Roberti was born by the mid-1450s, presumably in Ferrara. That he trained at some point under the Ferrarese painter Francesco del Cossa is indicated by stylistic evidence as well as the tradition related by Vasari (who, however, confused Cossa with Lorenzo Costa). Roberti collaborated with Cossa early in his career, in Bologna, although he is also documented in Ferrara at various times in the 1470s. Ercole's earliest surviving works include seven small panels with figures of saints (now dispersed) and the predella (Miracles of Saint Vincent Ferrer; Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City) for the Griffoni altarpiece, the main panels of which were painted by Cossa. Roberti's Bentivoglio portraits in the Gallery are close in style to Cossa, with their bright enamel coloring, brittle textures, complicated and stylized draperies, and elegantly artificial anatomy. Somewhat further from Cossa in manner--although some saw the hand of the older master in particulars--is Roberti's San Lazzaro altarpiece of the second half of the 1470s (originally in Ferrara, destroyed in Berlin, 1945); it brilliantly exemplified the lively, decoratively mannered Ferrarese style that developed during the third quarter of the fifteenth century.
In early 1479 Roberti is recorded as having established a workshop in Ferrara. From this time comes his only documented, surviving painting, the Pala Portuense, finished by 1480-1481 for Santa Maria in Porto, outside Ravenna (now Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). The composition of the altarpiece, with the enthroned Madonna placed aloft in an architectural setting, is based on the vertical, airy sacra conversazione altarpieces recently introduced in Venice, and the handling shows that Roberti was aware of the warm, unifying light, broader figures, and soft draperies of Giovanni Bellini. From this point on in his career, Roberti moderated some of the more extravagant mannerisms of the Ferrarese school with a more Venetian temperament.
By 1481 Roberti was back in Bologna to paint frescoes of the Crucifixion and the Dormition of the Virgin for the Garganelli chapel in San Pietro. The murals--all but one lost, though we know them from copies--were described at length by Vasari and established the artist's high reputation for centuries to come. During the early or mid-1480s Roberti also painted a dramatic, three-part predella of the Passion of Christ, originally for an altarpiece in San Giovanni in Monte in Bologna, but now divided between the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, and the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Both the Garganelli chapel frescoes and the Passion predella revived the copious and expressionistic trecento Passion iconography that still dominated northern European religious imagery in the late fifteenth century. Roberti's style in the 1480s in Bologna also echoed the detail, angularity, emotion, and violence that embody northern European traditions of painting.
Roberti returned to Ferrara by 1486 to work as court painter for Ercole I d'Este, and he remained there until his death in 1496. Much of his work for the Estensi consisted of such ephemera as triumphal cars and pennants; he also decorated wedding chests for the Este princesses Isabella and Beatrice (1489-1490). He painted many secular works in Ferrara, including a large fresco cycle (now lost) with scenes from the story of Cupid and Psyche for the Este villa at Belriguardo. Some smaller secular works, including the NGA's Wife of Hasbrudal and Her Children, probably date to this final period in Roberti's life, although nearly all of his later surviving works are small religious compositions. In this last period some Ferrarese mannerisms--including disjunctures of narrative, irrational space, and fantastic coloring--appear with renewed force in Roberti's art, although he continued to explore Venetian softness and coloring. In his final years (1494-1496) Roberti designed sculpture and architecture, notably a large equestrian monument for Duke Ercole I d'Este and the church of Santa Maria in Vado. Both were created in the aulic, classicizing style that epitomized the duke's urban expansion of Ferrara.
Roberti's high reputation was fixed by Vasari's Vite, and the centuries could do little to erode it. Indeed, the Italian connoisseur Roberto Longhi judged Roberti to be the leading artist in Italy toward the end of the fifteenth century, equaled perhaps only by Leonardo. Roberti's essential contribution was to fuse the mannered, artificial style of Ferrara with contemporary Venetian art, Netherlandish painting, German engravings, and classical sculpture and architecture. His surviving oeuvre of about thirty-five paintings and drawings is rich, varied, and marked by a high level of technical competence. [This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
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Allen, Denise, and Luke Syson, with contributions from Jennifer Helvey and David Jaffé. Ercole de' Roberti: The Renaissance in Ferrara. London, 1999 (also published as a supplement to The Burlington Magazine 141, April 1999).
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 601-602.