MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Now a story of nudity, religion and money. The plot begins with a sensuous collection of Renaissance paintings commissioned by a king. The works come from the National Galleries of Scotland.
And Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports that the story of how they got there is almost as titillating as the art itself.
EUAN KERR: John Leighton sits in his high-ceilinged office in Edinburgh. The director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland�says two paintings are at the heart of the collection.
Mr. JOHN LEIGHTON (Director-General, National Galleries of Scotland): Diana and Actaeon�and�Diana and Callisto.
KERR: Based on Ovid's tales of the goddess, they show the scantily clad Diana and her retinue in scenes filled with violence, nudity and - dogs.
Mr. LEIGHTON: The goddess Diana surprised at her bath by the hunter, Actaeon. And in a moment of fury she transforms a hapless hunter into a stag, and he's hunted down by his own hounds.
KERR: Leighton says even today, 450 years after they were created, contemporary artist Lucian Freud describes them as the most important paintings anywhere in the world.
Mr. LEIGHTON: They were painted by Titian at the height of his powers in the 16th century, when he was without any doubt the most influential, most famous painter anywhere in Europe. And they were painted for the most powerful monarch of the time, Philip II.
KERR: This is the Philip who launched the Spanish Armada on its catastrophic attack on Queen Elizabeth I of England. He was an extremely pious man who ruled through divine right, supported by the power of the Catholic Church. Leighton says that's what makes the Titians even more extraordinary.
Mr. LEIGHTON: In the 1550s, where in Spain in full counter-Reformation mode where even a hint of nudity is something to be frowned upon, and yet here you have the king himself commissioning what are really essentially very sexy pictures.
KERR: Few people other than Philip would've seen the pictures. But that was to change. After his death, the paintings became part of a diplomatic gift to France where they came into the possession of the Duc d'Orleans. But he ran afoul of the French Revolution and lost his head. Many of his pictures made it to London.
Patrick Noon, curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where the works are now on view, says their arrival in England sparked another revolution.
Mr. PATRICK NOON (Painting Curator, Minneapolis Institute of Arts): The impact of these pictures, when they arrived, especially the Titians, when they arrived in London, was tremendous. The artists had never seen anything like this. And of course, most British artists hadn't been overseas, or over the channel, I should say, because of the French Revolution.
KERR: Noon says the golden age of British painting, which emerged with such artists as Constable and Turner, owes a huge debt to this influx from France.
The collection remained on display to the public until World War II, when it was moved out of the city to escape German bombing. The pictures survived the blitz, but the mansion where they hung did not. So their owner moved the paintings and his family to just outside Edinburgh, but Leighton says the new house just wasn't big enough.
Mr. LEIGHTON: So there's a very nice letter in our archives where the then -it's now the Duke of Sutherland, writes to the gallery saying that he finds himself in the embarrassing position of not having enough room. Would we be prepared to take some pictures by Rembrandt, Poussin, Titian, Raphael, on loan?
KERR: As a result, the people of Scotland have had access to King Philip's private pictures since 1946. Anyone strolling along Princes Street in Edinburgh can step into the National Gallery and feast their eyes on the Titians for free.
Author and art collector Alexander McCall Smith says the paintings have become a source of national pride.
Mr. ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH (Author, Art Collector): Usually, big paintings, expensive paintings like that are acquired by big countries. Here's Scotland with this wonderful, wonderful painting.
KERR: But there's another recent twist to the story. A few years ago, the painting's owner, the current Duke of Sutherland, having been advised to diversify his assets, told the National Galleries he wanted to sell the Diana Titians.
Mr. LEIGHTON: I think it would be safe to say that this was something of a moment of a crisis for us.
KERR: But director-general John Leighton says the duke did not go straight to market. He offered to sell the paintings to the nation for 50 million pounds -each. Thats about $80 million - each. Leighton puts a positive spin on the news, given what some paintings have brought at auction recently.
Mr. LEIGHTON: Fifty million pounds is probably well below half price, which, again, in anybody's terms, is a good bargain.
KERR: Working with the National Gallery in London, the National Galleries of Scotland bought Diana and Actaeon�in 2009. They have till next year to raise the money for Diana and Callisto, but the bottom has fallen out of the economy. So the Scots sent the paintings on tour to raise awareness about them. After stops in Minneapolis and Houston, they'll return to Scotland, where fundraising will begin in earnest. John Leighton admits it'll be tough, but he says to not raise the money would unthinkable.
For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in Minneapolis.
SIEGEL: And you can see photos of Titian's Diana masterpieces at our website, NPR.org.