Ercole III was well liked by the public. He made reforms and founded the Academy of Fine Arts in Modena...
This portrait of the duke appears to be based on a three-quarter-length oil painting, of which the whereabouts is unknown. Its appearance accords in date to other paintings of the 1780s and early 1790s, including the full length by Giuseppe Soli (1793) (Modena, Galleria Estense, Palazzo Dei Musei), as well as to a portrait miniature by Giuseppe Longhi (1766-1831).
Ercole III was a member of the House of Este, a princely family dating back to the Lombards, who were prominent in shaping medieval and Renaissance Italy. Born in Modena to Duke Francesco III d’Este, Duke of Modena and Charlotte Aglaé d’Orléans, daughter of Philip, regent of France, Ercole was the couple’s fourth child; two of Ercole’s brothers died in infancy before his birth. In 1741 Ercole acquired the Duchy of Massy and Carrara through his marriage to Maria Teresa Cybo-Malaspina, the only child of Alderamo Cybo-Malaspina, last prince of Massa and Carrara. The couple had a son in 1753 but he died the same year. Their daughter Maria Beatrice became the heiress of the Este family and was later the wife of Archduke Ferdinando of Austria.
After his father’s death in 1780, Ercole became Duke of Modena and Reggio until Napoleon’s army invaded Italy in 1796. He was well-liked by the public and continued the reforms that his father had started, including the building of two bridges at Rubiera in Reggio Emilia and St. Ambrogio in Modena and the building of several new roads. In 1785 he founded the Academy of Fine Arts in Modena (La Ducale Accademia Atestina di Belle Arti) where drawing lessons, painting and architecture was entrusted to Giuseppe Maria Soli, a well-known painter who had trained in Rome.
Although Ercole and his wife Maria Teresa had a daughter together, they spent several years of their marriage living apart and estranged from each other. Maria Teresa chose to live in Reggio without her husband and after her death in 1790 Ercole III married his mistress, the former singer Chiara Marini.
When the French invaded Italy in 1796 Ercole III was forced to flee to Venice under the name Marquis of San Felice – romantically he carried Chiara Marini in his arms on the voyage. However, on reaching Venice, the French seized 200,000 zecchini from his property, almost the entire available funds the Duke had in Venice. He later moved to Treviso, a quieter town where he had a small court, and where he died in 1803.
 See: Giuseppe Giannantonj, ‘Le Vicende Di Paolo Calvi “Birbo Zecchiere” del Settecento’ in Panorama Numiasmatico 137/00, pp. 18-24.
 Christie’s, London, 21 November 2000, lot 149.
 G. L. Williams, Papal Genealogy: The Families and Descendants of the Popes, (Jefferson, 2004), p.65.