Four Brothers Scattered around the World

Written by  Enrico Peverada

The identification of the Roverella brothers in the polyptych of Cosmè Tura.

It doesn’t seem possible that a Ferrara polyptych, painted by Cosmè Tura at the peak of his abilities, could find itself scattered on such an international scale. Three of the original six panels still survive as well as part of a fourth, according to a well-tested reconstruction made by Roberto Longhi as far back as 1934. You need to be prepared to travel to appreciate it now: first stop in the National Gallery of London to view the central panel with the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, and the “angel” musicians; next the Louvre in Paris where you can admire the top lunette showing the dramatic lament with Christ dead; the Galleria Colonna in Rome houses the right panel with St. Paul, St. Maurelius and a “kneeling monk”; finally you can see the fragment of the left panel with the meagre remains of St. George’s face at the Museum of Fine Arts in San Diego. None of the panels have found their way home: we note the recent exhibition Cosmè Tura and Francesco del Cossa. Art in Ferrara during the reign of Borso d’Este where there was no sign of the Roverella polyptych. There was actually a side note at the exhibition and in the weighty catalogue regarding this fact, possibly due to the fact that Maurizio Bonora had recreated the work at a real-life scale with the decidedly humble technique of pencil on paper.

A vague, inaccurate passage by the eighteenth century character Girolamo Baruffaldi is the reference to understanding what has been lost of this work, and which identifies its characters as members of the Roverella family who can be recognised in the painting and thereby justify the name that has always been attributed to it. Let’s start with the figure that is joined by St. Paul, whose hand rests on his shoulder, and St. Maurelius, which is the only surviving part of the right panel. The kneeling figure represents a cardinal: he is Cardinal Bartolomeo Roverella, archbishop of Ravenna, who died on 2 May 1476. Even though his face is very similar to that on the statue on his tomb in the Roman Basilica of S. Clemente, which was the work of Andrea Bregno and Giovanni Dalmata, the similarity of his posture and clothes is even more striking, acting almost as the background to the tomb. Now let’s move on to the character in the missing panel to the left, dressed “as a monk”. Actually the image is definitely that of a monk, and more specifically, the Olivetan Nicolò Roverella, Prior of St. George, and general visitor of the order. He was the brother of the other two churchmen, Bartolomeo and Lorenzo. The clergyman to the left was painted knocking on the door to paradise. In addition, the plea Surge, Puer on behalf of the Roverella family comes from his mouth. It is made to the baby Jesus, who is sleeping on the lap of Mary. This prayerful attitude would be more natural to a monk, and is fully in keeping with his religious calling.

Nicolò, the Prior of St. George, and later general visitor of the Olivetan order, seems to be fully qualified to be present in the painting, which is generally considered to have been painted in honour of the Bishop Roverella who died in Mount Oliveto on 6 July 1474. In his will, Cardinal Bartolomeo entrusted the work of decorating the apse and constructing his dead brother Lorenzo’s tomb in the Olivetan church of St. George, to his brother Nicolò. In the solemn tomb of Lorenzo, the close relationship between the two prelates can clearly be noted by the double coat of arms of the family dominating the base of the tomb. It almost seems that the tomb testifies to a symbiotic relationship between the two churchmen, which couldn’t fail to appear on the luminous Polittico Roverella. Work on both the tomb and polyptych had probably already started on 18 November 1479, the day the church was consecrated. The two works certainly ended up in a harmonious context, almost shoulder to shoulder, in the sacred area of the old presbytery with the monastic choir facing: the polyptych on the main altar and the bishop’s tomb to its right, almost continuous.

In the Tura altar piece, the bishop Lorenzo can be recognised in St. Maurelius in the right panel, thereby placed behind his brother Bartolomeo to create what could be called a ‘family diptych”. As regards the identification of Lorenzo, apart from the similarity of the faces between the painting and the sculpture on the tomb, the clothes the saint is wearing are particularly telling: the cope and the chasuble mark out the figure of a saintly bishop, not to mention the pastoral and mitre, two other sure signs of a bishop. In order to achieve balance between the two panels, with St. Maurelius on the right and St. George to the left, the painter had each of the two figures wear camauros, in different colours, while the pastoral to the right of St. Maurelius is probably coordinated with the staff standard bearer held by St. George. Little remains of the face of St. George on the left panel. Here, the drawing of the Saint as a portrait seems to satisfy the requirements of the overall organisation of the polyptych as well as to reflect Tura’s fame as a portrait painter. Another member of the Roverella family can be identified under the features of St. George. This is the knight who resided in Jerusalem, Florio. After the knighthood conferred on him by Pope Eugene IV in 1444, he is remembered as an envoy to the government of Benevento in 1461. He also carried out various political tasks and military actions. The knight Florio formed part of the solemn procession that accompanied Eleonora of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinando, King of Naples, to Ferrara as she was betrothed to Ercole I of the House of Este. These were formal times in the life of the city, marked by the presence of a Roverella, that could have had a commendatory purpose on Tura’s painting, to the point of making Florio Roverella himself appear as St. George, the patron saint of Ferrara, with his brother Nicolo behind. In summary: with respect to the imprecise identification of one Roverella ‘only’ by Baruffaldi, it seems to us that the four brothers can be recognised in the work of Cosmè Tura, in addition to placing it squarely in the religious and civil events of fifteenth century Ferrara, the painting, really seems to be true to its title as the Roverella Polyptych.