Vatican Mysteries: the Donation of Constantine forgery

Continuing yesterday’s story about the Vatican library and Procopius’ “Secret History,” an entry inspired by Daniel Mendelsohn’s wonderful recent New Yorker article about the renovation of the Vatican Library, today we examine one of the most important forgeries in world history.

Many authors and historians are guilty of over-statement (yours truly included), but in this case it is entirely safe to say that this forgery really did alter world history, and the fact that one of the popes tried to suppress it by placing it on the Vatican’s Index of forbidden books only emphasizes its impact, and makes it that much more intriguing.

The Donation of Constantine is a manuscript, written in Latin supposedly in the 4th century AD, which suggests that Emperor Constantine “donated’ all of the Western Roman Empire to the Roman Catholic Church in thanks for having been cured of leprosy by Pope Sylvester I (a sequence beautifully illustrated in a hidden fresco cycle at the church of Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome).  This preceeded the Carolingian emperor, Pepin the Short’s “Donation of Pepin,” which bequeathed the Lombards the territory north of Rome.  “The Donation of Constantine” is essentially the “deed” that gives the Church and the Pope all of the land in Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe that has made the Church far and away the wealthiest private institution in the world.  If the Donation is a fake, then that land was never meant to be owned by the church.  You can see where this would cause some problems…

One of the Vatican’s own experts, a Latin scholar named Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), was hired by Pope Nicholas V to work with the Vatican Library collection.  He is best known for having written De falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione declamatio, in which he proved that one of the most famous works in the Vatican collection, the “Donation of Constantine,” could not possibly be an authentic document based on his analysis of the Latin grammar employed by its author, which was clearly of the 8th century, not the 4th.

Though Valla was employed by the Vatican, he was largely motivated to “go public” with his discovery that the language of the “Donation” meant that it was almost certainly a fraud, created specifically to contradict the “Donation of Pepin,” because his primary employer, Alfonso of Aragon, was involved in a territorial dispute with Pope Eugene IV.  Valla’s book was a popular read among Protestants, as might well be imagined, because it demonstrated the illegitimacy of Papal holdings—Thomas Cromwell even had a translation made into English and published in 1534.

When this new English edition came out, the Vatican placed Valla’s book on its Index of forbidden books—guaranteeing, inadvertently, that it would increase in popularity, because what could be more intriguing than something that is forbidden?  But the idea that the Church would scramble to cover up the discovery by one of their own staff of a forgery in their collections is indicative of just how important the document was.  Having said that, no one at the time was in a position to push the Papacy out of the territory it had occupied for centuries, whether or not the “Donation” was real.  One could always state that the manuscript that Valla read was an 8th century adaptation of a lost 4th century original, and that can hardly be disproven, so the Vatican territories remained.

But let no one say that the contents of libraries are boring…

Noah Charney is an international best-selling author of fiction (The Art Thief) and non-fiction (Stealing the Mystic Lamb), and a professor of art history.  His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa.

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