ROBERTI, Ercole de'
(b. 1456, Ferrara, d. 1496, Ferrara)

Madonna with Child and Saints

Oil on wood, 323 x 240 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

This panel, called Portuense Altarpiece, was executed in 1480 for the church of S. Maria in Porto di Ravenna. The altarpiece was moved in the sixteenth century to the church of the same name that had been built outside the town. Following the suppression of the religious establishments and the requisition of church property in the Napoleonic period, the painting was consigned to the Accademia di Brera on April 26, 1811. Traditionally it was attributed to Stefano da Ferrara until the end of the 19th century.

The saints around the Madonna are St Augustin, St Anne, St Elisabeth and Blessed Peter of Honesty (Piero degli Onesti) who was the founder of a local clerical chapter. On the base of the throne three monochrome reliefs can be seen.

Ercole de' Roberti, who worked in the school of Cosmè Tura and Francesco del Cossa, was the last of that trio of painters who made the name of Ferrara famous. He took part in the great decorations commissioned by the ducal court and worked at Schifanoia and Belriguardo. In this altarpiece, which is the first documented work by Roberti, his style is independent, although it shows the influence of his Ferrarese antecedents. The altarpiece reveals a familiarity with Venetian art and the work of Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina in particular. Under a beautifully constructed architectural canopy, the Virgin is seated on a throne; beside her, on the octagonal podium, stand St. Anna and St. Elizabeth. The space that opens up in the marble base of the throne allows a view of the landscape around Ravenna between the colonettes. The grisaille bas-reliefs represent The Massacre of the Innocents, The Adoration of the Magi and The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; the triangular spaces above the arch show Samson with the Jawbone of an Ass and David with the Head of Goliath. The candelabra on the pilasters and the grisaille reliefs on the back of the throne and along the base show the Ferrarese taste for rigid, timeless form and for almost grotesque rock-like figures.