Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Lorenzo Valla and the Birth of Modern Philology

Lorenzo_VallaIn the telling of G.W. Bowersock, Lorenzo Valla’s demolition in 1440 of the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine (Constitutum Constantini), in which Constantine, shortly before his death, supposedly granted temporal power over the Western Empire to the bishops of Rome, inaugurated modern philology. He wasn’t the first to find the document suspect; Nicholas of Cusa had done so shortly before.

What was new was Valla’s way of treating it. He split his work into two main parts, rhetorical and philological. The opening part, imagined as set in a court of kings and princes, brings together the sons of Constantine, an orator representing the Roman senate and people, and Pope Sylvester as petitioners before the jurors, and they deliver elaborate speeches all designed to demonstrate the inherent implausibility of Constantine’s giving away half his empire. In the second part Valla rips apart the Latinity of the text of the Donation to prove, brilliantly and decisively, that Constantine could not have written it. His analysis of language and style has often been seen, rightly, as the beginning of serious philological criticism. His heirs, in acumen and savagery, were Richard Bentley and A.E. Housman. (On the Donation of Constantine [I Tatti Renaissance Library], p. vii)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.