Vol. 45 No. 14 · 13 July 2023
At the National Gallery

‘The Nativity’ Restored

Naomi Grant

1698 words

In​ ‘The Best Picture’, an essay written in 1925, Aldous Huxley calls Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection ‘the greatest picture in the world’:

Great it is, absolutely great … because its author possessed almost more than any other painter those qualities of character which I most admire and because his purely aesthetic preoccupations are of a kind which I am by nature best fitted to understand. A natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur – this is the leading quality of all Piero’s work. He is majestic without being at all strained, theatrical or hysterical.

For Huxley, Piero is a model of emotional restraint. He isn’t interested in the drama of life or religion; even the tumultuous battle frescoes at San Francesco in Arezzo aren’t treated as dramatic compositions.

Huxley wasn’t the first to praise Piero’s detachment. In 1897, Bernard Berenson identified Piero’s impersonality as the key to his ‘solemnity’:

No Flagellation is more impressive than one of his, although you will not find on the face of the dramatis personae an expression responsive to the situation … if you are a person sensitive to art, you will have felt all this before you have thought of asking whether Christ looks appropriately Christ-like, or whether there is a fit expression on his face … So unnecessary do I find facial expression … that if a great statue happens to be without a head, I seldom miss it.

If an artist can eliminate emotion by distilling ‘the original phenomenon to its essential significant facts and forces’, damaged or unfinished works of art can seem (to a modern sensibility, at any rate) perfectly complete.

Piero della Francesca was born in Sansepolcro, Tuscany in around 1415. According to Vasari, his father was a prosperous tanner and shoemaker who died during his wife’s pregnancy. Little is known about Piero’s early training, but he was probably taught by local masters working in the Sienese tradition. By 1439, he had established himself as an associate of Domenico Veneziano in Florence, where he encountered the paintings of Masaccio and Fra Angelico, the sculptures of Donatello and della Robbia and the architecture of Brunelleschi. He soon returned to Sansepolcro, where he became a city councillor as well as the town’s foremost painter. In later life he returned to his first love, mathematics, and wrote the Trattato d’abaco (‘Abacus Treatise’), De quinque corporibus regularibus (‘On the Five Regular Solids’) and De prospectiva pingendi (‘On Perspective in Painting’). Vasari called him the ‘best geometrician of his time’.

The Nativity, recently redisplayed at the National Gallery after a three-year restoration, belongs to the final period of Piero’s career, sometime in the early 1480s (he died in 1492), when he had become prior of the Confraternita di San Bartolomeo. The setting is the hills and streams of the Tiber valley and the painting includes details of the church and rooftops of his native town. There has been much debate about Piero’s interpretation of the Nativity, which is now thought, at least by the National Gallery’s curators, to be based on the vision of St Bridget of Sweden (1303-73), which was widely known in the 15th century. Bridget describes the infant Christ ‘lying on the earth, naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness’, and reaching out his arms to the Virgin, who kneels with bowed head and clasped hands.

‘The Nativity’ by Piero della Francesca, before the recent restoration.

‘The Nativity’ by Piero della Francesca, after the recent restoration.

An inventory of 1500 reveals that the picture hung in the principal bedchamber of the house in Sansepolcro where Piero’s nephew, Francesco, lived with his wife, Madonna Laudomia. It may have been a gift to mark their marriage, an important match securing an alliance with a family from the nearby town of Montevarchi. Most historians now agree that The Nativity was a private project rather than a commission, a consensus that challenges the once widely held assumption that it was designed for an altarpiece but left unfinished at the time of Piero’s death. Speculation that he became blind in later life (also mentioned by Vasari) further contributed to the myth that Piero had been unable to realise his masterpiece.

When Charles Eastlake bought the painting for the National Gallery in 1874, Thomson Hankey, the MP for Peterborough, challenged the Treasury to defend its acquisition of ‘a wreck … ruined beyond redemption’. He had a point: the panel was split, there were candle burns in the lower section and the heads of the two shepherds had been all but effaced by vigorous cleaning (probably carried out before the painting left Sansepolcro in 1825). But Benjamin Disraeli congratulated the nation on having acquired ‘a picture of the most rare and interesting character’.

Its poor condition doesn’t seem to have mattered much over the last 150 years, and may even have contributed to its apparent ‘modernity’. Damaged, unfinished or fragmented works have an appeal of their own (Renaissance artists sometimes deliberately sought this ‘non finito’) and are also prized for what they can teach us about an artist’s working methods. Michelangelo’s Entombment, for instance, tells us that he used oil paint much like egg tempera, rendering individual figures in full before moving on to the next one. Raphael, by contrast, treated his surfaces more evenly.

Attitudes to completion have fluctuated across the centuries, but the idea that inchoate works might record their specific moment of creation dates back to classical antiquity. In his Natural History, Pliny observed that inperfectae tabulae are often the most revered masterpieces: ‘The last works of artists and their unfinished pictures … are more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists’ actual thoughts.’ In De Pictura (1435), Alberti condemned painters who abandoned works in a ‘rough and unfinished state’, yet didn’t question the attraction of seeing the artist’s primi pensieri (‘first thoughts’).

The standing of the sketch in the 19th century was such that Delacroix could argue that ‘the first main outlines with which a skilful master indicates his thoughts contain the germ of every characteristic that the work will ultimately possess.’ (We might think of the fragments of Sappho, or the importance we place on the opening line of a novel.) Far from designating a hierarchical relation between the drawing and the finished composition, Delacroix suggests an equivalence.

The cult of the incomplete has had its critics. In his Reith Lectures of 1960, the art historian Edgar Wind complained that society had been seduced by the ‘sophistry’ of production:

We put a premium on the inchoate work of art arrested at its inception for the sake of spontaneity. On the production of art this prejudice has a debilitating effect: it encourages a striving for the immediate … by which each work, no matter how laboured, hopes to give the impression of being freshly improvised. Never has the capriccio in art, the effective arrangement of striking irregularities, held quite the commanding position it holds today.

But viewers are still beguiled by the proximity that seems to be offered by a half-finished or decaying work, and are often hostile to repair efforts that change the familiar appearance of a painting. Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones compared the restored Nativity with the ‘Monkey Christ’, the botched restoration of a fresco by Elías García Martínez which has become the main tourist attraction in the Spanish town of Borja. Jones calls the newly glazed and shaded faces of the shepherds ‘distractingly moronic’. The ruddy shepherd on the right has been transformed into an ‘orange-faced man’ who ‘looks vacant and gormless, even constipated’. His companion is no better – an ‘earnest teenager throwing shapes at a school disco’.

Jones isn’t being entirely fair. We should be grateful for the painstaking introduction of a sliver of wood through the centre of the painting, adding a crucial missing millimetre to the rose of the lute and the Christ child’s hands (lost when a previous restorer mended a split). We can more fully appreciate the crimson of the angel’s tunic, the light falling on the Tiber, the bull breathing over the baby to keep him warm. But I’m not convinced the curators are right when they claim that the retouched shepherds now fade properly into the background. If anything, they stand out more strongly. And we have so many examples of Piero’s great precision as a painter that it jars to see another hand, even one that follows the original underdrawing. Criticism has also been levelled at the angels (now more robust and less ethereal), as well as the patch of white on the stable wall that represents the divine light of St Bridget’s vision. The curators claim that this makes Piero’s original intention ‘newly legible’, but if the composition is now more readable, much of its mystery has been lost. Huxley observed that Piero’s storytelling could be highly elliptical:

In the extraordinary Flagellation at Urbino, the nominal subject of the picture recedes into the background on the left-hand side of the panel, where it serves to balance the three mysterious figures standing aloof in the right foreground. We seem to have nothing here but an experiment in composition, but an experiment so strange and so startlingly successful that we do not regret the absence of dramatic significance and are entirely satisfied.

Not all attempts to restore Piero have taken the same approach. In the 1980s, Italian conservationists embarked on a project to save the frescoes in the basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, which had suffered centuries of damage and were in a dismal condition. In 1483, Piero had been summoned to repair his own work there after an earthquake led to fractures; there are records of at least three other significant seismic shocks in the 15th century. Leaks, vandalism and unsuccessful conservation treatments resulted in sulphation, degrading the pigments. Rather than trying to fill the large gaps in the composition, the restorers worked cautiously, attending to small areas and leaving others incomplete. They left visible traces of the charcoal dots that Piero’s apprentices had pricked when they transferred the preliminary drawings onto the walls. Considering the size of the plaster lacunae that remain, it is remarkable that the cycle retains its sense of unity.

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