Lorenzo Valla. On the Donation of Constantine.
Trans. G. W. Bowersock. The I Tatti Renaissance Library 24. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2007. xvi + 206 pp. index. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-674-02533-2.
The Italian humanists often claimed that they had restored ancient bonae literace, brought Cicero back to life, and rescued ancient authors from their hideous monastic dungeons. However accurate or exaggerated the humanists' assertion--and however convincing historians' claims that Renaissance properly acknowledges this cultural aspiration--the humanists also despaired of changing the barbarous language of their contemporaries. By the sixteenth century significant strides had been taken toward recovering a sophisticated Latinity, not least through clarifying and classifying Latin usage in different periods of antiquity. The number of teachers capable of inculcating these classical sensibilities had also grown. Even so, the relative scarcity of these teachers continued to frustrate the humanists. Gianfrancesco Pico had remarked that in praise of eloquence one "would be right to prefer to those great men and champions of yore the mediocre speakers of today, namely those who, though surrounded by Goths, Vandals, and Huns, keep to that ancient pattern of speech, wiped out so many centuries ago" (3.18). Some experienced further disquiet with the expanding influence of vernacular literature. The authors in the Ciceronian Controversies refer to these conditions, and Celio Calcagnini (On Imitation 8.4-6) decried them with particular poignance.
Each of the writers in this controversy sought to solve this predicament. In the mid-1480s, Paolo Cortese collected examples that he thought best represented Ciceronian style and sent them to Angelo Poliziano; so commenced "the single most important literary debate of the Renaissance" (vii). These texts, edited by DellaNeva and translated by Duvick, are thoughtfully introduced and accompanied by excellent notes. They are crucial for comprehending the humanists' aspirations of reinstating the ancient literary-theroricad esthetic. Indeed, this attempt has been much discussed, and sometimes misunderstood, from George Voigt's Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums (1859), Jacob Burkhardt's Die Culture der Renaissance in Italien (1860), and Remigio Sabbadini's Storia del Ciceronianismo (1885) through an ever-growing body of contemporary scholarship.
Ciceronian Controversies contains the literary exchanges between Angelo Poliziano and Paolo Cortesi (mid-1480s), Gianfrancesco Pico and Pietro Bembo (1512-13), Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio and Celio Calcagnini (1532-37), and selections from the treatises of Antonio Possevino (1593-1603). These texts represent the crucial installments in the "battle of the Ciceronians and the Eclectics" (vii). They share the field with other texts (not appearing here), most notably Desiderius Erasmus's Ciceronianus of 1528, which he wrote in defense of his own eclectic style. His defense rancorously twisted the position of the Ciceronians into a paganizing tendency. The texts and translations in Ciceronian Controversies expose the tendentious nature of Erasmus's assertion; for the quarrel was not about religious but rather stylistic influence. Its practical ramifications for teachers and students directly fueled its intensity. The humanistic fascination with recovering the literary esthetics of antiquity forced them to address the question of how to discern good style and how to teach and to learn that style. They were fully aware that this question had come up even in antiquity. It centered on proper imitation. Could one really imitate only one author, namely Cicero, and emerge with one's own authentic style? Could you avoid being tagged "the ape of Cicero" if you aspired to follow only his example? On the other hand, was it possible to pull together the best features from several authors and concoct your own stylistic brew, one that would reflect the refined esthetics of a language not your mother tongue? These authors reflect on their own education and on the stylistic accomplishments and struggles of their contemporaries. They discuss their attempts to educate and advise those who are trying to perfect a sophisticated Latin style.
In Lorenzo Valla's On the Donation of Constantine (1440), Bowersock provides a new translation in company with the Latin text established by Wofram Setz for Monumenta Germaniae Historical (1976). Bowersock's introduction and notes are concise yet inclusive of the information necessary for an intelligent reading of the text. Whereas the authors in the Ciceronian Controversies were searching for a prescriptive Latin--that is, discussing models that instruct an elegant style--Valla employs descriptive Latin, citing examples indicative of language in time and place. If Valla is not the first humanist to do this, he is certainly the first to do it on this scale and with this effect. As Bowersock's introduction points out, Valla's On the Donation of Constantine made little impact on his contemporaries, inside or outside the papal curia. The text appears not to have circulated widely in his own day. In any case, some evidence suggests that the spurious nature of the Donation was already recognized at the time of his writing. Valla's attempts to fan the flames of resentment about the forgery perhaps created little more than a sense of awkwardness in his own day, given that he soon became apostolic scriptor under Nicholas V. No simple uneasiness accompanied its publication by Ulrich von Hutten in 1506. Valla's text reverberated with just the sort of thing that would make later Protestants swoon. Besides other Latin editions, by 1546 it had appeared in Czech, French, German, English, and Italian.
Valla demonstrated the forgery of the Donation through an analysis of both its anachronistic vocabulary and style. Bowersock's translation admirably conveys the stylistic awkwardness in the Latin of the Donation to which Valla was responding. Beyond emphasizing anachronistic vocabulary, to make his case Valla would only have needed to demonstrate the incongruity between the fourth-century stylistic refinements of Constantine's court, for example Lactantius (43, 51, 56), and those prevailing when the Donation was written (middle to late eighth century). Valla said much more. He took every opportunity to attack the barbarous Latin of the Donation's author(s). His sense of linguistic anachronism reverberates with his own stylistic preferences. For Valla, the Latin of the Donation is demonstrably not from Constantine's time; furthermore, it betrays its provenance in a barbarous age through its clumsy pretension to imperial grandeur.
Both of these volumes constitute valuable additions to the growing body of Renaissance texts and translations. The editors and translators well deserve our gratitude for careful and valuable work. Similar thanks goes the editors and sponsors of the I Tatti Renaissance Library series.
Central Michigan University
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|Title Annotation:||On the Donation of Constantine|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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