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The Intense Eye of Ercole

The 15th century Italian artist's work resonates in modest Getty exhibition.


The J. Paul Getty Museum's concurrent exhibitions of two Renaissance painters from Ferrara, the 15th century Ercole de' Roberti and the 16th century Dosso Dossi, make a terrific pairing, but it's likely that one of the shows will be overlooked.

While Dosso's work has all the appeal of grand opera--and his retrospective occupies a proportionate chunk of space--the Ercole show has the scale of a one-act play. It fills just one modest gallery and comprises only a dozen small paintings, but like any great one-act, it carries the emotional weight and concentrated intensity of a much larger enterprise.

Ercole's enterprise was, in fact, much larger. A disciple of Francesco del Cossa, Ercole (circa 1456-1496) worked in Bologna on several large frescoes (which Michelangelo declared to be "worth half of Rome in quality") before settling in as artist to the Este court in Ferrara in 1486. There, he painted devotional works and portraits, designed medals, wedding chests and the like. Much of what Ercole produced during his 20-year career is now lost. Roughly half of what survives is in this show, his first ever, organized by Getty curator Denise Allen and David Jaffe, formerly of the Getty and now at the National Gallery in London.

Since the 1440s, the dukes of the Este court had shared a special fondness for miniatures and illuminated books and were avid patrons of Netherlandish art, particularly that of Roger van der Weyden. Those preferences made their mark on Ercole, whose small, devotional paintings are emphatically linear and resonate with the stark, somber sensibility associated with Northern European art of the time. His "St. John the Baptist" and "St. Jerome in the Wilderness" are two stunning examples. In both, Ercole amended the egg-tempera medium, the standard in Italy at the time, with the more luminous technique of oil, which was already in widespread use among Netherlandish painters.

The ashen and gaunt St. John stands on a shallow ledge, his radically attenuated body looming over the landscape beyond. There is no middle ground here, either topographically or in the intense psychic space of the picture. Ercole, Bernard Berenson said, understood "the solemnity of the sky line, and the sense of profound significance it can impart to figures towering above it." The horizon line hits St. John only as far up as his thigh, exaggerating the severity of his presence and the long, stretched-out, slow-motion curve

of his stance.

Ercole clearly has a way with ascetics. His St. Jerome (a commendable new acquisition by the Getty) epitomizes penitence and isolation. Long on bone and short on flesh, he wears a gold tunic (originally rose and green, the informative catalog points out) and sits at the entrance to his cave, in characteristic perusal of a crucifix. Here, as with St. John, Ercole has set the contemplative action in the immediate foreground and crafted a daunting distance beyond, isolating both figures in their own spiritual wilderness.

Unlike Dosso and other painters working in the region, who set religious and mythical scenes against the natural landscape of the Po Valley, Ercole invented odd, fascinating environments that fused natural and built forms. In the background of the St. John image spreads a sea of some kind, whose earthen shores transform into clusters of buildings. The same fantastic, hybrid architecture--part rock, part ruin--shelters St. Jerome; it shows up as well in an altarpiece predella that tracks the healing miracles of a traveling preacher in a dense, novelistic panorama. These Bosch-like touches corresponded to a taste in the Este court for the artificial and bizarre; they also endow Ercole's work with its idiosyncratic strength.

Ercole took commissions not just from the duke but also from the Duchess Eleonora, who was unusually active in the political and cultural affairs of the Este court. In keeping with her powerful persona, she commissioned Ercole to paint a series of illustrious women of antiquity, women of disarming independence who chose suicide over dishonor. The three panels here, probably intended to decorate Eleonora's private chambers, share the same shallow-staged format. Ercole kept to his more typical style of subdued, static drama for two of the three, but the scene of the wife of Hasdrubal is as dynamic as it is disturbing. After the surrender of her husband, a Carthaginian warrior, Hasdrubal's wife chose to immolate herself and her children rather than suffer the indignity of being paraded about by Roman victors. In Ercole's mesmerizing image, Hasdrubal's wife appears made of solid maternal stuff, as she gently tries to coax her small children, justifiably panicked, into the filigreed flames. The conflicts of the moment--between protection and sacrifice, death and shame--seem to swirl ceaselessly through the tormented scene. Indelible images like this make the Ercole exhibition a much larger event than its size would suggest.

* "Ercole de' Roberti: The Renaissance in Ferrara," J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, (310) 440-7300, through July 11. Admission free; closed Mondays.

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