John Mcewen

Scotland’s Italian connection

John McEwen applauds the ‘Age of Titian’ in Edinburgh, and other Festival treats

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John McEwen applauds the ‘Age of Titian’ in Edinburgh, and other Festival treats

Sir Timothy Clifford celebrates the completion of the Playfair Project, uniting the 19th-century architect William Playfair’s two art temples on Edinburgh’s Mound, with an exhibition that is both a witty deceit and appropriately self-congratulatory. The Project gives Edinburgh an ‘exhibition complex’ that vies for charm and technological sophistication with any in the world. Obviously, the show celebrating such a milestone had to be something special: a ‘blockbuster’ that would not only attract sponsorship and pull in the punters, but would also draw specific attention to the significance of the Project. And, because all the money has not yet been found, it would also have to be economical.

The Age of Titian: Venetian Renaissance Art in Scottish Collections (Royal Scottish Academy Building, until 5 December) is the canny solution. The sponsorship of Lloyds TSB Scotland, the billing, and the thumping catalogue with its Titian cover, combine to suggest that a Titian blockbuster it is; but it is not. Titian represents only the kernel of a scholarly show that is the very opposite of blockbusting sensationalism but which, by concentrating on works that are (or were) in Scottish collections, none-theless beats the big drum for tourism while keeping expensive foreign loans to a minimum.

Equally, the emphasis on Titian fulfils the exhibition’s main purpose — visitors are thereby reminded of the superlative quality of the several masterpieces by him on semi-permanent loan from the Duke of Sutherland, which are the cream of the National Gallery of Scot-land’s wonderful collection.

A contextual show is apt. Scotland is peculiarly indebted to Venice. There is the demonstrable range of Venetian art in Scottish collections, thanks to the perspicacity of a few 18th- and 19th-century Scottish dealers and aristocrats; and, as Sir Timothy surmises, how would such architects as William and Robert Adam, Chambers and Mylne have developed without Palladio? Finally, there is Titian’s own significance, not just as a great innovator of oil painting but as a man whose long life witnessed the beginning of Western Christendom’s slow evolution from a religious to a secular society.

The glory of Venice can only be hinted at, but the hints are well-selected — notice the fascinating 19th-century photograph in the lobby of the inglorious Lagoon before it was dredged. Specialists will find a commendable number of rediscoveries and re-attributions, for which guest curator (and Prince William’s erstwhile art tutor) Peter Humfrey and the National’s Aidan Weston-Lewis as co-ordinator must take special credit.

Each room has a theme, and the first, ‘From Madonnas to Pastorals’, already displays many of the show’s instructive merits. The earliest painting, a jewel-like triptych by the 15th-century painter Bartolomeo Vivarini, is the most covetable object of ‘the ones that got away’. Formerly owned by the Earl of Wemyss, it now belongs to the Metropolitan Museum in New York — a painful loss as Scotland has nothing comparable of that date. Its sacred subject could not be at greater odds with Titian’s early masterpiece from the Sutherland loan, ‘The Three Ages of Man’, hung nearby.

I dismissed phallic interpretations of the play of musical pipes between the young lovers in this picture as fanciful post-Freudianism. But an adjacent copy of the Hypnerotomachia, a book of erotica acclaimed as the most beautiful printed work of the Renaissance, put me straight. The chosen spread shows a nude and rampant Priapus, the fertility god, opposite a page of suggestively V-shaped text. Weston-Lewis makes it game, set and match by quoting the agent of the Duke of Ferrara’s complaint: ‘The girls whom Titian often paints in different poses arouse his desires, which he then satisfies more than his limited strength permits.’ So that limerick about Titian and coition is spot-on.

In this first room there is also a small tablet of rock crystal exquisitely engraved with a Nativity scene, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’; astonishing, not least because crystal is notoriously difficult to carve. Although owned by the Museum of Scotland, it has remained unpublished until now and some say it is a 19th-century fake. The catalogue boldly attributes it to Valerio Belli, the master gem engraver of Titian’s time.

The exhibition comes to a fitting climax in the grandest gallery with two supreme poetic masterpieces of Renaissance painting and the most famous of the Sutherland pictures, Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’. The two largest paintings in the show are also in this room, surprisingly both unpublished, although the best painting in this ‘discovery’ category is surely Lorenzo Lotto’s ‘Portrait of an Architect’, from a ‘private’ Scottish collection.

This climactic room also typifies the show’s admirable attention to detail by highlighting the quality of the frame surrounding Veronese’s ‘The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine’. It is one of only two on view of the right 16th-century date, although later incorrectly gilded and embellished. The unspoken hint is that its owner, former Le Mans winner Johnny Dumfries, Marquess of Bute, should restore it to its proper distinction.

The closer your attention, the more you will get out of this exhibition. Some locals might complain that they are paying to see objects the majority of which are usually available for free. Perhaps they will be placated by the buckshee gawp offered by David Mach’s collage portraits of Alex Ferguson and Gavin Hastings in the concourse — another canny insertion, suggesting that visiting the National means you can still be one of the lads; and another subtle link, as both are loans from that Venetian palazzo, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Among other shows through the Festival: a one-off travelling exhibition of Etruscan art, Royal Museum (until 31 October); Golden Age Dutch pictures from the Royal Collection, including one Vermeer, The Queen’s Gallery, Holyroodhouse (until 7 November); a retrospective celebrating Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s 80th birthday, Dean Gallery (until 31 October) — impressive head-butting insistence; the sometimes elegant variations of post-1983 Jasper Johns, National Gallery of Modern Art (until 19 September). Two further US shows: Fred Tomaselli’s druggy-looking collage pictures, Fruitmarket (until 3 October); and Robert Therrien’s witty play with scale and objects, Inverleith House (until 31 October) — one for children and adults, in the herbaceous splendour of the Botanical Gardens. Finally, of commercial shows, John Bellany’s latest paintings, subject-range extended by life in Italy and visits to the Far East, at the Open Eye Gallery (until 1 September).