fragmentary one) of Valla’s life and social relationships for approximately 30 years.

As underlined in his Note on the text, the Latin text of Valla’s epistles is largely based on the Besomi-Regoliosi edition, using their orthographic criteria (a note to the reader at least explaining the reason behind the systematic absence of diphthongs would have been useful here). Despite re-using the text of this edition, in his notes Cook provides the list of witnesses that transmit every epistle. This information is necessary because in the following notes the editor gives an account of some of the variants within the tradition of the epistles. It must be noted, however, that not all of the variants were considered; Cook considers only some of variants selected from the Besomi-Regoliosi apparatus. This absence is compounded by the fact that the reader is not informed of the criteria that dictated this selection (Cook only says, in his Note on the text, that he presents an “abbreviated version of the variant readings supplied by Besomi and Regoliosi”, p. 341).

I have pointed out that the Latin text of Valla’s epistles is largely based on the Besomi-Regoliosi edition. There are, however, a handful of exceptions. Letter 52a (edited by Davies) is one, along with epistles n. 11, 22, 23, 24 and 34, for which various emendations have been proposed (by both Cook and Davies). It would have been useful to highlight and discuss these corrections in the notes to the text, as they are at high risk of being skimmed over by the reader, lost in an apparatus whose function remains otherwise unclear. The corrections in question are not, in fact, superficial. At times they even modify the meaning of the discourse. There is no space to discuss all of the emendations in the present review, so I will consider just two pointed examples here. In the heartfelt closure of letter 22 addressed to cardinal Ludovico Trevisan, Valla – who had hoped to visit Rome soon – writes (I cite Cook’s edition, p. 146): “Quare ne pluribus te optundam, rescribas, utinam, quod opto! re‹scribas›, tamen, quicquid de me sentias, iubeasque venire necne. Hoc si feceris, voto meo satisfeceris ex aliqua parte; omnino autem, si iusseris ut veniam […]”. The letter has come down to us in a single print from 1573, where this same passage reads: “Quare ne pluribus te optundam, describere, utinam, quod opto, re tamen, quicquid de me sentias, iubeasque venire necne. Hoc si feceris, voto meo satisfeceris ex aliquo animo; omnino autem, si iusseris ut veniam […]”. The evident errors had already been corrected by Sabbadini, and subsequently by Besomi and Regoliosi, who amended describere to rescribas and re tamen to rescribe tamen. Cook keeps the first emendation, while for the second he uses rescribas tamen (Davies’ correction, as pointed out in the Notes), which has the merit of emphasising the series of conjunctives through repetition. Finally, the correction proposed for “voto meo satisfeceris ex aliquo animo” should be noted. It was amended to “voto meo satisfeceris ex aliqua parte” (once again by Davies), which fits very nicely with the following omnino. In my view, however, a supplemental investigation would have been necessary both to explain the potential palaeographic origin of the error and to discuss the different interpretation proposed by Terence Tunberg in an article published in 1991 (“The Latinity of Lorenzo Valla’s Letters” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 26), in which it is suggested that ex aliquo animo is a humanist adaptation derived from expressions like ex meo animo or ex animi mei sententia. I do not agree with an emendation proposed for letter 34 to Ludovico Saccano, which reads (I cite Cook, p. 196) “culpam quam mihi obiicis non agnosco, quippe ‹qui› ad ‹te› scripserim et quidem nonnihil de elegantiis”. The word qui had already been added in the Besomi-Regoliosi edition that reads: “culpam quam mihi obiicis non agnosco, quippe ‹qui› adscripserim et quidem nonnihil de elegantiis”; as suggested by Davies, Cook introduces the subsequent te. In the passage Valla makes a reference to a previous letter from Saccano (n. 33a, quoted ad verbum in the text), in which Saccano scolds Valla for his slowness in writing (Saccano writes “si me tardum ac lentum putaveris et dignum obiurgatione, eodem ego te crimine condemnare potero et excusatione indignum”, p. 192). Lorenzo replies that he does not deserve this reprimand as he has never stopped writing and adding material to his works “et quidem nonnihil de elegantiis” (the verb adscribo used by the humanist means to add in writing). To validate his discussion, later in the letter Valla points out a correction to the preface of De oratore added to the Elegantie I 17. Ad te negates the parallel with Saccano’s previous letter, in which the accusation made against Valla was not that he had not written to him, but rather that he had written too few recent literary works: for this reason, I find the text proposed by Besomi-Regoliosi to be more convincing.

As previously mentioned, Cook considers the corrections proposed by the editors of the epistolary and Davies in 1986 Addendum. It would have been more useful for the reader, however, had the editor also considered several recent editions of the other epistles published in the volume (or had he at least explained why these editions were not mentioned). For letter 2b from Leonardi Bruni to Valla, for example, Cook does not mention the recent corrections to the text made by Mariangela Regoliosi. A similar point can be made for letter 2c, from Carlo Marsuppini to Valla: Cook ignores the emendations proposed by Renata Fabbri and Donatella Coppini (both letters can be read in Lorenzo Valla e l’Umanesimo toscano. Traversari, Bruni e Marsuppini, edited by M. Regoliosi, Firenze, 2009, which Cook himself cites in his bibliography). Regarding letter 17, written by Valla to Tortelli, it would have been more accurate to reinstate the future tense of the verbs as attested by the manuscript tradition (preponam and componam) in place of the perfect tense (preposui and composui) in the passage “Idem ego sum qui preposui in Commentariis quod in Ciceronem et Quintilianum composui Quintilianum Ciceroni” (p. 110), as Stefano Pagliaroli proposes in his study on the preludium of the Comparatio M. T. Ciceronis et M. F. Quintiliani (S. Pagliaroli, “Una proposta per il giovane Valla: Quintiliani Tullique examen’ , Studi medievali e umanistici, 4, 2006). In light of Pagliaroli’s discovery of the introductory argument in comparison, it is difficult to ascertain if Valla ever wrote the entire comparatio and if the comparative work that the humanist alludes to in letter 17 can be identified as the same youthful experiment. For this reason, defending the variant readings based on the tradition appears to be more correct. Finally, regarding epistle 31, addressed to a certain Lelio, Cook does not consider the corrections proposed by Silvia Rizzo on the basis of her rigorous linguistic analysis of the text “I latini dell’Umanesimo”, in Il latino nell’età dell’Umanesimo. Atti del Convegno Mantova, 26-27 ottobre 2001, edited by G. Bernardi Perini, Firenze, 2004).

The Latin text is accompanied by an English translation that transmits the immediacy and liveliness of Valla’s letters. The notes to the translation prove useful towards the preliminary comprehension of the texts, providing a physiognomy for the characters mentioned and clarifying references to the various works and historical episodes. Nevertheless, a greater degree of thoroughness and coherence would occasionally have been helpful in this commentary. Consider, for example, letter 0b, from Antonio Panormita to Valla. The final part of the epistle discusses Valla’s potential imminent departure, about which Panormita is unenthusiastic, for a location that is plagued by famine, civil war and pestilence. Cook provides no commentary on the passage and does not clarify, therefore, that the location in question is Rome during the civil war that broke out after the papal election of Eugene IV and the plague of 1431. He provides, on the other hand, superfluous commentary in a number of other instances. One example is the previously cited epistle 31 in which Valla apologises for missing an encounter with his friend due to several health problems. “[…] caput dolet de vento (scis enim quantus hodie ventus cum pluvia fuit)”, writes the humanist. Cook’s translation is correct (“my head, which aches from the wind, and of course you know how much wind accompanied the rain today”), but then specifies in a note that “Valla is suffering from a colpo d’aria, an ailment unknown outside of Italy”. In reality, Valla simply states the cause of his discomfort – the wind – that can be the occasional culprit of an ailment, both in and outside Italy.

In conclusion, while the reader may disagree with some of the editor’s choices, which impose limits on the work’s significance, the volume is certainly recommended for those who wish to learn about the life and social relationships of one of the main figures of Italian Humanism. The introduction and notes offer a detailed general introduction of Lorenzo Valla, rendering the book a workable point of reference.

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