Art restoration is a delicate business, especially when we're talking about a 15th century masterpiece considered one of the greatest depictions of the Nativity. That's a responsibility we don't envy of anyone. We need only recall the infamous 'monkey Christ' from a decade ago to see how the reaction can be to a bad job (see our favourite botched art restorations for more examples).
Now, just in time for Christmas, a restoration of Italian Early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca's Nativity is generating comparisons with that debacle. But this time it isn't a well-meaning amateur restorer behind the job. It's Britain's National Gallery being accused of a makeover that looks like it has been done in a photo app.
Before and after: three years of conservation work is now complete on Piero's 'Nativity'. This Christmas, we're excited to unveil Piero della Francesca’s ‘Nativity’ and reveal some surprising discoveries: https://t.co/5TjikzX1yb pic.twitter.com/kJI3fo4d6tDecember 1, 2022
Back in 2012, the topic of art restoration was thrown into the limelight when Spain's infamous 'monkey Christ' went viral. You might think that the newfound international media attention might make restorers more careful, but we've seen plenty more botched restoration jobs since then, including attempts to restore Murillo's Immaculate Conception that made it look like something that could have been spat out by one the latest AI image generators.
Fortunately, this recent example is a lot more considered than that. But some art critics aren't impressed. Piero della Francesca’s Nativity depicts Mary adoring the baby Jesus in front of a stable, with a choir of angels and two shepherds whose faces had long been obliterated.
The painting has been put on view at the National Gallery in London for the festive period following a three-year restoration that gallery describes as "careful" and "revealing". The Guardian's art writer Jonathan Jones describes it as an "idiotic botch" and a "pastiche of Renaissance art by a very cheap, very bad app". And he has particular criticism for the replacement of the missing faces.
Jones reckons the "orange-faced man looks vacant and gormless, even constipated, his barely human eyes unfocused and lifeless. It’s like he’s trying to remember where he parked the donkey". Meanwhile, the other shepherd "looks like a very earnest teenager throwing shapes at a school disco." And I can see his point. They look somehow modern yet lifeless. Perhaps something so severely damaged should be left alone.
But the restoration job involves more than just replacing missing faces. Other details have been sharpened and colours made more vibrant. Some of the decisions seem to have been made on the basis of a new theory that the painting was a finished piece (it was previously believed to be unfinished). But Jones says it's been "polished up as if it was for sale at Frieze Masters" and claims the gallery has enforced its own interpretation of the painting.
Piero della Francesca is one of the greatest painters of the Early Renaissance. He made 'The Nativity' for his family palace in his hometown of Sansepolcro, in Tuscany. Watch as Caroline & Jill discuss the conservation of this miraculous Christmas scene: https://t.co/xNrVPU2Ich pic.twitter.com/s2dc1GOY6vFebruary 16, 2022
Restoring such important historic works requires great sensitivity, and the National Gallery surely thought long and hard about how to approach the Nativity, as well as what it thinks will appeal most to visitors. But sometimes perhaps it's better not to repair the damage rather than risk changing the artist's vision.