A treasure trove of Renaissance Venetian painting opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts this weekend. The collection of works by Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto and others are on tour from the National Galleries of Scotland. They have never been seen in the United States before.
The trip is just the latest chapter in the history of the 400 year old paintings and reflects changing attitudes about access to great art.
Sitting in the splendor of the high-ceilinged Director-General's office in the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, John Leighton is the epitome of Caledonian reserve. But ask him to describe the two paintings at the center of "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting," and he gets almost lyrical.
"You have an artist evoking human emotion, evoking fear, anger, lust, revenge, in paint and in remarkable textures, colors and compositions," he said.
He's talking about "Diana and Actaeon" and "Diana and Callisto," produced for the King of Spain in the late 1550s. They are large, sensual canvases of scenes from the life of Greek goddess Diana the Huntress. Experts says they rank among the supreme poetic creations of Italian Renaissance paintings.
"Why are they so important?" Leighton asks. "They were painted by Titian at the height of his powers in the 16th century, when he was without any doubt the most influential, most famous painter anywhere in Europe, and they were painted for the most powerful monarch of the time, Phillip II."
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They were definitely not for public display however.
This is the same Phillip who, in 1588, sent the Spanish Armada to invade the England of Queen Elizabeth I. An extremely pious man, he ruled over a country bound by the strictures of Catholicism, where Leighton says even hints of nudity were frowned upon.
"And yet here you have the king himself commissioning what are really, essentially, very sexy pictures," he points out.
So how did these masterpieces end up in Scotland? And then the U.S? After Phillip's death, Spain presented the paintings as a diplomatic gift to France. They became part of the celebrated collection of the Duc d'Orleans. Much of that collection was sold in London in the late 1790s in the wake of the French Revolution.
The Diana pictures, along with many other treasures, became part of the Bridgewater Collection displayed at Cleveland House in London.
"Here you have the King himself, commissioning what are essentially, very sexy pictures."
There they stayed until World War II, when they were moved out of the city to escape the Blitz. The pictures survived the bombing, but the house did not, leaving the Bridgewater heir without a London home. He moved to the family estate just outside Edinburgh, but Leighton says it just wasn't big enough to house the paintings.
"So there's a very nice letter in our archives where the Duke of Sutherland writes to the gallery, saying that he finds himself in the embarrassing position of not having enough room, and would we be prepared to take some pictures by Rembrandt, Poussin, Titian, Raphael, on loan?" Leighton related.
They were. That was in 1946, and the masterpieces of the Bridgewater Collection have been available for free viewing to the Scottish public at the National Gallery of Scotland ever since.
Novelist and art collector Alexander McCall Smith says it's a wonderful asset.
"Usually big paintings, expensive paintings like that are aquired by big countries," he said. "Here's Scotland with this wonderful, wonderful painting."
But now there is a new wrinkle, and that's what's led to the pictures' trip to the U.S. The present Duke of Sutherland, still the owner of the Titians, finds himself in need of money. So a few years ago he told the National Galleries of Scotland he wanted to sell them.
"I think it would be safe to say this was a moment of crisis for us," said John Leighton.
He offered to let Scotland take them off his hands at a bargain rate of 50 million pounds each. That's about $80 million. The National Gallery of Scotland and the National Gallery in London raised the money to buy Diana and Actaeon in 2009. Now they have till 2012 to raise the money for Diana and Callisto.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' Patrick Noon says the U.S. tour is part of that campaign, although there is the small matter of the global economic crisis.
"I think it's going to be a hard sell given the economy," he said. "But I think they are going to probably manage in the end to raise the money. They raised the money for the first picture very quickly."
In the meantime, Minnesotans get to enjoy what was once a king's private collection.