An unidentified battle rages before a mountainous landscape. The picture may be a later copy of one of the lost frescoes by Piero della Francesca in the ducal palace in Ferrara. Leonello d’Este (1407–1450), Marquis of Ferrara, appears to be portrayed in profile at bottom left, suggesting that he may have commissioned the frescoes.
There is another possibly related battle scene in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, which is of a similar size but lesser quality than the National Gallery’s painting. The costumes in both pictures point to a date in the 1530s but other details seem to reflect an earlier style. The paintings were probably both produced around Dosso Dossi’s workshop in Ferrara, but possibly not by the same artist. They may represent scenes of ancient history or exploits of the house of Este associated with French chivalric legends.
A battle rages before a mountainous landscape. There is no clue to which battle is represented, although the figure on a white horse in the foreground appears to be playing a leading part. It has been suggested that this picture may be a later copy of one of the lost frescoes by Piero della Francesca painted in the ducal palace in Ferrara. By the time Vasari visited Ferrara in 1541 or 1542 the frescoes were no longer visible, probably having been destroyed during works to modernise the palace undertaken by Duke Ercole d’Este. There is no record of the subject of the frescoes.
Leonello d’Este (1407–1450), Marquis of Ferrara, appears to be portrayed in profile at the bottom left of the National Gallery’s painting, suggesting that he may have commissioned the frescoes. It was common at the time for the patron of a painting to be portrayed in it. His appearance can be compared with Giovanni da Oriolo’s Portrait of Leonello d’Este and seems to be derived from Pisanello’s portrait of him in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.
There is another possibly related battle scene in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, which is of a similar size but lesser quality than the National Gallery’s painting. The two battles are hand-to-hand combats with closely interwoven figures of men and horses. Both paintings include fifteenth-century elements in the compositions but other stylistic elements that suggest they were painted by an artist from sixteenth-century Ferrara. The costumes suggest a date in the 1530s but the presence of Leonello d’Este and other details seem to reflect an earlier style. The paintings were probably both produced around the workshop of Dosso Dossi at Ferrara, but possibly not by the same artist.
The central figure on the white horse and the group of warriors in the middle distance resemble the style of Piero della Francesca, although the Walters Art Gallery regards the idea that these are copies of Piero’s frescoes as unconvincing. The horses in the panels are also so close to those of Uccello in the panels of The Battle of San Romano of 1457 that the Baltimore painting was once attributed to him. The foreshortened horse seen from the rear is also an element common to the work of Pisanello, and the rearing horse is similar to those found on antique coins. The Baltimore and London paintings also reveal the influence of French miniatures.
The paintings may have represented scenes of ancient history or exploits of the house of Este associated with chivalric legends. An inventory of the 279 manuscripts at the Este Library in Ferrara in 1436 records that 58 of them were French chivalric romances. Ferrara is particularly associated with chivalric literature derived from the old French Chanson de Roland. The black Saracen in the Baltimore painting suggests that the subject may relate to the legend of Roland (Orlando in Italian). It has also been suggested that the London painting may be related to the story of Scipio Africanus, and the Baltimore work to the story of Hannibal.
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