Art That Took Scotland by Storm ; Edinburgh Exhibition Reveals Why Renaissance Artists, Especially Titian, Were a 19th-Century Rage

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Britain's golden age of art collecting in the 19th century brought a striking number of fine masterpieces from continental Europe to reside in country houses and castles in England - and also in Scotland.

Works of the Venetian Renaissance, Titians above all, became available and highly fashionable. Wealthy Scottish collectors joined the fashion.

These Northern European collectors found the opulent warmth of Venetian color particularly attractive. The Venetian sense of color, and taste for luxurious materials, had been fostered by the Italian city-state's trading and cultural connections with the East.

By the 20th century, however, many collectors were forced to turn around and sell these works again, as estate costs rose and two world wars intervened.

Now, the Scots are happy to welcome home - for a while - a number of these artworks. They are featured, along with magnificent works still in Scotland, in a grand exhibition "The Age of Titian: Venetian Renaissance Art From Scottish Collections" staged by the National Galleries of Scotland. The show's opening weeks coincide with the Edinburgh International Festival.

Focusing squarely on Titian and his fellow artists, the exhibition also sheds light on the Scottish collectors. Everyone wanted a Titian or a Tintoretto. Collectors unwittingly ended up with copies, good or not so good. Today's art historians face patchy records; attributions were frequently cockeyed. (Art history was still in its infancy when these collections were formed.)

Titian, who lived from about 1485 to 1576, was the dominant painter in Venice for much of the 16th century. He was vastly admired throughout Italy and further afield. He worked for aristocratic patrons in Ferrara and Mantua, for the Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul III. Later, though he never traveled to Spain, he counted Philip II of Spain as a major patron.

Titian's work became synonymous with color and freedom of execution. It was almost improvisatory compared with the planned, linear painting of the Florentine school, of Raphael or Michelangelo. A contemporary writer rated Titian (known in Italian usually as Tiziano Vecellio) above those giants because his color gave the pulse of life to his paintings. They have "the mellowness and softness of nature," Lodovico Dolce wrote.

"By his mid career, Titian was in an unusually privileged position," says Peter Humfrey, curator of the exhibition and professor of art history at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. "It was not the norm at the period, but he had become so famous [that] all these grandees were very keen to have work from the brush of the 'divine Titian,' as he was called."

This renown meant Titian was sometimes able to choose his own subjects and paint freely without following explicit instructions from his patrons. Two large and magnificent late Titians, conveniently nicknamed the "Diana pictures," fall into this category. The subjects are mythological: "Diana and Actaeon" and "Diana and Callisto."

The artist was not being self-indulgent, Professor Humfrey says. He would still have had "a shrewd idea that the subjects as well as the treatment would appeal." Indeed, Titian's letters show him continually asking Philip, for whom he made the Diana paintings, if he liked them.

These two paintings dominate the Edinburgh exhibition just as Titian dominated his Venetian contemporaries. And what contemporaries! Giorgione, Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Lotto, Moroni, not to mention Giovanni Bellini, who in turn had dominated Venetian art before Titian. Titian towers over them all.

The two Diana pictures (part of a series painted for Philip), are glorious, elated, sensuous dramas energized by an array of triumphantly painted female nudes. Although painted for a Spanish royal patron, they have ended up in a Scottish collection - that of the Duke of Sutherland. …