THE FUNNIEST NATIVITY
At first glance, Piero della Francesca's unfinished Nativity (dated 1470-75 by the National Gallery in London) seems a patchy conglomeration of all the elements one expects to find in a painted Nativity scene in the Renaissance:
The only figures added to the scene are the standing musicians serenading the child.
These five figures seem almost sculpted as if in a bas-relief, as though Piero della Francesca were
transporting the singing children he had seen in Luca della Robbia's Cantoria in Florence from an
earlier time (1431-9) to his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro (near Arezzo.) The instruments are similar and even the babies are below in both cases here.
Della Robbia and Piero both set two musicians forward of the others; in Della Robbia's case the
two instrumentalists play citterns, in Piero's case, lutes. And Piero adds a third instrumentalist,
a lira da braccio or rebec player, the central figure who holds a bow with the right hand, the rebeca
(in Italian) with the left:
And just as in the side panels of the Luca piece, Piero lines up five heads in a stiff row,
There is no suggestion of wings on these figures, so, like the figures in the Della Robbia, they are not meant to be angels, they are ordinary children taking part in a reenactment of the holy scene, and in the case of Piero, they are dressed up for the special occasion with jewels on their heads and embroidered gowns on their bodies.
But, unlike in the Della Robbia bas-relief, Piero's children are trying hard not to laugh,
because while they are playing and trying to make harmony, the cow is nudging the arm of the lutenist on the right to get a better view, and behind them, the donkey is braying to high heaven and making a racket that probably drowns out their sound:
looks away from the Madonna and Child, as if to say, "I have nothing to do with this birth."
It is worth noting that the saddle on which he sits has a water canteen leaning up against it, a motif that is present in Domenico Ghirlandaio's Nativity in Santa Trinita dated 1480-85,
and in Pinturicchio's Spello Nativity of 1500-01:
Because this particular motif is painted in Piero's Nativity and because these other two Nativities are later than the 1470's, I think Piero's Nativity should be dated after the Ghirlandaio and before the Pinturicchio, somewhere in the late 1480's. Such a dating would help explain why the painting is unfinished, since Vasari mentions Piero going blind in 1486 (he dies in 1492.) His blindness would also explain why this Nativity emphasizes the sounds (of the singers, of the musicians, of the donkey).
But back to the humor - not finished...
The shepherds who appear in most Nativity scenes with the Holy Family are here in Piero's Nativity, too. But although they are poor, as they are in both Ghirlandaio's and Pinturicchio's, they are also
unbeknownst to them, dim-witted, as though Piero were poking fun at them (they almost look blind, too, strangely):
The one on the left, dressed in Franciscan brown habit, points to the hole in the roof, where grass
has begun to grow. Is he showing Joseph the sky through the hole to tell him about the star that
brought them all to Bethlehem? If so, there is no star, so he points at an empty hole in the roof. Or is it a gesture to remind the viewer of the ruin of the manger and the new life in it? The other shepherd holds a weapon (hammer to remind us of the end of Christ's life, to make us think he's shown up for the wrong play?)
at the ready, as if he is tense and waiting to say his line in a medieval mystery play. In fact, the whole of the scene has the feel of a local amateur production of the story of the Nativity, with all the things that can go wrong in such productions: the donkey braying, the shepherd's off-color gesturing, the bare feet of Joseph, and then the BIRD!
The magpie perches on the manger roof just over the heads of the singers.
In Florentine lore, bird droppings on your head are meant to be seen as a sign of good luck,
and the presence of a bird over the heads of participants in Nativity scenes has a certain precedent.
Botticelli's Adoration of the Three Kings for Santa Maria Novella of 1475, for example, has a peacock perching precariously over the heads of bystanders.
But the peacock has a positive significance in that it was thought in the Renaissance to represent
eternal life, while the magpie is thought of as a thief and a noisy chatterer. Perfect for our Piero
Nativity to compete with the braying, singing, and pointing:
That only leaves the side sections of the painting to analyze. The town on the right has a tower that
is identical (three openings and a spire) to the main church campanile (bell tower) in Piero's home town of Borgo San Sepolcro:
With his placement of the town in the background, he is saying two things:
1) Borgo San Sepolcro (The Town of the Holy Sepulchre) is Jerusalem and the Nativity takes place
in a town away from Jerusalem, Bethlehem.
2) This Nativity, as a local reenactment, is even less refined than a production of the same scene would be in town. This Nativity is produced on a hillside in the countryside, which excuses its particular oddities and lack of grace.
The left side of the painting has a long-distance view of a monastic settlement nestled under a cliff by
a curling river, in whose reflections we see the sky and the landscape mirrored.
Does he have in mind a local monastery right behind Gubbio in the cliffs of Monte Cucco?
or perhaps the Franciscan settlement on the cliffs of La Verna, not very far from Borgo San Sepolcro?
La Verna monastery
Whatever the case, he means to set his scene far from urban life, far from a civilized plan,
in order to paint the "hokiness" of this amateur attempt to recreate the birth of Christ. Human
it is, and full of ordinary people trying their best to be holy, but the painter wants the viewer
to look at the center of the painting, and laugh with the donkey and be happy for Christmas.
Better to laugh than to weep at the irony of a great painter going blind.