MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
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.
JOHN LEIGHTON: 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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
PATRICK NOON: 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: 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.
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: Author and art collector Alexander McCall Smith says the paintings have become a source of national pride.
ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH: 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.
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. That's about $80 million - each. Leighton puts a positive spin on the news, given what some paintings have brought at auction recently.
LEIGHTON: Fifty million pounds is probably well below half price, which, again, in anybody's terms, is a good bargain.
KERR: 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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.