SOUTHEAST of the Marches and the Papal States all mainland Italy constituted the Kingdom of Naples. On the Adriatic side it included the ports of Pescara, Bari, Brindisi, and Otranto; a bit inland the city of Foggia, once the lively capital of the wondrous Frederick II; on the “instep” the ancient port of Taranto; on the “toe” another Reggio; and on the southwestern coast one scenic splendor after another, rising to the glory of Salerno, Amalfi, Sorrento, and Capri, and culminating in busy, noisy, loquacious, passionate, joyous Naples. It was the only great city in the realm. Outside of it and the ports the country was agricultural, medieval, feudal: the land was tilled by serfs or slaves, or by peasants “free” to starve or to work for bread and a shirt, under barons whose ruthless rule of their great estates defied the authority of the throne. The king had little revenue from those lands, but had to finance his government and court from the returns of his own feudal domains, or by exploiting to the point of diminishing returns the royal control of commerce.
The house of Anjou had begun a rapid decline with the escapades of Queen Joanna I, which ended when Charles of Durazzo had her strangled with a silken cord (1382). Joanna II, though forty at her accession (1414), was as excitable as the first. She married thrice, banished her second husband, and had the third murdered. Faced by revolt, she called to her aid King Alfonso of Aragon and Sicily, and adopted him as her son and heir (1420). Rightly suspecting him of planning to replace her, she disowned him (1423), and left her state to René of Anjou at her death (1435). A long war of succession followed, in which Alfonso, having sampled Naples, fought to seize its throne. While he was besieging Gaeta he was captured by the Genoese, and was brought before Filippo Maria Visconti at Milan. With consummate logic surely never learned in schools, he persuaded the Duke that French power re-established in Naples, added to French power already pressing upon Milan from the north and Genoa from the west, would hold half of Italy in a vise, which the Visconti would be the first to feel. Filippo understood, freed his prisoner, and bade him Godspeed to Naples. After many battles and intrigues Alfonso won; the rule of the house of Anjou at Naples (1268–1442) ended, that of the house of Aragon (1442–1503) began. This usurpation provided the legal basis for the French invasion of Italy in 1494, which was the first act in the tragedy of Italy.
Alfonso was so pleased with his new royal seat that he left the rule of Aragon and Sicily to his brother John II. He was not an easy ruler; he taxed with a hard hand; allowed financiers to squeeze the people, then squeezed them in turn; and extorted money from Jews by threatening to baptize them. But most of his taxation fell upon the merchant class; Alfonso reduced the taxes levied from the poor, and helped the destitute. The Neapolitans thought him a good king; he walked among them unarmed, unattended, and unafraid. Having no children by his wife, he begot some on the ladies of his court; his wife killed one of these rivals, and Alfonso never admitted the Queen to his presence thereafter. He was a zealous churchgoer, and listened to sermons faithfully.
Nevertheless he caught the humanist fever, and supported classical scholars with so open a hand that they named him il Magnanimo. He welcomed Valla, Filelfo, Manetti, and other humanists to his table and his treasury. He paid Poggio 500 crowns ($12,500?) for a translation of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia into Latin; paid Bartolommeo Fazio 500 ducats a year for writing an Historia Alfonsi, and 1500 more when it was finished; in the one year 1458 he distributed 20,000 ducats ($500,000) among literary men. He carried some classic with him wherever he went; at home and on campaigns he had a classic read to him at meals; and students who wished to hear these readings were admitted to them. When the supposed remains of Livy were discovered at Padua, he sent Beccadelli to Venice to buy a bone, and he received it with all the awe and devotion of a good Neapolitan watching the flow of St. Januarius’ blood. When Manetti orated to him in Latin Alfonso was so fascinated by the Florentine scholar’s idiomatic style that he allowed a fly to feast on the royal nose till the oration was complete.1 He gave his humanists full freedom of speech, even to heresy and pornography, and protected them from the Inquisition.
The most remarkable of the scholars at Alfonso’s court was Lorenzo Valla. Born in Rome (1407), he studied the classics with Leonardo Bruni, and became an enthusiastic, even a fanatical, Latinist, among whose many wars was a campaign to destroy Italian as a literary language, and make good Latin live again. While teaching Latin and rhetoric at Pavia he wrote a violent diatribe against the famous jurist Bartolus, laughing at his laborious Latinity, and contending that only a man skilled in Latin and in Roman history could understand Roman law. The law students in the university defended Bartolus, the art students rallied around Valla; the debate graduated into riots, and Valla was asked to leave. Later, in Notes on the New Testament (Adnotationes ad novum testamentum), he applied his linguistic learning and fury to Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, and revealed many an error in that heroic undertaking; Erasmus would later praise, epitomize, and use Valla’s critique. In another treatise, Elegantiae linguae Latinae, Valla gave his rules for Latin elegance and purity, ridiculed the Latin of the Middle Ages, and joyfully exposed the bad Latin of many humanists. In an age that adored Cicero he preferred Quintilian. He was left with hardly a friend in the world.
To confirm his isolation he published (1431) a dialogue On Pleasure and the True Good (De voluptate et vero bono), which expounded the amoralism of the humanists with astonishing temerity. He used as persons of the dialogue three men still living: Leonardo Bruni to defend Stoicism, Antonio Beccadelli to vindicate Epicureanism, and Niccolò de’ Niccoli to reconcile Christianity and philosophy. Beccadelli was made to speak with such force that readers rightly assumed that his views were Valla’s own. We must suppose, argued Beccadelli, that human nature is good, for it was created by God; indeed Nature and God are one. Consequently our instincts are good, and our natural desire for pleasure and happiness is in itself a justification of the pursuit of these as the proper object of human life. All pleasures, whether of the senses or of the intellect, are to be held legitimate until proved injurious. Now we have an imperious instinct to mate, and certainly no instinct for lifelong chastity. Such continence is therefore unnatural; it is an intolerable torment, and should not be preached as virtue. Virginity, Beccadelli was made to conclude, is a mistake and a waste; and a courtesan is of more value to mankind than a nun.2
So far as his means allowed, Valla lived this philosophy. He was a man of promiscuous passion, hot temper, and extreme speech. He wandered from city to city, seeking literary employment. He asked for a place in the papal secretariat, and was turned away. When Alfonso took him up (1435), the King of Aragon and Sicily was fighting for the throne of Naples, and counted among his foes Pope Eugenius IV (1431–47), who claimed Naples as a lapsed papal fief. A reckless scholar like Valla, learned in history, skilled in polemics, and with nothing to lose, was a handy tool against the Pope. Under Alfonso’s protection Valla wrote (1440) his most famous treatise, On the Falsely Believed and Lying Donation of Constantine (De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione). He assailed as a ridiculous forgery the Constitutum Constantini by which the first Christian emperor transferred to Pope Sylvester I (314–35) full secular dominion over all Western Europe. Nicholas of Cusa had recently (1433) exposed the falsity of the Donation in hisDe concordantia Catholica, written for a Council of Basel also at odds with Eugenius IV; but Valla’s historical and linguistic criticism of the document was so devastating (though he himself made many errors) that the question was settled once and for all.
Valla and Alfonso were not content with scholarship; they waged war. “I attack not only the dead but the living,” said Valla; and he excoriated the relatively decent Eugenius with the most idiomatic abuse. “Even were the Donation authentic, it would be null and void, for Constantine could have no power to make it, and in any case the crimes of the papacy would already have annulled it.”3 And if the Donation was a forgery, Valla concluded (ignoring the territorial donations of Pepin and Charlemagne to the papacy), then the temporal power of the popes had been a thousand-yearlong usurpation. From that temporal power had come the corruption of the Church, and the wars of Italy, and the “overbearing, barbarous, tyrannical priestly domination.” Valla appealed to the people of Rome to rise and overthrow the papal government of their city, and invited the princes of Europe to deprive the popes of all territorial possessions.4 It sounded like the voice of Luther, but it was Alfonso who inspired the pen; humanism had become a weapon of war.
Eugenius fought back with the Inquisition. Valla was summoned before its agents at Naples; he ironically professed his complete orthodoxy, and refused to say more. Alfonso ordered the Inquisitors to let him alone, and they dared not disobey. Valla continued his attacks on the Church: he showed that the works attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite were unauthentic; that the letter of Abgarus to Jesus, published by Eusebius, was a forgery; and that the Apostles had had no hand in composing the Apostles’ Creed. However, when he surmised that Alfonso was moving toward reconciliation with the papacy he decided that he too had better make peace. He addressed an apology to Eugenius, retracting his heresies, reaffirming his orthodoxy, and asking pardon for his sins. The Pope made no answer. But when Nicholas V ascended the papal throne, and sent out a call for scholars, Valla was made a secretary to the Curia (1448), and was employed to make Latin translations from the Greek. He ended his life as a canon of St. John Lateran, and was buried in holy ground (1457).
His friendly rival, Antonio Beccadelli, illustrated the morals of his time by writing an obscene book and receiving acclaim for it from the leading men of Italy. Born at Palermo (1394), and therefore nicknamed il Panormita, he imbibed his higher education, and perhaps his ambiguous morals, in Siena. About 1425 he composed, under the title of Hermaphroditus, a series of Latin elegies and epigrams rivaling Martial in Latinity and pornography. Cosimo de’ Medici accepted the dedication, probably without reading the book; the virtuous Guarino da Verona praised the eloquence of its language; a hundred others added encomiums; finally the Emperor Sigismund placed a poet’s crown upon Beccadelli’s head (1433). Priests denounced the volume, Eugenius proclaimed the excommunication of all who read it, friars publicly burned it at Ferrara, Bologna, Milan. Nevertheless Beccadelli lectured summa cum laude in the universities of Bologna and Pavia, received a stipend of eight hundred scudi from the Visconti, and was invited to Naples as court historiographer. His history Of the Memorable Words and Deeds of King Alfonso was written in such idiomatic Latin that Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini—Pope Pius II—himself no middling Latinist, considered it a model of Latin style. Beccadelli lived to be seventy-seven, and died rich in honors and property.