Bernard Berenson (1865 -1959), Villa i Tatti, Florence until 1911;
From whom acquired by the present owner.
Detroit, Institute of Arts, Loan Exhibition of Italian Paintings from the XIV to XVI Century, March 1933, no. 81 (as Ercole de' Roberti);
London, Wildenstein, Early French and Italian Paintings and Illuminations, June 29 - July 30 1949, no. 32 (as Ercole de' Roberti).
This rare quattrocento panel was painted by a hand in the immediate circle of Ferrara's leading artist of the period, Ercole de' Roberti. The scene is divided into planes, delineating a clear narrative; the Nativity is placed within a stark, wooden construction in the foreground, while crossing the bridge in the near background, the Magi approach. The stony-blue mountains in the distance beyond denote the expanses they travelled to venerate the Christ child. The intense naturalism of the figures and the solemnity of their emotion are reflected in the austerity of the bare, stony landscape with meticulous sprouting weeds, the Spartan twine-bound shelter and reedy, sapling trees.
The painting was tentatively given to Ercole de' Roberti by Longhi in 1956 who believed the work to be at least based on his design, if perhaps not painted by the artist himself; indeed, the linear drawing style with precise detail strongly recalls the Ferrarese artist.1 Autograph works by Ercole de' Roberti are rare, due both to the brevity of his life and to the destruction of a large portion of his oeuvre, yet his impact on his contemporaries was significant and continued to resonate long after his death. Having assumed the attribution of a number of artists over the last century, scholarship remains divided on the authorship of this work. The most recent publication of the Adoration by Molteni in 1995 (see Literature) lists the work as a Ferrarese follower of Ercole de'Roberti, though in 1997, Pia Paladino proposed an attribution to the court manuscript illuminator, Guglielmo Giraldi (1445 – 1490), best known for his illustrations of Dante Alighieri's Inferno for Federico de Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, now in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome.2 Palladino cited the physiognomic affinity with Giraldi's broad, flat nosed figures though Toniolo is not in agreement with the potential addition to the illuminator's oeuvre.3 On the other hand, Mattia Vinco and Andrea De Marchi, tentatively note stylistic similarities between this painting and the drawing of a Pagan Sacrifice now in the Art Institute of Chicago, formerly attributed to Giovan Francesco Maineri, though now considered closer to Giovan Battista Cavaletto (active 1486 - 1523), a painter, sculptor and illuminator and close follower of Ercole de' Roberti. Cavaletto's drawing style is indeed remarkably similar to this hand. Benati, however, does not agree with the either of these hypotheses and sees this hand more as a follower of Francesco del Cossa rather than of his pupil, Ercole.
De' Roberti trained in the studio of Francesco del Cossa and his style was heavily influenced not only by his master but also by Andrea Mantegna. We see in the present panel the tawny palette, the gritty, barren landscape and linear, monumental figures inherited from Mantegna, and indeed the shepherd in the immediate foreground, to the right, derives almost directly from St. Longinus in Mantegna's engraving, The Risen Christ between Saints Andrew and Longinus, in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The shepherd shares not only his pose, but also the same drapery, adapted to the garb of a shepherd. The saint's armor has been replaced by a simple shift, that is draped into the same folds and the long spear in the crook of his arm has been substituted with a shepherd's staff. Like the Paduan master, the artist here draws drapery in thin, tight, folds that fall in a convincing, yet stylized pattern of lines across the figures' elbows and knees. The figures themselves owe much to Ercole, the broad yet angular faces, wide noses and flat cheekbones are reminiscent of those in The Last Supper in the National Gallery, London.
We are grateful for the assistance of Mattia Vinco, Andrea de Marchi, and Daniele Benati in the cataloguing of this painting on the basis of photographs.
1. R. Longhi, Officina Ferrarese, Rome 1934, p. 59 (as likely designed by Ercole de' Roberti though not executed by him) and later in 1956 revised edition, pp. 43 - 44, reproduced fig. 143 (as by Ercole de' Roberti);
2. P. Palladino in a verbal communication with the present owner 1997; for Giraldi see F. Toniolo, Guglielmo Giraldi, miniature estense, Modena 1995.
3. F. Toniolo in a private written communication with Mattia Vinco, April 2012.
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