Saturday, March 22, 2008

BOOK: Lorenzo Valla, "On the Donation of Constantine"

Lorenzo Valla: On the Donation of Constantine. Translated by G. W. Bowersock. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 24. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674025334. xvi + 206 pp.

The Donation of Constantine is a forgery, probably made around the year 800; it claims to be an edict of the Roman emperor Constantine, in which he transfers his authority over the western part of the Roman empire into the hands of the then pope, Sylvester. In the middle ages and the Renaissance, popes occasionally tried to use this forged document to bolster their claims to temporal power. Eventually a 15th-century humanist, Lorenzo Valla, wrote a short treatise in which he thoroughly demolishes the claims for the authenticity of the Donation. In addition to Lorenzo's treatise, this book also contains the text of the Donation itself as an appendix.

This was quite an enjoyable read. Lorenzo writes in an interesting style, parts of the book read like a speech, parts like a dialogue or a courtroom trial, and parts like a delightful rant. The use of the various standard rhetorical techniques, which was so greatly appreciated by both ancient and renaissance authors, often leaves me cold, but not in this book, where they are deployed judiciously and in moderation.

As for the contents, Lorenzo attacks the Donation from several angles and demolishes it so thoroughly that it's difficult to imagine how anybody can ever have taken it seriously in the first place. He points out how unimaginable it is that an emperor such as Constantine would simply give up half of his empire just like that; how pope Sylvester, who was not a power-hungry worldly pope like those of the renaissance, wasn't the sort of person who would accept such a donation anyway; how, even if the text of the Donation was authentic, there is no evidence that the actual transfer of power ever really took place; how, even if the actual transfer of power really had taken place, there is then no evidence that would explain how Sylvester or his successors eventually came to lose the control over the western Empire that Constantine had supposedly granted them.

I must admit that there's another thing that really surprises me about the Donation, namely: even if it were authentic, so f**king what? I mean, just try to imagine what this must have looked like: it's the year 1400 or so, and some feeble bearded old pope comes up with this 1000-year old piece of sheepskin proving that his predecessor of a thousand years ago was invested with the rule over the western Roman empire. Obviously, the German emperor, the kings of France, Spain, and England, and the two dozen or so petty Italian princelings will, upon hearing this joyous news, hasten to acknowledge the pope as their temporal liege-lord and master and start acting as his nice obedient little satraps (to use a word that the author of the Donation was so fond of; see below), right? Yeah, I didn't think so either. Did anybody on the papal side seriously believe that, even if the rulers of western Europe were to acknowledge the donation as real, that this would have any effect on their policy? People aren't going to care whether something gave you control over a territory a thousand years ago unless you can also back up your claims with an army now, in the present time. And if you can do this, then the thousand-year old claim isn't all that important anyway; at best it can be the icing on a cake.

Lorenzo also criticizes the text of the Donation from the point of view of language as well, pointing out many examples of strange, infelicitous or even outright wrong usage of the Latin language, things which you wouldn't expect in a document written in Constantine's imperial chancellery but which perhaps aren't too surprising in the work of some half-illiterate 9th-century cleric. This is the sort of thing that is hard to translate into another language, I guess, and I must say that the translator is making a very valiant effort to try to reproduce in English the same sort of contrast that Lorenzo points out in the Latin original, i.e. the difference between the clumsy text of the Donation and what you would expect in a genuine, well-written imperial edict. Despite this effort, I couldn't help feeling that some of Lorenzo's arguments in this section of the treaties don't make that much sense in the translation; I imagine that to really appreciate them, one would have to read the original. Occasionally I also felt that Lorenzo was fulminating against phrases that could have been legitimate — there isn't always just one correct way of saying something.

But anyway, many things do come across in the translation nevertheless, e.g. when Lorenzo points out how the author of the Donation is clearly trying to bluff his way through the details of things with which he is unfamiliar (e.g. the imperial and papal regalia, §§49–51), and how he is trying to cover up his ignorance by writing in a style so pompous and overblown that it's just silly (§§43, 53, 55). Lorenzo also points out concrete examples of words that weren't yet in use in Constantine's time; one of the more blatant examples is how the Donation refers to certain Roman officials as “satraps” (§42). According to the translator's note on p. 190, this word started to be used in this way only in the 8th century. But I must say that even this amazes me — Rome and Persia had been at each other's throats for a thousand years, and then the Romans go and borrow a term from the Persians, as if they couldn't come up with their own word for some kind of provincial governor? It makes about as much sense as if the Americans decided to refer to their state governors as gauleiters from now on :)

A pleasantly bizarre factoid from the translator's notes (p. 193, n. 101): “the elder Pliny (Nat. Hist. 26. 8) reports that in Egypt elephantiasis patients were put in bathtubs warmed with human blood.”

All in all, I liked this book a lot and it's certainly one of the most interesting ITRL books I've read so far.

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