'NO Englishman had ever commissioned contemporary Italian painting on such a large scale before; few were ever to do so again.''
Francis Haskell paid this tribute, in his book ''Patrons and Painters,'' to the extravagant 17th-century collector and patron, the fifth earl of Exeter. The earl and his wealthy wife (and son, dog, and entourage) were among the first to embark on what became known as the Grand Tour through Europe, concentrating mostly on Italy.
They were obsessive collectors, in some cases buying from Italian painters works that were barely dry. These were shipped home to serve a purpose few aristocratic Englishmen other than royalty had thought of before: to embellish the walls of their house.
Their house was not just any old country house. It was the gigantic structure at Stamford, in the county of Lincolnshire, which had been built in the 16th century by one of Queen Elizabeth I's great statesmen, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. The fifth earl was his descendent. And, indeed, Burghley House, ever since it was built, has been inhabited continuously by the same family.
This breathtakingly impressive stone monument to Tudor ambition and wealth -- with its turrets and parapets, cupolas and chimneys -- has survived the centuries, and, perhaps even more amazingly, so have most of the 17th-century Italian paintings collected by the fifth earl: They are still at Burghley along with a number of paintings added to the collection later, most notably by the ninth earl.
The 17th-century paintings have survived even the improvidence of certain earls and marquesses, and while some treasures have been lost to the house through desperate auctions or inheritance taxes, the fifth earl's favorites have remained intact because they have never been fashionable. All these paintings are at Burghley, except for the temporary absence of about 10 percent of the collection - 60 paintings -- ''which are now on tour in the United States.
This traveling exhibition, currently at its first venue, the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., (through April 30) is called ''Italian Paintings from Burghley House.'' For lovers of Italian Baroque paintings, it is a must.
Burghley stands in all its glorious and grandiose complexity in magnificent grounds. It should be on every tourist's itinerary (only an hour's drive northwest of Cambridge). It reopens to the public April 1 and remains open through Oct. 8. This is its annual ''Open Season,'' as the house's present incumbent puts it. She is Lady Victoria Leatham, an elegant 1990s bundle of down-to-earth, aristocratic-cum-entrepreneurial energy and good humor.
Lady Victoria and her husband, Simon, and their two children and dogs have lived at Burghley House since 1982. They were asked by the Preservation Trust, today responsible for the maintenance and survival of both house and contents, to take over the massive responsibility of running the place after Lady Victoria's father, the sixth marquess of Exeter, and her mother, both died somewhat suddenly. (The seventh, and now eighth, marquesses, have not wished to live here: both are leading figures in a religious community in Canada.)
Lady Victoria thought it would be appropriate for us to interview her on the day that the Italian paintings were being packed for their big journey. A good ''photo opportunity,'' as they say.
Lady Victoria spends a large part of her time in the business of obtaining ''corporate donations for sponsorship'' and making ''the best income we have'' by lending objects to museums and galleries. Money from such enterprises is ploughed back. ''This loan exhibition,'' she says, ''has made it possible to do the frames up, put the canvases in good order. I would never dare let them travel if they weren't in good order.''
We are sitting in one of the grandiose state rooms. It's hard to tell precisely which one, due to the winter hibernation antidust shrouds that swathe furniture on all sides, but I suspect it is the Fourth George Room, just next to the Heaven Room, which is next to Hell Staircase. Undraped are the heady wall and ceiling paintings, largely by Verrio, that cover many of the available surfaces in these rooms -- another of the Baroque glories added to Burghley by the fifth earl.
Lady Victoria has been good for Burghley. She used to work for Sotheby's, Fine Art Auctioneers, and has ''expert'' friends. She and they have discovered neglected inventories revealing much about Burghley's greatest collectors. The ''1688 inventory, we realized, was still a working document,'' she says. ''Until then everyone just thought it was a stuffy old book!'' There were bills of sale for items such as the long-unrecognized unique collection of colored Japanese ceramics. ''By 1688, Burghley was absolutely stuffed with them -- and Japanese porcelain had only started coming to Europe from about 1661.'' All kinds of objects fascinating and valuable were lost in remote corners of the house like ''the dark nurseries.''
These rooms had no electricity until 1983. They were the storerooms for anything broken or unwanted. ''You've never seen anything like it,'' Lady Victoria says, ''A mountain of decay and neglect and excitement and treasures.''
One such treasure was ''an 18th- century scientific instrument in its original wrapping paper with a label saying 'Please change horses at Bedford.' '' The instrument -- actually a device for demonstrating the astronomical wonders of the universe -- was an orrery.
They found a lathe belonging to the 10th earl, fragments of it in different parts of the house, one section with pigeons nesting in it. They found a ''double-writing machine.'' But ''it doesn't work. We can't get proper feather quills for it.''
Lady Victoria has rehung all the paintings. ''After the war, when every painting was put in the cellar, they were all just hung on any old nail.'' She adds that she ''never wants to rehang them again!'' A horrendous job, one gathers. One of her priorities has been conserving the splendid tapestries. ''In a very poor state. Nothing gives a house a greater sense of decay than ropey old textiles. I hate it. Bits of old brown string!
''Sit down and stop walking about,'' she commands.
To my relief she is addressing one of the dogs rather than the visiting journalist.
She stages not only exhibitions abroad (like paintings in the US, or ceramics going later to Japan) but also at the house itself.
''Gives the press something to write about.'' This year the in-house exhibition of childhood -- children's clothes, traveling cots, baths, her father's toy Noah's ark, battledores, and shuttlecocks -- ''a soft exhibition.''
But on the whole she has come to see that Burghley is not particularly appealing to child visitors and that the history to date of moderate numbers of visitors, rather than vast busloads of tourists, seems likely to continue.
''If we were in Bath, we'd get crowds of people,'' she states, touching on the predictability of the tour operators, ''yet everyone acknowledges that the house is one of the greatest in the British Isles. The contents are without doubt in the top three or four. It is very rare to have such a good overall spread of objects.''
Or, for that matter, to have such an organized, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic member of the family in residence. Burghley is not at all like a museum.
ITALIAN MASTERPIECES ON TOUR IN THE UNITED STATES
The exhibit ''Italian Paintings From Burghley House'' includes paintings solemnly religious, smoothly religiose, and opulently sensuous.
The fifth earl of Exeter, who collected most of these paintings in the 17th century, had a taste for flesh and flowers.
The paintings include a masterpiece by Jacopo Bassano, a piece of devotional art by Carlo Dolci, and many surprises by Italian Baroque artists who deserve to be far more appreciated.
Exhibit locations include:
Pittsburgh, Pa.: Frick Art Museum, now through April 30.
Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, May 20 -- July 23.
Fresno, Calif.: Fresno Metropolitan Museum, Aug. 9 -- Nov. 12.
Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, Dec. 2, 1995 -- Feb. 25, 1996.
Jackson, Miss.: Mississippi Museum of Art, March 16 -- May 12, 1996.
Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland, June 1 -- July 21, 1996.
Ceramics from Burghley House will be at the Saga Prefectural Kyushu Ceramic Museum, Japan: July 19 -- Oct. 13, 1996.