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Speaking in 2001, Lucian Freud called Titian’s Diana paintings “simply the most beautiful pictures in the world”. Two centuries earlier, William Hazlitt, when the pictures first went on show in London in 1806, wrote, “I was staggered when I saw the works. A new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new earth stood before me.”

From the time when Phillip II of Spain acquired them in 1559, through their glory days in the Orléans collection, purchased by the Duke of Bridgewater after the French Revolution, “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto” have always been recognised as supreme achievements of the Italian Renaissance.

Part of the Bridgewater loan, they hung in Edinburgh for much of the 20th century. Their return to the Scottish capital, following a successful campaign by the Scottish National Gallery in conjunction with London’s National Gallery to secure them in 2009-12, and their context in the new exhibition Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Art, makes Edinburgh an essential art destination this spring and summer.

Hanging in sparkling red-gold refurbished rooms under a blaze of natural light, the Titians look more glowing, even fresher, than they do in their darker home in Trafalgar Square. London has lent the sequel, “The Death of Actaeon”, unfinished (perhaps unfinishable) at Titian’s death in 1576, but also acknowledged as a masterpiece of his very late style of freer brushwork and varied painterly definition. This trio is displayed with Edinburgh’s own dozen paintings which, chronologically and thematically, represent the spectrum of 16th-century Venetian achievement.

The earliest, Lorenzo Lotto’s fervent “The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome, Peter, Francis” (1504-06), still depends on the formal compositions of his teacher, 15th-century pioneer Giovanni Bellini – although already Lotto’s particular psychological penetration is evident in interactions between the characters: Francis showing Mary his wounds, Christ leaning towards the elder men. Strong lighting, rich colours, lush Arcadian landscape, all demonstrate the expressive potential of oil paint, embraced more widely and ambitiously in Venice than anywhere else in Italy.

Oil paint made possible the sort of narrative religious paintings, busy and full of human interest, that the Venetians loved: the lively detail of Jacopo Bassano’s “Adoration of the Magi”, the intensity of movement of the swooning Mary, kneeling women and men struggling to remove the body, in Tintoretto’s tumultuous candlelit “Christ Carried to the Tomb”.

At the same time, classical subjects showed a uniquely open approach to the nude. Titian’s “Venus”, emerging from the sea, has the full form and twisting pose of an antique sculpture but marble is transformed into rippling flesh, hair is soft and luxuriant, water lapping the goddess’s thighs emphasises sensuality and texture. Paris Bordone’s “Venetian Women at their Toilet”, a frank depiction of half-dressed courtesans, is an erotic picture that could only have been made, in the 16th century, in secular, republican Venice. Bordone’s tighter, precise details, and cooler, metallic colour contrast with Titian’s use of oil and attest to individualities of style encouraged by liberal patronage.

Here portraits, too, became more subtle, personal, less concerned with status. “Portrait of an Archer” (1510), where a delicate, contemplative youth is presented at an angle, as if in arrested movement, is a rare work attributed to Giorgione, demonstrating the innovations he brought to Venetian portraiture before his early death. Works on paper emphasise that immediacy: in Lotto’s black-and-white chalk “Portrait of a Bearded Man”, probing eyes, arched eyebrows, sharp nose and disordered curly hair suggest an idiosyncratic intelligence; Palma Vecchio’s thoughtful, finely chiselled “Self-portrait” embodies the figure of the humanist intellectual.

Every one of these compels in its own right, and contributes to our sense of the climate in which Titian produced his masterpieces. This was technical (advanced understanding of oil paint) and cultural (the obsession with classical learning, the easy eroticism). None of this, though, explains the Diana paintings any more than the politics of Elizabethan England explains King Lear.

Self-portrait by Palma Vecchio (c1510)
Self-portrait by Palma Vecchio (c1510)

Titian was about 50 when he painted “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto”. Allowed free choice of subjects, he took motifs from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, for the erotic interest, to please the youthful Phillip, and for the tragic resonance.

Each work focuses on a moment of doomed revelation. Hunter Actaeon, caught mid-motion, raises his hands in surprise as he happens accidentally on Diana bathing naked with her nymphs; they rush to cover themselves and their mistress. Callisto, sweaty and dishevelled, is stripped by the same pristine nymphs, to prove her pregnancy. Diana’s imperious glare at Actaeon and gesture of banishment to Callisto chills each scene: divine retribution will follow, desire and death linked as inevitably as in Greek drama.

The moment of shock is fixed by staccato rhythmic gestures, vigorous, darting brushwork and vertiginous tilting landscapes – but sensual joy is mixed with anticipation of disaster. Titian weaves scarlet, rose, ochres, blue greens, green blues, to evoke exquisite tints of young flesh through the prism of light. Gold drapery flung over a branch in “Diana and Callisto” and a crimson curtain swaying before Actaeon were added in last-minute painterly flourishes. It is as though, says Titian’s biographer Sheila Hale, “the curtains in a darkened room had been thrown open on a sunny afternoon, so that the King of Spain, whose enlightened patronage had emboldened the old painter to take new risks, could see what no mere mortal was permitted to see: the naked bodies of the Virgin goddess Diana and her nymphs transported . . . to a glade in the Veneto”.

Fifteen years later, in the claustrophobic “Death of Actaeon” – transformed by Diana into a stag, Actaeon was devoured by his own hounds – colours are subdued to autumnal, late afternoon yellows and browns. Francis Bacon noted how Titian used “the light to work into the paint, so that the images are never absolutely definite and yet they are the suggestion of a tremendously tragic act”. Nature here – laden skies, foaming stream delineated in bold white smears, vestiges of sunlight falling on scattered leaves – revolts against fate, as the dark harmonies of Titian’s blended, abstracted late style seal the innocent youth, running vainly between goddess and forest, into a vision of the cruelty and the fragility of existence unmatched in visual art.

‘Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Art’, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, to September 14. nationalgalleries.org

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