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Valla Grammaticus, Agostino Steuco, and the Donation of Constantine
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Valla Grammaticus, Agostino Steuco, and the Donation of Constantine

Recent studies dealing with Lorenzo Valla's treatise on the Donation of Constantine have provided us with a profound understanding of the revolutionary nature of this work. Scholars have rightly seen the De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione (1440) as one of Valla's earliest attempts to apply the principles of Quintilian's rhetoric to textual scholarship. Valla followed Quintilian both in the structure of his arguments against the authenticity of the actions described in the Donation, as well as in the critical tools that he employed while attacking the language found in the text itself.1 In his use of philology and grammar as analytical tools and in his perception that historical development was reflected by changes in linguistic style and word meaning, Valla closely followed Quintilian.2 [End Page 55]

The scholarly methodology employed in this work helped Valla lay the foundations for his radical reorientation of the ars rhetorica in which he established philology, grammar, and historical perspective as essential components of his textual scholarship. Using the principles of rhetoric that Quintilian laid out in his Institutio oratoria, Valla sought to broaden the scope of humanist critical activity and present humanists with several key elements with which to engage in linguistic and textual studies.3 The significance of what he had accomplished was clear to the Roman humanist. In December 1443 he boasted to Giovanni Aurispa that "I have never written anything more oratorical than my oration" on the Donation of Constantine.4 Valla here expressed his belief that his treatise had succeeded in incorporating the strictures and theories espoused in Quintilian's work into a viable humanist program of textual and linguistic scholarship.

Valla's De Constantini donatione is of undeniable importance for understanding his early development as a humanist textual critic and language philosopher. But what has escaped most historians is the oration's problem of methodology, and the deficiencies of philology and grammar as tools of textual criticism in this work. To put it bluntly, scholars, while focusing on the promising innovations found there, have consistently ignored what by later standards would be considered the serious methodological flaws in Valla's treatise. The Vallian ars rhetorica as articulated in this work by no means presented a model from which later humanists would derive the foundations of modern textual criticism. By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, textual scholars had shown the inadequacies of the methodology Valla employed in this treatise. In fact the best humanist scholars of the period approached the task of textual criticism and manuscript emendation using procedures that were essentially at odds with the philological, grammatical critique used in this work.5

While most modern historians have overlooked the scholarly shortcomings of Valla's treatise, the sixteenth century produced one critic who raised serious questions about the scholarship underlying the critique of the Donation. Twice in his lifetime, the Italian humanist Agostino Steuco (1497-1548) [End Page 56] published significant replies to Valla. First in his Pro religione christiana adversus Lutheranos (1530), and then in his Contra Laurentium Vallam de falso donatione Constantini libri duo (1547), Steuco raised substantial objections to a number of Valla's philological, grammatical, and historical arguments against the authenticity of the edict.6

In each treatise Steuco's textual scholarship on the Donation formed part of a larger effort on his part to defend the cultic practices, institutions, and hierarchy of the late medieval church against the reformers. As he made clear in both works, he believed that Valla's attacks upon the papacy and Donation put him in league with Luther and Erasmus in undermining respect for the papacy in the early sixteenth century. While these two works recently have proved to be of great interest to historians of religion and reform in sixteenth-century Italy, I shall confine the present analysis to Steuco's scholarship on the Donation.

Taking direct aim at Valla's philological and grammatical analysis of the language of the Donation, Steuco repeatedly characterized Valla as being nothing more than a "grammarian."7 Valla had blundered badly in his analysis, Steuco pointed out, by ignoring the first...