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Valla Grammaticus, Agostino Steuco, and the Donation of Constantine

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 57, Number 1, January 1996
pp. 55-77 | 10.1353/jhi.1996.0011

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Valla Grammaticus, Agostino Steuco, and the Donation of Constantine Ronald K. Delph 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 55 Copyright 1996 by Journal of the History of Ideas, Inc. 1 For the influence of Quintilian on Valla see Salvatore I. Camporeale, Lorenzo Valla: umanesimo e teologia (Florence, 1972), 36-164, 230, and idem, ?Lorenzo Valla e il De falso credita donatione,? Memorie domenicane, n.s., 19 (1988), 191-293; also Wolfram Setz, Lorenzo Vallas Schrift gegen die Konstantinische Schenkung (T?bingen, 1975), 4351; Vincenzo De Caprio, ?Retorica e ideologia nella Declamatio di Lorenzo Valla sulla donazione di Costantino,? Paragone, 338 (1978), 36-56; and Carlo Ginzburg?s preface to Lorenzo Valla, La Donation de Constantin, tr. Jean-Baptiste Giard (Paris, 1993), ix-xxi. Citations of Valla?s treatise are from Lorenzo Valla, De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione, ed. Wolfram Setz, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Quellen zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters, X (Weimar, 1976), 55-176. 2 Camporeale, Lorenzo Valla, 36-108, and idem, ?Valla e il De falso credita donatione,? 199-200, 238-44. For Valla?s philology in general, see David Marsh, ?Grammar, Method, and Polemic in Lorenzo Valla?s Elegantiae,? Rinascimento, 19 (1979), 91116. There has been much recent debate concerning Valla as a ?language philosopher,? in which scholars have assessed Valla?s understanding of the relationship between language and culture, verbum et res. For the arguments, see Richard Waswo, Language and Meaning in the Renaissance (Princeton, 1987); and his ?Motives of Misreading,? in Renaissance Essays II, ed. William J. Connell (Rochester, 1993), 101-9; Maristella Lorch, ?Lorenzo Valla,? in Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms and Legacy, ed. Albert Rabil, 3 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...