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. They are on longstanding loan to the Scottish National Gallery.
That they belong to one of Scotland's aristocratic families might seem surprising. But, as Humfrey details in the exhibition catalog, numerous Scottish collectors - largely wealthy landowners but also successful industrialists - acquired Venetian Renaissance art. Passion and taste motivated them, but so did ambition and status. The taste was often that of agents and dealers who took advantage of the need for indigent European collectors, particularly after the French Revolution and the Battle of Waterloo, to offload their collections. These agents sold to English collectors no less than Scottish ones. Britain in the early 19th century was the wealthiest nation on earth.
Three of these agents happened to be Scots with strong connections to Scottish collectors. However, Humfrey says, the notion that there is some special connection between Scottish collectors and Venetian art is not something he wants to overemphasize. The Scots were attracted to Venetian painting as part of a prevailing taste. They also loved the grandeur of many of the works, well suited to their vast mansions.
Humfrey says that, in fact, "the Scots were rather late on the bandwagon. Traditionally, [they] liked more matter-of-fact art. Dutch painting. It took a lot of time for Italian painting to catch on in Scotland. This was partly because it was mythological and too sexy, partly because it was too Catholic." But by the early 19th century, the Scots were catching up, he says.
One of the appeals of Venetian art to the Scots has arguably been connected with the strangely paradoxical love in cool, wet, Northern cultures for almost tropical color and expressive brushwork. Perhaps it is compensatory. Early 20th-century Scottish artists - the Scottish Colorists - clearly admired Venetian painting. Some of the early collectors were philanthropists. Their idea, in the mid 19th century, was to make Old Master paintings available in the original for Scottish artists to study. Until then, prints were the usual access to Renaissance masterpieces. Public institutions were set up for this purpose. Art galleries were opened.
In time, the golden age of collecting inevitably declined. Quantities of artworks were sold abroad in the 20th century, particularly to collectors and institutions in the United States. But a few of the old 19th-century collections are still intact. Humfrey had an opportunity to visit some of these in preparing the exhibition, and he made a number of discoveries - in some cases, after paintings were cleaned, he made rediscoveries.
For example, a major painting by Andrea Schiavone, owned by the Earl of Wemyss and March, was virtually invisible under the grime. After cleaning, he found this large work, with its frieze of mythological figures, a revelation.
Not much was known about its history. "I had to discover that myself," he says. But he was able to track the painting back only about 20 years before the earl bought it - to a Christie's auction in 1832.
"Very few of these 19th-century collectors had a lot of information about where their paintings came from," Humfrey explains. "They just got them in salesrooms and they didn't keep proper records."
The show's catalog publishes a number of works for the first time - art historians have been ignorant of them until now. Even Humfrey, a Lotto specialist, surprised himself by discovering a Lotto painting, "Portrait of an Architect."
"I am embarrassed to now find an unknown Lotto masterpiece," he says with a laugh, "no further than 80 miles from where I live."
The Edinburgh show has all the characteristics of a blockbuster - except it's not traveling. Sir Timothy Clifford, director general of all the National Galleries of Scotland, expresses glee over the fact that museumgoers in London - viewed as a city with a disproportionate share of major exhibitions - will have to travel to see it.
Edinburgh's reputation as home to the International Festival has, however, encouraged a number of outstanding art exhibitions over the years. This show is bound to count among them. The city is packed every year with thousands of people from all over the world. And Clifford claims "they are coming in droves" to see the Titian show.
• 'The Age of Titian' continues at the Royal Scottish National Gallery through Dec. 5.