Recently, I had a discussion with some of my Italian study friends over why representatives of the Roman Catholic Church were unhappy not only with representatives of the Reformation but also with some of the men of letters of the Italian Renaissance. The reason has to do with the fact that Renaissance scholars had a way of exposing as fraudulent many of Rome's documents, some of which were said to establish the church's claim to large land holdings. A prime example is as follows...
Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) was the author of the standard Renaissance text on Latin philology. The text was titled: Elegences of the Latin Language. He was primarily active as a secretary to the King of Naples.Although a good Catholic, Valla became a hero to later Protestants. His popularity among Protestants stemmed from his defense of predestination against the advocates of free will and especially from his expose of the Donation of Constantine, a fraudulent document written in the eighth century alleging that the Emperor Constantine had given vast territories to the pope.
Valla proved, beyond dispute, that the document contained non-classical Latin usages and anachronistic terms. He therefore concluded that the document was the work of a medieval forger whose "monstrous impudence" was exposed by the "stupidity of his language." The expose of the Donation was not intended by Valla to have the devastating force that Protestants attributed to it. He only demonstrated in a careful and scholarly way what others had long suspected.
Using the most rudimentary textual analysis and historical logic, Valla proved that the document was filled with such anachronistic terms as fief, and made references that were meaningless in the fourth century. The proof that it was an invention seriously weakened the foundations of papal claims to temporal authority. In the same dispassionate way Valla also pointed out errors in the Latin Vulgate, still the authorized version of the Bible for the Roman Catholic Church. Valla's work exemplifies the application of critical scholarship to old and almost sacred writings, as well as the new secular spirit of the Renaissance.
Such discoveries did not make Valla any less loyal to the church, nor did they prevent his faithful fulfillment of the office of Apostolic Secretary in Rome under Nicholas V. He revered the literal teachings of the Pauline Epistles. In his "Notes on the New Testament" he applied his knowledge to uncovering the true meaning to the letters which he believed had been obscured in the Vulgate Biblical edition.
Valla's discovery of the forgery lead to an increased interest in classical collectibles. It had now been shown that the way to discern the truth was to carefully examine the remnants of antiquity and one had to possess these to examine them.
The influences of Valla can be seen in the works of Erasmus who after reading Valla's "Notes on the New Testament" became convinced that nothing was more important than divesting the New Testament of its transcription errors. This in turn lead to Luther's crucial conclusions concerning the literal biblical meaning of penance.