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  • Lorenzo Valla’s Oratio on the Pseudo-Donation of Constantine: Dissent and Innovation in Early Renaissance Humanism
  • Salvatore I. Camporeale

Why did I write about the Donation of Constantine? ... Bear one thing in mind. I was not moved by hatred of the Pope, but acted for the sake of the truth, of religion, and also of a certain renown—to show that I alone knew what no one else knew.

Valla to Cardinal Trevisan, 1443. 1

Lorenzo Valla’s well known work, the Oration on the Falsely-Believed and Forged Donation of Constantine, was written by the humanist in the year 1440. It was occasioned by the strife between Pope Eugenius IV and Alfonso of Aragon over the Kingdom of Naples. Valla wrote in favor of the Ara-gonese claim, arguing against pretensions of the Papacy to determine who should rule Naples that were based on the pseudo-Constantinian Donation. 2 [End Page 9]

The Donation of Constantine: History and Forgery

As is now well known, the Constitutum Constantini was a forgery that probably originated in the papal Curia in the eighth century. Subsequently it was often contested by the anti-papal Germanic Imperial tradition. The Constitutum portrayed the popes as assuming the role of the Emperor in the western part of the Empire as a result of the “donation” made by Constantine to the “Roman Pontiff and his successors.” The Donation was said to have taken place at a time subsequent to Constantine’s seizure of the city of Rome with the victory at the Milvian Bridge in a.d. 312, and immediately after his “conversion” to the Christian faith and his “reception of baptism” by the bishop of Rome, Pope (“Saint”) Sylvester.

The Constitutum presents itself as an imperial decree, drafted and signed by Constantine himself, dated in Rome with an ambiguous formulation which could indicate the year 315 or 317 or even 330. The most significant and comprehensive passage of the entire document reads as follows:

In order that the supreme pontificate may not deteriorate, but may rather be adorned with glory and power even greater than the dignity of earthly rule, behold, we give over and relinquish to the aforesaid our most blessed Pontiff, Sylvester, the universal Pope, our palace, as has been said, and also the city of Rome, and all the provinces, places and cities of Italy and the western regions, and we decree by this our godlike and pragmatic sanction that they are to be controlled by him and by his successors, and we grant that they shall remain under the law of the Holy Roman Church. 3

The forgery was based an on older fictional source, the Legenda Sylvestri. It was later (at least as maintained first by Nicholas of Cusa, then by Valla) introduced by the canonist Paucapalea (Gratian’s disciple and collaborator) into the collection of canon law that had been made by Gratian, the Concordantia discordantium canonum, or Decretum (c. 1140). 4 Assertions that the Constitutum derived from the Legenda and that it was a later [End Page 10] insertion into the Concordantia represent discrete stages of Valla’s philological procedure. In fact Valla’s argumentation evolves in a kind of concentric movement. After discussing the hagiographic “fiction” of the Legenda, he treats the canonical “inauthenticity” of the Constitutum as a later insertion into the Concordantia. Then Valla returns to the notion that it was “made up” or “fictional” when he declares the Constitutum a juridical “forgery.” 5

Valla’s Methodology and Argumentative Procedure

The Oratio—this was how Valla titled his work—is a confutative discourse, rhetorically structured in the epideictic mode, although particular passages also assume forensic and deliberative modes. The oration was written in accordance with rhetorical norms for investigation and argumentation that Valla had learned from and elaborated on the Institutio oratoria of Quintilian, the writer Valla considered preeminent in the rhetorical tradition. 6

“This speech of mine,” Valla emphasizes, is a speech intended for and offered to the universal assembly of Christendom. Although directly addressing the Papacy and in particular the ruling pope, Eugenius IV, the “oration” is conceived as though delivered in the presence of both the ecclesiastical hierarchy and civil authorities (“quasi...

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