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Ercole de Roberti

Ercole d’Antonio de’ Roberti was one of the outstanding Ferrarese painters of the fifteenth century. He was born in the mid-1450s, the son of a tailor, Antonio Grande. Ercole was a pupil of Francesco del Cossa, and is recorded in his workshop in Bologna in 1473. According to Vasari, he had a close relationship with his master, behaving like a son to him to the very end of his life. His first important independent commission seems to have been a large altarpiece for the presbytery of San Lazzaro, a church in the suburbs of Ferrara. Dating from the mid-1470s, the altarpiece was a highly innovative work, taking the form of a unified sacra conversazione at a time when the polyptych was still the standard form of altarpiece. The altarpiece, formerly at Berlin, was destroyed in 1945.

After Cossa’s death in 1478, Ercole set up business in Ferrara in 1479 in partnership with his brother Polidoro and others. He painted an altarpiece (now in the Brera) for a church in Porto, near Ravenna, in 1480-81, and then worked again in Bologna for several years. He completed frescoes (now destroyed) in the Garganelli Chapel in San Pietro that had been left unfinished by Cossa at his death. According to Vasari, he returned in disgust to Ferrara after the envious Bolognese artists raided his house and stole his sketches.

He was court painter to the Este from 1486 at an unusually high salary of 240 lire a year. As well as painting portraits, devotional pictures and murals, he designed wedding chests and beds, carriages and decorations for court ceremonials, and provided architectural drawings and models. An elaborate fresco cycle, depicting scenes from the story of Cupid and Psyche, was painted for the Este villa at Belriguardo. In a letter of 19 March 1491 to Ercole I d’Este complaining of arrears of payment, he describes himself as past the middle years of his life. In November 1492 he visited Rome in the retinue of Prince Alfonso d’Este to pay homage to the newly elected Pope Alexander VI. In December 1494 he was dismissed from the court for accompanying the prince on some late night escapade.

He died in May 1496, at the age of only forty according to Vasari, who says his life was shortened by heavy drinking. He was buried in the church of San Domenico at Ferrara. By the eighteenth century, he was completely forgotten and his pictures were misattributed to other artists, particularly Mantegna. He was ‘rediscovered’ at the end of the nineteenth century.


Baltimore. Walters Art Museum.
Head of Mourning Woman.
 Wood, 52 x 39.
The woman, mouth open in a cry of anguish, is very like one of the mourners in a large fresco of the Crucifixion painted by Ercole during the 1480s in the church (now cathedral) of San Pietro at Bologna. The fresco was destroyed in the early seventeenth century (apart from a small fragment in the Bologna Pinacoteca), but the composition is known through copies. The Baltimore panel, which shows the woman leaning through a marble frame and over a marble sill, is something of a puzzle: it is clearly not a portrait and would be highly unusual as a devotional image. It has been suggested that it might have been painted by Ercole as a modello or sample for the patrons of the fresco. Another possibility is that it is a copy taken from Ercole's fresco (or from an old copy of his fresco). Acquired (with an absurd attribution to Leonardo da Vinci) by Henry Walters in 1902 with the vast Massarenti collection. Published as a work of Ercole in 1965 (by Federico Zeri in Bollettino d'Arte).            

Berlin. Gemäldegalerie.
Saint John the Baptist. Wood, 54 x 31.
The emaciated saint, meditating on the cross he is holding, stands on a rocky ledge overlooking the sea with a port shrouded in mist in the distance. This idiosyncratic, mystical work is astonishingly powerful in spite of its diminutive size. Unusually for a Ferrarese picture of this period, it was painted mainly in oil rather than tempera. Formerly in the Dondi-Orologio collection at Padua, where it was ascribed to Mantegna. Given to the Berlin Museum by Wilhelm Wolff in 1885. It was attributed to Ercole in 1887 by Adolfo Venturi; but it was catalogued for a time under the name of ‘Stefano da Ferrara’, to whom Ercole’s altarpiece in the Brera was once ascribed. It may date from the late 1470s.
Madonna. Wood, 33 x 25.
This small, Bellini-esque devotional picture of the Madonna seated beneath a marble canopy may date from the 1490s. It was one of at least five paintings acquired from the Costabili collection of Ferrara by Alexander Barker of London in the late 1850s. Acquired by the Berlin Museum in 1891.

Bologna. Pinacoteca.
Head of Mary Magdalene. Fresco, 28 x 24.
The sole remaining fragment of the frescoes that decorated the Garganelli Chapel in San Pietro in Bologna (now the Cathedral). The frescoes were started by Cossa, who executed the ceiling, and finished, after his death in 1478, by Ercole. Vasari says they took twelve years to complete – seven years for the fresco painting and five years for finishing the work a secco. Michelangelo is said to have praised them as ‘half a Rome in quality’. The Garganelli Chapel was demolished in 1605 when the church was rebuilt. The fragment comes from the scene of the Crucifixion, which is described in some detail by Vasari. Mary Magdalene was shown running, distraught with grief, across the foreground. The whole scene was charged with violent emotion: the Virgin swooning at the foot of the cross and the two thieves writhing in pain as soldiers break their legs. The composition is recorded in copies, one of which was given to the church of San Pietro by Berenson in 1915.
Saint Michael. Wood, 19 x 15.
A damaged fragment, showing just the upper half of the figure, who was presumably holding scales in his right hand and probably trampling on the devil. Acquired from the Santini collection, Ferrara, in 1906.

Chicago. Art Institute.
Virgin and Child. Wood, 52 x 35.
The Child holds cherries, symbolising the Passion. The Virgin wears an unusual headband with pearls and precious stones. First recorded in 1909 in the collection of Adolf von Beckerath of Berlin; bought in 1929 by Charles H. Worchester of Chicago, and given to the Art Institute in 1947. Previously attributed (by Tancred Borenius in 1912) to Giovanni Buonconsiglio, a minor artist of the Vicentine school. The attribution to Ercole was made by Roberto Longhi in 1934. Possibly one of two paintings of the Virgin and Child documented as painted by Ercole in May 1487 and December 1491. Badly abraded.

Dresden. Gemäldegalerie.
The Betrayal; Road to Calvary. Wood, 35 x 118.
These were the side panels of a predella from the church of San Giovanni in Monte at Bologna. The central scene, the Deposition from the Cross, is in Liverpool. When first described in 1560, the predella was situated beneath the high altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin, signed and dated 1501 by Lorenzo Costa, which is still in the church. Vasari states that the predella was painted at the same time as the lost frescoes of the Garganelli Chapel, and it probably dates from the first half of the 1480s. In 1695 the predella was placed in the small sacristy. The Dresden panels were removed from the church in about 1750 by Luigi Crespi, Canon of Santa Maria Maggiore, for Augustus III, Elector of Saxony.

Ferrara. Pinacoteca.
Saint Petronius. Wood, 27 x 13.
This tiny picture may have served as a model for Michelangelo’s youthful marble figure of the saint on the Arca di San Domenico at Bologna. It is one of a series of seven small panels of saints: the others are in the Louvre (SS. Michael and Apollonia), the Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum at Rotterdam (St Anthony Abbot), and the Cini Collection in Venice (SS. George, Jerome and Catherine of Alexandria). They decorated the pilasters of Cossa’s altarpiece of about 1473 for the Griffoni Chapel in San Petronio at Bologna, the central panel of which is now in London.
Madonna of the Roses’. Wood, 45 x 34.
The Madonna sits on a marble bench, between two vases of roses. The background was originally blue sky and the Virgin had a gold halo. From the Vendeghini collection, Ferrara; given to the gallery in 1973.

Ferrara. Palazzo Schifanoia. Salone dei Mesi.
Scenes for the Month of September. Frescoes.
Upper panel: the Triumph of Vulcan in a chariot drawn by monkeys; the Cyclops at work in Vulcan’s forge; and Mars and Ylia, the parents of Romulus and Remus, in their marriage bed. Middle panel: Libra. Lower panel: Duke Borso out hunting and in his palace receiving Venetian ambassadors. These scenes were attributed to the youthful Ercole by Roberto Longhi in 1934. The attribution is repeated in most guidebooks; but it is doubted by a number of recent critics, including Joseph Manca in his 1992 monograph, both on stylistic grounds and on the grounds that Ercole would have been implausibly young at the time (about 1468-70) when the frescoes were painted.

Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum.
Brutus and Portia. Wood, 49 x 34.
In order to convince her husband that she was worthy to share in the conspiracy, Portia wounded herself with a razor. She is depicted displaying her cut foot to Brutus. One of a series of pictures of virtuous women of antiquity, which also included the Wife of Hasdrubal in Washington and the Death of Lucretia at Modena. It has been suggested that they decorated a cassone but they are more likely to have been set into the panelling or wainscoting of a room. They were probably painted for Duchess Eleonora of Aragon, daughter of the King of Naples and wife of Ercole I d’Este, and could have formed part of the decoration (recorded between March and August 1492) for the lodge of her garden. Formerly in the Cook collection at Richmond; acquired in 1986.

Liverpool. Walker Art Gallery.
Pietà. Wood, 34 x 31.
The Virgin Mary, cloaked in black, grieves over her son's body, which is stretched rigidly across her knees. She is seated on the sarcophagus in front of the rock-cut tomb. Calvary is sketchily depicted in the background. A great crowd of mourners, spectators and mounted soldiers is gathered under the three crosses, while the city of Jerusalem is just visible on the hill to the left. This poignant little painting was the centre panel of a three-part predella of the Passion of Christ from the church of San Giovanni in Monte at Bologna. The two, much longer, side panels are in Dresden. X-ray photographs have revealed that the Liverpool panel had a keyhole on the left, suggesting that it was used as the door of a tabernacle for the Host. It seems to have been sold from the church around the middle of the eighteenth century. It was among the early Italian and Netherlandish works collected by William Roscoe in about 1804-16 and presented in 1819 to the Liverpool Royal Institution. The panel was then ascribed to Antonio Pollaiuolo, and was later given to Mantegna. Cavalcaselle, in 1865, seems to have been the first to attribute it to Ercole and to recognise the association with the Dresden panels.

London. National Gallery.
The Israelites gathering Manna. Canvas (transferred from panel), 29 x 64.
Probably part of a tabernacle for the Host, which also incorporated the Last Supper, also in the National Gallery, and a panel, now lost, representing Melchizedek blessing Abraham. Joseph Manca (1985) argued that the three panels were originally placed as a predella below a picture of the Pietà in the church of San Domenico at Ferrara. This picture is known from a copy in the Palazzo Venezia (formerly Blumenstihl collection), Rome. In 1592 all three small panels belonged to Lucrezia d’Este, Duchess of Ferrara. The Israelites gathering Manna was later in the huge collection of Cardinal Fesch at Rome with an ascription to Masaccio (there were once traces of an alleged signature in the bottom left-hand corner). Purchased by the National Gallery in 1886 from the heirs of the Earl of Dudley.
Last Supper. Wood, 30 x 21.
Probably the door of a tabernacle. It was described as such when sold in 1811, and X-ray photographs have revealed that the small panel was originally fitted with a keyhole and hinges. Acquired by W. Y. Ottley in 1798 from the Villa Aldobrandini in Rome, and later in the Hamilton Palace collection, near Glasgow. Purchased by the National Gallery in 1882. Up until this time it had always been ascribed to Masaccio. The attribution to Ercole has sometimes been doubted; the panel was only ‘ascribed’ to him in Martin Davis’s 1961 Gallery catalogue, but cleaning in 1986 helped to reveal its high quality. Areas of paint loss in the lower part of the picture (affecting the left-hand figure, the tablecloth and floor) have been covered up by restoration.
Adoration of the Shepherds; The Dead Christ. Wood, 18 x 14.
There are tiny scenes of the Annunciation to the Shepherds in the background of the Adoration, and of St Jerome, the Stigmatization of St Francis and the Deposition in the background of the Dead Christ. The two panels formed a small, folding diptych covered in velvet recorded in an inventory of the possessions of Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara, drawn up at her death in 1493. Faded remains of the red velvet are still attached to the back of the panels. Acquired by Sir Charles Eastlake in about 1858 from the Costabili collection at Ferrara (where they were attributed to Costa).

Los Angeles. J. P. Getty Museum.
Saint Jerome. Wood, 34 x 22.
The finely drawn, elderly emaciated saint holds a stone to his breast and contemplates a crucifix. His cardinal’s hat and bible are in a niche of the vaulted ruins behind him; a tiny lion is foreshortened from the back. The back of this portable devotional panel is painted to resemble porphyry. Probably an early work of the mid-1470s. Previously in the British collections of Lord Ward, the Rev. W. Bromley-Davenport and Sir Thomas Barlow; bought by the Getty Museum in 1996.

Madrid. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.
The Argonauts Leaving Colchis. Wood, 35 x 27.
The men in armour in the stern are probably the twins Castor and Pollux, and the two principal figures by the main mast are probably the hero Jason and the Colchian sorceress Medea. One of a series of six panels representing episodes from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. The panels originally decorated a matching pair of cassoni (bridal chests), which are recorded, with an attribution to 'Ercole da Ferrara', in the 1638 inventory of the collection of the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani at Rome. It has been suggested that the cassoni might have been made for the marriage in February 1490 of Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga. (Ercole is said to have painted no less than thirteen cassoni for this occasion, as well as designing the nuptial bed, a magnificent chariot and a gilded buccentaur.) Another possibility is that the cassoni were made in Bologna for the marriage in 1486 of Sallustio Guidotti and Griseide Bentivoglio. (Two panels bear traces of what might be the Guidotti family's coat-of-arms.) The five other panels from the two cassoni are dispersed among different museums and collections. The subjects are the Flight of the Argonauts from Colchis (Museo Civico at Padua), Banquet at the Court of KIng Aeëtes (Musée des Arts Décoratifs at Paris), Battle of the Argonauts (a fragment in the Rucellai collection at Florence), Jason seizing the Golden Fleece (private collection) and King Aeëtes and His Courtiers (a small fragment sold at Sotheby's in April 1989). The panels were certainly produced in Ercole de' Roberti's workshop or circle, but the quality of execution varies considerably. Several writers (beginning with Roberto Longhi in Officina Ferrarese (1934)) have seen the hand of the young Lorenzo Costa in some scenes. The Thyssen panel is generally considered the best of the series and is the one most commonly attributed to Ercole himself. It was formerly in the collection of the Dutch banker Friedrich Gutmann, who loaned it to an exhibition of Ferrarese Renaissance paintings at the Villa Favorita in 1934 and sold it to Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza a year later. It has been cut at the top and, more considerably, at the right edge. 

Milan. Brera.
Portuense Altarpiece. Canvas (transferred from panel), 323 x 240.
This large altarpiece is Ercole’s only surviving documented work. It was painted for the church of Santa Maria in Porto Fuori, near Ravenna, and Ercole received payments on the 26 March and 7 May 1481. Bernardino da Venezia carved the frame. The composition was probably influenced by the early sacra conversazione altarpieces painted in Venice by Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini. The Madonna is enthroned on an extraordinarily high pedestal between St Anne, who reaches out to touch a bird in the Christ Child’s hand, and St Elizabeth, seated praying. St Augustine stands below on the left; he was the patron saint of the Canonici Lateranensi, who officiated at the church and commssioned the altarpiece. On the right is the Blessed Pietro degli Onesti. He founded the church at the beginning of the twelfth century as a votive offering after surviving a shipwreck, and the stormy sea viewed through the open pedestal of the throne probably refers to his miraculous deliverance. On the base of the throne are scenes in simulated bronze of the Massacre of the Innocents, the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple. The marble reliefs on the spandrels of the vaulted canopy represent Samson with the jawbone of an ass and David with the head of Goliath. The church of Santa Maria in Porto Fuori was shut in 1798, and the picture was moved first to the church of San Francesco at Ravenna and thence to the Brera in 1811. It was traditionally ascribed to 'Stefano da Ferrara' (an obscure painter mentioned by Vasari as a friend of Mantegna) and was first recognised as a work of Ercole at the end of the nineteenth century (by Adolfo Venturi). The documentary proof of Ercole's authorship was published in 1904 (by Corrado Ricci in Rassegna d'Arte).
   
Modena. Galleria Estense.
Death of Lucretia. Wood, 48 x 34.
After her rape by Sextus, Lucretia stabs herself before her husband Collatinus, and Lucius Junius Brutus (who faces the viewer). A late work in poor condition. One of a series of panels of heroines of classical antiquity, which includes the Brutus and Portia at Ford Worth and the Wife of Hasdrubal at Washington. They have sometimes been regarded as studio or collaborative works, executed partly by Gianfrancesco Maineri (a painter from Parma who was employed at the Este court at Ferrara). The Lucretia has been recorded in the Este collection since 1624.

Paris. Louvre.
St Michael; St Apollonia. Wood, 27 x 11.
St Michael, a warrior in Roman armour, weighs souls and, with his spear raised, stands over the defeated devil. St Apollonia, supposedly a beautiful girl tortured by her teeth being extracted by pincers, displays the instrument of her martyrdom. Two of seven surviving little panels of saints in niches; the others are at Ferrara, Rotterdam and Venice (Cini collection). There were twelve such panels originally, which decorated the frame of the Griffoni Altarpiece, painted by Francesco Cossa and the young Ercole de’ Roberti in about 1473 for San Petronio, Bologna. The St Michael and St Apollonia passed through the Cholmondeley, Northwick and Rothchild collections in the nineteenth century, and were given to the Louvre in 1899. They were first attributed to Ercole by Berenson in 1907.

Rome. Vatican Pinacoteca.
Miracles of St Vincent Ferrer. Wood, 30 x 215.
Identified in 1888 by Gustavo Frizzoni as the predella of the Griffoni Altarpiece, which was dedicated to St Vincent Ferrer. Vasari ascribed the predella to Ercole, claiming that it is a better painting than the main panel by Cossa (now in the National Gallery, London). Some modern critics think that Ercole only helped in the execution of the predella, while others think that he was responsible for the planning and composition as well. The seven-foot predella is unusual in that it has no framing to divide the scenes. The miracles depicted are: an ill (or pregnant) woman prays to the saint; the saint raises a Jewess from the dead (or exorcises an evil spirit); a man with a bleeding leg awaits the intervention of the saint; the saint rescues a boy from falling off a building; he extinguishes a fire; and a baby, mutilated and cooked by its mad mother, is restored to life at the saint’s tomb. The predella is recorded in 1830 (as by Mantegna or Melozzo) in the possession of Francesco Brizi, a picture dealer from Città di Castello. It was purchased from him by the Papal Government in 1839.

Rome. Palazzo Venezia (on deposit). Formerly Blumenstihl Collection.
Pietà (copy). 
Wood, 174 x 137.
The dead Christ, stretched across the knees of the Virgin Mary, is mourned by the Three Maries, John the Evangelist, and two male donors dressed as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. The reliefs on the arch represent David with the Head of Goliath and Judith with the Head of Holofernes. The picture is usually called the Blumenstihl Pietà after the previous owner, the Alsatian Count Bernardo Blumenstihl. It was placed on deposit at the Palazzo Venezia in the early 1990s. A 1621 guidebook to the churches of Ferrara (Compendio Historico by Marcantonio Guarini) records that in the church of San Domenico there was a 'dead Christ, and other figures to the right of the high altar, by Ercole Grandi'. The Blumenstihl Pietà was once considered the original of the San Domenico picture. (It was accepted as such, for example, by Berenson in the early twentieth-century editions of his North Italian Painters and, tentatively, by Wilhelm Suida in his 1960 monograph on Ercole.) But it has long been recognised as an early copy. There has been a recent attribution to Giovanni Francesco Maineri, a painter from Parma who worked at the Este court at Ferrara and is known to have finished an altarpiece by Ercole. The picture has suffered badly from flaking and has been restored many times (most recently in 2002 and 2014).
Another version of the Pietà – formerly in the Pinacoteca Nazionale at Bologna and now in the Pinacoteca at Ferrara – probably dates from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century and is sometimes attributed to Sebastiano Filippi (called Bastianino). It reverses the composition, omits some figures, adds others, and has a landscape background.      

Rotterdam. Boyman-Van Beuningen Museum.
Saint Anthony Abbot. Wood, 26 x 11.
The bearded monk, standing almost in profile in a fictive niche, is identified as St Anthony Abbot by the bell he holds in his left hand and his crutch in the form of a tau-cross. This small vertical panel came from the left-hand pilaster of the Griffoni Altarpiece. It formerly belonged to the Viennese banker Stephan von Auspitz, whose collection was broken up after the Austrian financial crisis of 1931.

Venice. Cini Collection.
St George; St Jerome; St Catherine of Alexandria. Wood, each 26 x 9.
The three saints, shown standing in shallow niches, are immediately identifiable. St George's shield is emblazoned with his red cross and he tramples on the dragon he has slain. St Jerome is represented as a cardinal studying his Latin translation of the Bible. St Catherine is shown with a book, symbolising her precocious learning, and the spiked wheel on which she was tortured. These three small vertical panels belonged to the altarpiece painted by Cossa and Ercole in about 1473 for the Griffoni Chapel in San Petronio at Bologna. They decorated the right-hand pilaster of the frame. The St George was once in the Costabili collection at Ferrara, and was later in the collections of Alexander Barker and Lord Rosebery in London. The St Jerome and St Catherine were formerly in the Benson collection, London, and later with the dealer Contini Bonacossi in Florence.

Washington. National Gallery.
Wife of Hasdrubal. Wood, 47 x 31.
The picture was once called ‘Medea and Her Sons’. The current interpretation was suggested by Edmund G. Gardner in 1911. After the cowardly Hasdrubal had surrendered to the Romans, his nameless wife preserved her honour by immolating herself and her children in the burning temple of Carthage. First recorded in 1812 in the possession of Count Étienne Méjan of Milan (secretary of Eugène Beauharnais); by 1878 in the Cook collection at Richmond; and acquired by the National Gallery in 1965. The Brutus and Portia, also formerly in the Cook collection and now in the Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth, and the Death of Lucretia at Modena are from the same series. They are late works, probably dating from the early 1490s.
Giovanni II Bentivoglio and His Wife. Two panels, each 54 x 38/39.
The portraits, which recall Piero della Francesca's famous double portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, show the sitters in profile, facing each other. The couple are splendidly attired. His doublet of maroon velvet brocade is embroidered with gold thread and trimmed at the neck with white fur. The borders of her brown velvet gown are adorned with gemstones and pearls, and her underdress is of precious cloth of gold. Her fair hair is elaborately dressed in the shape of horns (a corni) and covered with silk scarves. There are views of Bologna's city walls and towers through the windows behind. Giovanni II succeeded Sante Bentivoglio as ‘principal citizen’ of Bologna in 1463 and retained power until 1506, when Julius II restored the Papal State. He died in exile in 1508. He married his predecessor’s widow – the cruel and violent Ginevra Sforza. The identities of the two sitters are established by the resemblance to other painted and sculpted portraits (including those in Lorenzo Costa’s altarpiece of 1488 in the Bentivolgio Chapel of San Giacomo Maggiore at Bologna). To judge from the apparent ages (Giovanni was born in 1443 and Ginevra in 1438), the two profile portraits probably date from around 1475-80. Roberto Longhi's attribution to Ercole dates from 1934. It is now generally accepted, following earlier attributions to Cossa (Bode) and to Gianfrancesco Maineri or Francesco Bianchi Ferrari (Berenson). The portraits were acquired in Italy by Louis Charles Timbal, who sold them in 1872 to Gustave Dreyfus of Paris. Dreyfus’s children sold them in 1930 to Duveen, who sold them on to Samuel H. Kress in 1936.