Piero della Francesca’s painting
La Natività (oil on poplar panel),
hangs in London’s National Gallery,
‘acquired’ in 1874
after a botched restoration and being
slightly singed by an altar candle.
Top left is a winding Tuscan valley,
top right the artist’s home town, Sansepolcro,
more than half a millennium ago;
in the foreground, the infant Christ on a rug,
his mother kneeling, praying, beatific;
behind are five bare-footed angels, two
with lutes, two singing, one thoughtful, as is
Joseph, seated and looking away from
mother and son, with two shepherds beside him.
Possibly the third has been delayed –
as have the Magi consulting Herod.
One shepherd points to heaven or the roof,
with its weeds and holes, of the lean-to
beneath which a donkey is braying
and an ox peers at the baby – and on which
a silent, solitary magpie perches.
As the British advanced through Italy,
Sansepolcro was saved from bombardment
by a well read artillery captain
defying orders to protect the painter’s
La Resurrezione in the duomo.
The risen Christ – melancholy, determined,
posed to show the stigmata – holds a flag
with a red cross. Beneath him are four soldiers,
asleep – exhausted after a battle
in one of Tuscany’s continual,
dynastic wars perhaps. Two are sprawled
against the tomb – the clean shaven one