Weekend Life

Venice, anyone? The Minneapolis Institute of Arts scores a magnificent traveling exhibit of Italian Renaissance art from the great Venetian painters, with Titian in the spotlight.

Two of the most important paintings from the Italian Renaissance are making their Twin Cities debut Sunday. Venetian painter Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto” will be on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the second of only three stops the paintings will make on their first visit to the United States. The Dianas join 11 other paintings and 12 drawings as part of “Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland.” The exhibit also features major works by other influential 16th-century Venetian artists, including Lotto, Tintoretto, Bassano, Cariani, Bordone and Veronese. “We don’t have much in the way of Renaissance paintings (at the MIA), so this is rare that people are going to be able to see pictures of this quality in this abundance,” says painting curator Patrick Noon. “It may not sound like much — 13 masterpieces or near masterpieces — but it’s a really special thing. They are some of the greatest pictures painted by these artists.”

From a god and goddess about to embark on an affair to a couple of courtesans primping themselves with the help of a servant to depictions of holy figures, the exhibit is filled with mythological and religious imagery. Commissioned in the 1500s by wealthy nobility, many of the paintings burst with rich colors that pop from the canvas. The intricate detail, especially in fabrics, are so lifelike, visitors will want to reach out and touch them.

And then there are the voluptuous nudes.”There are a lot of nudes here,” Noon says. “The nude figure was not meant to be erotic or pornographic. It was a belief that it was the highest form of beauty, and that’s what you wanted to paint if you were intent on painting beautiful things. It was believed in the Renaissance period that the human body was supreme and was the perfectly composed organism by the creator. Nudes were standard.”
While many of the artists liked to show a lot of skin in their paintings, it was Titian whose depictions of flesh were second to none, according to Noon.
“The way he painted flesh, it’s very different from the rest of these artists. This was a man that could convince you were looking at real flesh. His technique was genius.”

“The reason why this show is happening is because of the two Diana pictures,” Noon says.

Commissioned by King Phillip II of Spain, “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto” were created by Titian as part of a series of six large mythological paintings inspired by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” While the other paintings became separated over the years, the two Dianas have proved inseparable.

A 6-foot-by-7-foot oil on canvas, “Diana and Actaeon” depicts a naked Diana, goddess of the hunt, and her equally nude following of nymphs as the hunter Actaeon interrupts them. Diana, not happy about the disruption, attempts to shield herself from Actaeon as he also tries to block his view of the women with his hand. In the background, deerskins hanging from trees and a skull foreshadow Actaeon’s tragic fate after Diana turns him into a doomed stag.
The equally large “Diana and Callisto” is also a study in nudes, this time with Diana discovering that one of her maids, who had taken a vow of celibacy, has been seduced by Jupiter and is pregnant. The look of distress on Callisto’s face, the revealing of her swollen stomach and Diana’s stern gaze make for an intense scene.

The two paintings, placed next to each other for the MIA installment, seem to flow into each other, making it difficult to imagine them ever being apart.
In 1945, they were placed on long-term loan to the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS). A little more than two years ago, the Duke of Sutherland decided to sell the two Diana paintings. It took less than five months for the NGS and the National Gallery of London to raise the money and buy “Diana and Actaeon” for a reported less-than-market-value $71.3 million. They are now working on acquiring “Diana and Callisto.” This tour of America is an attempt to raise the paintings’ profiles.

“Both the NGS and National Gallery of London are co-owning these pictures, and neither can afford them,” Noon says. “So, they decided that an exhibition with these pictures at the center stopping at major American museums would do a tremendous amount to raise the profile of the pictures. Basically, they wanted to go to their own people and say, ‘Look at this major exhibition that’s traveling around America and look at how important it is, and we really need to buy these pictures.’ “

Along with the Renaissance masterpieces, the MIA is introducing a new acquisition Sunday — a rare map of Venice by Jacopo de Barbari from 1500. Placed at the beginning of the “Titian” exhibit, “A View From Venice” documents the city, from its buildings to its canals. The map was purchased by the museum in December from a London dealer for an undisclosed seven-figure sum. “It gives an introduction to the city and what it was like when these artists were working,” says Noon, who notes this is one of 13 known copies. “It’s just extraordinary, and the condition is amazing.”

At the end of the “Titian” exhibit is “Venice on Paper,” a collection of 40 works, including Titian-designed woodcuts and Venetian views by Canaletto and Whistler, from the 15th century to the late 19th century. These works on paper are mostly from the MIA’s permanent collection.

In conjunction with “Titian,” the museum also is highlighting Italian and French bronzes from the 16th to 18th centuries in “Beauty and Power: Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes From the Collection of Peter Marino.”