Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio. Circa 1480. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
ALTHOUGH, long before Lorenzo Costa died, his disciple Ercole Ferrarese was in very good repute and was invited to work in many places, he would never abandon his master (a thing which is rarely wont to happen), and was content to work with him for meager gains and praise, rather than labor by himself for greater profit and credit. For this gratitude, in view of its rarity among the men of today, all the more praise is due to Ercole, who, knowing himself to be indebted to Lorenzo, put aside all thought of his own interest in favor of his master's wishes, and was like a brother or a son to him up to the end of his life. Ercole, then, who was a better draughtsman than Costa, painted, below the panel executed by Lorenzo in the Chapel of San Vincenzio in San Petronio, certain scenes in tempera with little figures, so well and with so beautiful and good a manner, that it is scarcely possible to see anything better, or to imagine the labor and diligence that Ercole put into the work; and thus the predella is a much better painting than the panel. Both were wrought at one and the same time during the life of Costa.
After his master's death, Ercole was employed by Domenico Garganelli to finish that chapel in San Petronio which Lorenzo, as has been said above, had begun, completing only a small part. Ercole, to whom the said Domenico was giving four ducats a month for this, with his own expenses and those of a boy, and all the colors that were to be used for the painting, set himself to work and finished the whole in such a manner, that he surpassed his master by a long way both in drawing and coloring as well as in invention. In the first part, or rather, wall, is the Crucifixion of Christ, wrought with much judgment: for besides the Christ, who is seen there already dead, he represented very well the tumult of the Jews who have come to see the Messiah on the Cross, among whom there is a marvelous variety of heads, whereby it is seen that Ercole sought with very great pains to make them so different one from another that they should not resemble each other in any respect.
There are also some figures bursting into tears of sorrow, which demonstrate clearly enough how much he sought to imitate reality. There is the swooning of the Madonna, which is most moving; but much more so are the Maries, who are facing her, for they are seen full of compassion and with an aspect so heavy with sorrow, that it is almost impossible to imagine it, at seeing that which mankind holds most dear dead before their eyes, and themselves in danger of losing the second. Among other notable things in this work is Longinus on horseback, riding a lean beast, which is foreshortened and in very strong relief; and in him we see the impiety that made him pierce the side of Christ, and the penitence and conversion that followed from his enlightenment. He gave strange attitudes, likewise, to the figures of certain soldiers who are playing for the raiment of Christ, with bizarre expressions of countenance and fanciful garments. Well wrought, too, with beautiful invention, are the Thieves on the Cross. And since Ercole took much delight in making foreshortenings, which, if well conceived, are very beautiful, he made in that work a soldier on a horse, which, rearing its forelegs on high, stands out in such a manner that it appears to be in relief; and as the wind is bending a banner that the soldier holds in his hand, he is making a most beautiful effort to hold it up. He also made a S. John, flying away wrapped in a sheet. In like manner, the soldiers that are in this work are very well wrought, with more natural and appropriate movements than had been seen in any other figures up to that time; and all these attitudes and gestures, which could scarcely be better done, show that Ercole had a very great intelligence and took great pains with his art.
On the wall opposite to this one the same man painted the Passing of Our Lady, who is surrounded by the Apostles in very beautiful attitudes, among whom are six figures portrayed so well from life, that those who knew them declare that these are most vivid likenesses. In the same work he also made his own portrait, and that of Domenico Garganelli, the owner of the chapel, who, when it was finished, moved by the love that he bore to Ercole and by the praises that he heard given to the work, bestowed upon him a thousand lire in Bolognese currency. It is said that Ercole spent twelve years in laboring at this work; seven in executing it in fresco, and five in retouching it on the dry. It is true, indeed, that during this time he painted some other works; and in particular, so far as is known, the predella of the high altar of San Giovanni in Monte, in which he wrought three scenes of the Passion of Christ.
Ercole was eccentric in character, particularly in his custom of refusing to let any man, whether painter or not, see him at work; wherefore he was greatly hated in Bologna by the painters of that city, who have ever borne an envious hatred to the strangers who have been summoned to work there; nay, they sometimes show the same among themselves out of rivalry with each other, although this may be said to be the particular vice of the professors of these our arts in every place. Certain Bolognese painters, then, having come to an agreement one day with a carpenter, shut themselves up by his help in the church, close to the chapel where Ercole was working; and when night came, breaking into it by force, they did not content themselves with seeing the work, which should have sufficed them, but carried off all his cartoons, sketches, and designs, and every other thing of value that was there. At this Ercole fell into such disdain that when the work was finished he departed Bologna, without stopping another day there, taking with him Duca Tagliapietra, a sculptor of much renown , who carved the very beautiful foliage in marble which is in the parapet in front of the chapel wherein Ercole painted the said work, and who afterwards made all the stone windows of the Ducal Palace at Ferrara, which are most beautiful. Ercole, therefore , weary at length of living away from home, remained ever after in company with this man in Ferrara, and made many works in that city.
Ercole had an extraordinary love of wine, and his frequent drunkenness did much to shorten his life, which he had enjoyed without any accident up to the age of forty, when he was smitten one day by apoplexy, which made an end of him in a short time. He left a pupil, the painter Guido Bolognese, who, in 1491, as may be seen from the place where he put his name, under the portico of San Pietro at Bologna, painted a Crucifixion in fresco, with the Maries, the Thieves, horses, and other passing good figures. And desiring very greatly to become esteemed in that city, as his master had been, he studied so zealously and subjected himself to so many hardships that he died at the age of thirty-five. If Guido had set himself to learn his art in his childhood, and not, as he did, at the age of eighteen, he would not only have equaled his master without difficulty, but would even have surpassed him by a great measure. In our book there are drawings by the hands of Ercole and Guido, very well wrought, and executed with grace and in a good manner.