The National Gallery of London recently revealed the fruits of a three-year-long restoration of Piero della Francesca’s Nativity (1475). But the effort to fix areas of the badly damaged painting has received a less than enthusiastic response from some notable critics, who have claimed the restoration was botched.
In a recent review, Jonathan Jones, a critic for The Guardian, went so far as to say that the National Gallery had “ruined Christmas” in their “clumsy and plodding, if not downright comical,” restoration.
One thing is clear, however, and that is that the painting was in dire need of care. When the National Gallery first acquired this Renaissance masterpiece in 1874, the painting had splits in the panel. It had also been cleaned too extensively, resulting in the near-complete erasure of the heads of two shepherds in the background. The painting was in such poor condition that the Prime Minister of the time, Benjamin Disraeli, had to defend the purchase before Parliament.
The greatest changes to the painting are the shepherds, who had to be almost completely repainted. The restorers depended on an underdrawing that Piero had made. The figures look out of place compared to the others, their skin a dark, almost orange color. The rendering of a stone wall, dappled with light from the broken roof, lost some of its original delicacy.
Another issue some took with the restoration was the inclusion of a new frame. The painting had once been in an ornate, gold altar frame. The restorers, upon conducting research, discovered that the painting had been made to decorate a domestic space, perhaps the home of Piero himself, and placed the painting in a frame from the era that would have been seen in a home, as opposed to a church. The new frame is made of a dark walnut, with simple patterning.
The restorers, despite how one many feel about the results, had great respect for the painting and their task.
“Spending the last three years with this much-loved painting has been a real privilege but also a great responsibility,” Jill Dunkerton, senior restorer at the National Gallery, said in a statement. “Every decision, every tiny brush stroke of retouching, affects our perception of its appearance and meaning, possibly for many generations. I hope that visitors will now be able to experience its quiet magic without the distraction of the past damage.”