Although he was among the most renowned Italian painters of the late fifteenth century, Ercole de’ Roberti almost slipped through the cracks of history. Within a hundred years of his death, historians had muddled even the basic details of his life, and over the next three centuries all but two of his surviving works were attributed to different artists. The exceptions were a pair of panels depicting scenes from the Passion, the dramatic events leading up to Christ’s death of the cross.
These remarkable paintings recently underwent a major conservation treatment at the Getty Museum. Originally painted for the church of San Giovanni al Monte in Bologna, the works now belong to the Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister in Dresden. Conservation is a fundamental mandate of the Getty’s cultural and philanthropic mission, and the Paintings Conservation Department routinely undertakes partnerships with other institutions in order to provide conservation assistance with their collections. The project marks the third conservation partnership between the Getty and the Gemäldegalerie, initiatives made possible by the Getty’s Paintings Council.
The yearlong project has once again revealed the qualities Ercole was celebrated for in his day: inventiveness, variety, and emotional complexity. On view from June 18 to September 1, 2019, a new display at the Getty Center explores the history of the panels and showcases the fascinating results of the conservation treatment. Viewers will have the chance to marvel firsthand at Ercole’s brilliance in capturing the human condition as he wrestled unflinchingly with themes of passion, grief, and physical suffering.
How Is a Great Artist Almost Forgotten?
Ercole de’ Roberti was active for just over two decades toward the end of the fifteenth century, achieving considerable wealth and acclaim. He was widely celebrated, and even memorialized by poets, in the century after his death.
In part because of the dramatic changes to the political structure of his native Ferrara in the late sixteenth century, including the subsequent destruction of ducal properties, and in part because of twists of indiscriminate fate, many of his works, particularly large-scale ones, were lost. Almost all his frescos have perished, along with two grand altarpieces.
Perhaps most regrettably, a seventeenth-century reconstruction campaign of the ancient cathedral of San Pietro in Bologna led to the destruction of Ercole’s famed murals in the Garganelli Chapel. The young Michelangelo was purportedly so awed by these frescoes that he declared them “worth half the marvels of Rome.”
Giorgio Vasari later devoted a long passage to these monumental works in the second edition of his Lives (1568), which details the biographies and works of the greatest artists of Renaissance. He praised above all Ercole’s powers of invention, his capacity for abounding variety—especially in facial types—and his perceptive depiction of human pain and suffering at its rawest depths.
Such accounts are a poignant reminder of the frailty of fame and its reliance on the accident of survival. Fortunately, twentieth-century art historians reconstructed Ercole’s biography and corpus, so he has regained his rightful place among the most celebrated painters of the Italian Renaissance. Yet the scarcity of Ercole’s surviving works—owing in part to his premature death and therefore already limited number of paintings—will forever hamper our understanding of this most inventive artist.
The San Giovanni in Monte Predella
The two Dresden panels probably once formed a predella (base section of an altarpiece) for the high altar of the church of San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna. A third panel once stood in the center of the group; today it is located at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Alas, it is not part of the exhibition, as it is too fragile to travel.) The Liverpool piece depicts a Pietà, an image of the mourning Virgin Mary cradling her dead son in her lap. An earlier moment of the Crucifixion, painted as if to evoke a memory, is visible in the background.
The Dresden panels once flanked the Pietà. They show two consecutive episodes. The left panel depicts the events which took place in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Agony in the Garden and the Arrest of Christ, and the right panel illustrates the Way to Calvary. At the far left of the panel, Christ prays alone. Wholly aware of his impending fate, he seeks comfort from an angel. Though instructed to keep guard, his disciples have succumbed to slumber. There is a sense of foreboding melancholy, which contrasts with the events that play out in the rest of the panel.
At far right, a horde of soldiers, Pharisees, high priests, and servants rupture the stillness of the garden, surging onto the rocky plateau. Their aggressive force reverberates in the throng of intertwined bodies, straining limbs, and contorted faces. The disciples collide with their oppressors in a short, desperate struggle. But their efforts are in vain. In the center, Judas Iscariot kisses Christ—a prearranged signal to identify Christ to his captors—and the mob closes in.
The second panel shows Christ led to his death on Calvary. In the aftermath of his arrest, he was brought before Pontius Pilate, condemned, tortured, mocked, and crowned with thorns. Now a grim procession accompanies him to the site beyond Jerusalem’s walls where he will be nailed to the cross to die. His persecutors leer, jeer, and bear down on him wielding arms. Two thieves, also sentenced to death, lead the procession, stripped to their undershorts.
Christ’s followers trail behind and offer a poignant contrast to the brutality of his adversaries. The Virgin Mary has buckled under the weight of her grief and is supported by her companions, who are themselves overwhelmed with tears.
These remarkable scenes bear the imprint of the artist’s acutely perceptive understanding of the human condition, and the narrative complexity reveals his sophisticated awareness and adaption of artistic influences, near and far. He integrated new developments from Venice and its territories, particularly the paintings of Andrea Mantegna, as well as the work of Northern European artists, which Ercole probably knew through prints. He also responded to the local Bolognese artistic language, most notably the forcefully emotive sculptural groups of Niccolò dell’Arca.
A Commission with Unanswered Questions
Ercole likely painted the panels in the early 1480s when he was based in Bologna, a city 30 miles southwest of his birthplace, Ferrara. In the second half of the fifteenth century, Bologna enjoyed political stability and a resulting artistic revival under the de facto rulership of the Bentivoglio clan. Ercole probably first travelled there in the early 1470s with his master, Francesco del Cossa, who settled in Bologna in the final years of his life to carry out a number of prestigious commissions. Ercole then returned to Ferrara and established himself as an independent master. He was back in Bologna by 1481, apparently called to complete the commissions left unfinished by Cossa at his death.
Ercole’s Dresden and Liverpool panels take the form of a traditional predella: a series of narrative scenes in a horizontal format. They were almost certainly commissioned by the resident Lateran Canons of San Giovanni in Monte. Founded earlier in the fifteenth century, this community had recently completed a major renovation of their church and convent. Decorative projects for the church’s interior often followed such architectural overhauls. In the final decades of the century, the canons commissioned paintings, stained-glass windows, sculptures, and church furniture.
Ercole was a natural choice to supply works of art for the high altar. Not only had the canons witnessed his stunning progress on the nearby Garganelli Chapel frescoes, but the painter had produced high altarpieces for two other Lateran congregations, in Ferrara and Ravenna, just prior to his return to Bologna. Unlike these earlier projects, however, Ercole appears only to have painted a predella in Bologna. If a main altarpiece panel was planned, it seems it was never executed.
No documents relating to the commission survive—there are no contracts or payment records. As a result, we can only guess the nature of the commission and whether a main altarpiece panel was planned. Ercole may been compelled to abandon the project when only the predella was complete. Vasari’s claim that Ercole was hounded out of Bologna by the jealousy of local artists should be taken with a pinch of salt. But by 1486 the promise of a salaried position at the court of the ruling Este Dukes had lured him back to Ferrara.
Such circumstances were hardly unusual; examples of unfinished projects abound in the history of Italian Renaissance art. Yet questions remain. For example, if the predella was intended to be part of a larger project, why did Ercole work on it first, instead of focusing on the more important main panel? Perhaps this group of panels was conceived as an independent object from the outset. Alternatively, the three works could have been designed to stand on the high altar beneath something other than a painted altarpiece, such as a ciborium, a vessel to store the consecrated Host.
Intriguingly, X-ray imaging of the Liverpool Pietà has revealed a keyhole at the far left of the panel, which may indicate it was initially intended to serve as a small door to be fitted onto a liturgical furnishing, such as a Eucharistic tabernacle or reliquary. Yet it seems the keyhole was filled in and painted over at the time of production, so even if this was the original intention, the plan was abandoned.
By the mid-sixteenth century, the three paintings were displayed on the church’s high altar along with a large Coronation of the Virgin painted by Lorenzo Costa, another Ferrara-born artist. Costa completed this panel in 1501, some years after Ercole’s death, and it still stands in the church today. Ercole’s paintings remained at San Giovanni in Monte until the mid-eighteenth century and were moved to different locations within the church several times. Around 1750, agents charged with expanding the so-called Kunstkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities) of the Electors of Saxony in Dresden purchased the two longer panels from the church. They have remained in that collection ever since, which today belongs to the German state.
Bringing Ercole’s Paintings Back to Vivid Life
When the panels arrived at the Getty from Dresden last year, Ercole’s figures seemed to be trapped under old, darkened varnishes. The brownish appearance of layers of discolored varnishes and dirt gave the compositions a stultified appearance. The groups of figures had a frieze-like quality, as the sense of space and depth had become distorted. The intricacy of the detail was difficult to make out.
Getty conservator Sue Ann Chui and visiting Dresden conservator Sabine Bendfeldt began analysis and treatment. They subjected the panels to sustained examination under the microscope and used imaging techniques such as X-radiography and infrared reflectography to understand the materials and techniques of the artist, and to assess the paintings’ condition, before establishing a course of action for cleaning and stabilizing the paint surfaces. In addition, scientists in the Getty Conservation Institute mapped the presence of specific chemical elements using scanning macro X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (MA-XRF). This helped them toward identifying the use of certain pigments and also to determine areas where Ercole applied gold.
The most laborious aspect of the conservation treatment involved the painstaking removal of layers of discolored varnish using organic solvents. As the upper layers of varnish were cleaned away, it became apparent that during an earlier restoration campaign of an unknown date, a grayish toning layer had been applied to large surface areas of the paintings, selectively omitting a few key parts, such as the figure of Christ and the sky. The earlier restorer’s decision to dim down Ercole’s vibrant color palette by introducing this gray layer left us baffled, and its removal added new complexity to the cleaning process.
As the cleaning proceeded, the panels came to life before our eyes. Step by step, one detail after another emerged, and it became clear that large areas of the original paint surface were in exceptional condition. In addition to the wealth of newly revealed detail, the sense of space was now readily discerned, the color balance was restored, and the strong emotive power of the various scenes and figure-groups could be newly appreciated. Above all, the variety was truly dazzling, not only in terms of physical elements—the skin tones, hairstyles, poses, body types, costumes, headdresses, and weaponry—but also in the very means of expression. Ercole captured a vast range of emotional states and many modes of human reaction and interaction.
Remembering Vasari’s Praise
In his effusive praise of Ercole’s Garganelli frescos, Giorgio Vasari singled out the artist’s relentless inventiveness in the name of variety and a perceptive understanding of human emotion. The predella panels of San Giovanni in Monte are not only dazzlingly intricate, complex works but are also precious remnants of Ercole’s sustained exploration of the most profound forms of human experience—love, pain, grief, fear, compassion, faith—that characterized his years in Bologna.
Throughout the summer, visitors to the Getty will have the chance to come face to face with these rare works and appreciate Ercole’s mastery of complex narrative—all qualities revealed once again by this fascinating conservation project.