chapter  11
Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine (Lorenzo Valla, 1406–1457)
Pages 5

Valla exposed as a forgery the Donation of Constantine (De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione), a mid-eighth century document

that claimed the Roman emperor Constantine gave Pope Sylvester II temporal authority over the western Roman Empire 500 years before. He did so allegedly out of gratitude that Sylvester cured him of leprosy. The Donation was used thereafter to justify papal claims to secular as well as religious authority. Valla’s knowledge and skills were respected but he was feared and

even hated by many as a ruthless, scathing personality. The dangerous implications of his critical works, especially those treating scripture as a historical document, were resisted into the seventeenth century. He mocked the Latin of Jerome’s Vulgate, the Church’s official version of scripture, and compared his translation of the New Testament unfavorably with the original Greek text. He was an ordained priest who doubted the value of monastic life, which made his life and writings even more controversial. He had trouble finding and keeping a position and wandered from

city to city teaching rhetoric and Latin. He held a professorship in Pavia for a time but had to move on after attacking the Latin style of a well-known jurist. He eventually found a protector in the court of Alfonso V in Naples. Alfonso was at odds with the Pope over land in the Papal States and encouraged Valla to dismantle the Donation, who was already hostile to temporal claims of the papacy. After 1447 his fortunes changed and he was welcomed by a new pope, Nicholas V, who made him apostolic secretary. Valla was part of a fifteenth-century surge of historical conscious-

ness, a growing sense of the past accompanied by awareness of critical evidence and possibilities of causal explanation. At the forefront of textual criticism, he was a man to be reckoned with: “I have published many books … in almost every branch of learning. Inasmuch as there are those who are shocked that in these I disagree with certain great writers already approved by long usage, and charge me with rashness and sacrilege, what must we suppose some of them will do now! For I am writing against not only the dead, but the living also … not merely private individuals, but the authorities. And what authorities! Even the supreme pontiff … ” (21). He was a Renaissance humanist, which had meanings specific to a

revival of Greco-Roman literature. In fifteenth-century Italy men called “humanists” recovered, edited, and printed most works surviving from classical antiquity. They founded a system of education and inquiry, studia humanitatis, based on grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy, and history in classical literature as opposed to the medieval faculties of theology, law, and medicine that dominated universities. The wider significance of their achievement was the

diffusion of classical ideas and values into the mainstream of Western civilization from original sources. The Latin prose of Marcus Tullius Cicero (d. 43 B.C.) was the model most widely imitated. Medieval scholastic Latin was scorned and regarded as barbarous. Humanists had at their disposal authentic Latin texts that spanned centuries, so changes in the language were easily confirmed by alert scholars. Classical Greek texts also became available after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 when Greek scholars fled to Italy and set up private schools for instruction. Valla was the most celebrated beneficiary of this scholarship. For

internal and external criticism of Latin documents he had no equal in the fifteenth century. His treatise on Latin, Elegancies of the Latin Language (De elegantiis latinae linguae), was widely read and demonstrated his mastery of the language. His reputation was boosted by another celebrated work, On Pleasure (De Voluptate), which defended Epicurus against the Stoics, arguing that satisfaction of appetites is a good thing. He also corrected many Latin texts, a best-known effort being Livy’s history of Rome. One of his staunchest admirers was the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, who respected and used his biblical criticism. As a Latin philologist, Valla was aware of the language in its his-

torical forms. A union of philology with history was a long-range consequence of unmasking a document long held to be authentic. Medieval scholars did not understand that the meaning of a document is linked to its historical setting. Valla established that relationship by demonstrating that Latin has a history, a step toward unshackling historical study from tradition and ecclesiastical authority. He directed minds to a past that differed from the present by proving through textual criticism successive changes in Latin diction and grammar. His attack, however, was comprehensive. It included not just grammar and vocabulary but also law, chronology, and geography. His task was lightened because the Donation was a crude invention rather than a true forgery. A skilled forger must have a sense of the past so as not to commit all the naïve errors Valla uncovered, such as anachronismsthat is, names, places, and linguistic expressions non-existent at the time a document was falsified. Valla knows how easy the Donation’s author has made it for him,

and complements incisive analysis with contemptuous abuse:

“Does not this fable-fabricator seem to blunder, not through imprudence, but deliberately and of set purpose, and so as to offer handles for catching him. In the same passage he says both that the Lord’s resurrection is represented by the tiara, and that it

is an imitation of Caesar’s power; two things which differ most widely from each other … I find no words … merciless enough with which to stab this most abandoned scoundrel; so full of insanity are all the words he vomits forth.”