PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA
(b. 1416, Borgo San Sepolcro, d. 1492, Borgo San Sepolcro)
Oil on poplar panel, 124 x 123 cm
National Gallery, London
Among Piero's surviving paintings, the last one in chronological order is the Nativity in the National Gallery in London. The missing patches of colour, which might almost indicate that the painting is unfinished, are in fact probably the result of overcleaning.
The Child lies on the ground, on a corner of Mary's cloak, following traditional Northern iconography which is reflected also in the features of the Child. Other elements of Northern culture can be found in a few naturalistic details, interpreted in a highly original fashion by Piero, such as the strange figure of St Joseph, nonchalantly sitting on a saddle, or the two animals in the background, depicted with great realism. No landscape view of Piero's is as miniaturistic as the city depicted in the background at the right: even the streets and the windows of the buildings are visible, just like in a landscape by Petrus Christus. Even the composition of the painting is quite innovative compared to Piero's previous production. The wide expanse of ground, dotted with patches of grass, and the roofing of the hut, with its shadow projecting onto the ruined brick wall, seem to indicate an attempt by the artist to fragment the space of the picture, breaking the rule that he had always rigorously abided by. The vanishing point is slightly raised, as in the Brera altarpiece, and gives one an almost bird's-eye view of the spectacular river landscape, which extends into the distance with trees, bushes and sheer rockfaces that remind one of some of the young Leonardo's drawings.
These aspects of new perspective composition, of experimental naturalism and even of movement must be read as symptoms of the aging painter's incredible ability to update his art to the latest novelties being developed by Florentine and Netherlandish artists. But it is also clear that Piero could not have gone any further in this direction, for it would have meant abandoning the basic principles of his art. The directions that painters like Verrocchio and the young Leonardo were taking, with their almost scientific studies of action and movement, were leading too far away from the principles of spatial construction elaborated and developed by Piero and Alberti. Piero della Francesca's background culture, still very much alive in this last painting in the group of angels clearly inspired by Luca della Robbia's Cantoria in Florence Cathedral, was the 'heroic' environment of the early Renaissance, created in Florence by Brunelleschi and Donatello, by Leonardo Bruni and Paolo Toscanelli. Compared to the ideals of the earlier generation, the refined and courtly culture which was developing around the artistic patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent, with its poetic Neo-Platonic abstractions and its archeological nostalgia for the romantic nature of classical antiquity, must have seemed superficial and ephemeral - almost a betrayal of its origins.