Pounds of flesh

Reputation - Jerry Brotton on how our love affair with Titian led to the creation of public gallerie

''After years of rumour and speculation, a selection of some of the finest works of the great Venetian colourist Tiziano Vecellio finally reaches London, confirming his reputation as the greatest painter of the Italian Renaissance, drawing praise and emulation from contemporary artists and profoundly altering English attitudes towards 16th-century Italian art."

This is not a description of the impact of the National Gallery's latest blockbuster exhibition, "Titian", but an account of the effect of the arrival of a crate of Titians at the court of King Charles I in Whitehall in 1624. Charles had spent the previous year in Madrid, unsuccessfully negotiating a marriage treaty with the Spanish Infanta Dona MarIa. Instead of returning home with a Spanish bride, Charles consoled himself with a select collection of Titians. Some were presented to him, while others were bought, begged and "borrowed" from the vastly superior Spanish collection of Philip IV. The installation of the Titians in the galleries of Whitehall and St James's revolutionised the work of Charles's drab court painters. This was the first significant display of Titians in England - although entry was rather more restricted and exclusive than the National Gallery's current admissions policy. Admission, however, was free.

The current London exhibition is less an arrival than a return to England for Titian. His international reputation was secured thanks to Charles and the so-called "Whitehall Group" of collectors who scoured the collections of 17th-century Europe in their search for his work. When the Duke of Buckingham returned to London from Madrid with Prince Charles, he displayed his own collection of Titians. Buckingham caused a stir by paying £275 for Titian's Ecce Homo (a version of which can be seen at the National), which his collecting rival, the Earl of Arundel, unsuccessfully offered to buy for a staggering £700. Not to be outdone, Arundel despatched agents to Venice, where they bought one of the finest pictures in the current exhibition, the Flaying of Marsyas. While Prince Charles displayed his new acquisitions in Whitehall, Buckingham showed off his own Spanish purchases, including the double portrait of Georges d'Armagnac, Bishop of Rodez, with his secretary Guillaume Philandrier (also on display at the National), to the English architect Inigo Jones, who "almost went down on his knees" in admiration. Both Rubens and Van Dyck also inspected Buckingham's Titian at close quarters, borrowing heavily from its design when painting their own portraits of the English aristocracy. These pictures have become synonymous with English Stuart life, yet would have been unthinkable without Titian.

What seduced these collectors was Titian's opulent creation of a world denied the English ever since the iron curtain of the Reformation cut England off from the rest of Europe during the austere reign of Elizabeth I. Titian's elegant courtiers, beautiful women and commanding rulers evoked a cosmopolitan world that the Stuart court desperately wanted to re-create in London. The acres of naked, sensual female flesh in Titian's paintings appealed to the sexually frustrated and inexperienced Prince Charles, on the hunt for a wife in Madrid, who was partly placated by gifts of pictures of scantily clad women draped in furs and lounging in forests. Titian had painted these pictures to satisfy the pornographic imagination of the Habsburg court, a sensibility that Charles was quick to adopt in his own hunt for canvases by the Venetian master.

In its description of this new show, the National Gallery emphasises that it was Titian's consummate handling of paint that established him as one of the first truly international painters, creating a reputation across Europe and eclipsing artists of the stature of Michelangelo and Leonardo. Titian was a supreme painter, but what the story of England's early love affair with Titian also reveals is that he was also an astute manipulator of his own celebrity. He accepted the patronage of the Habsburg empire in the latter half of his career, ensuring that his work moved wherever this mobile international empire travelled. From Italy to Spain, the Low Countries, France and finally England, Titian's reputation spread along the same channels as Habsburg power and diplomacy.

The portraits of Charles V at the Battle of Muhlberg and Philip II were copied and distributed to Habsburg friends, vassals and rivals, broadcasting the empire's dynastic might and military power. Both portraits found their way into Charles I's collection, providing Van Dyck with the inspiration for his defining images of Charles painted during the 1630s. Titian's posthumous fortune was to see the value of his work soar as a result of Charles I's demand for the painter's pictures.

What finally cemented Titian's reputation in English eyes (and the rest of Europe) was the dramatic sale of Charles I's art collection following his execution in 1649. One of the first acts passed by the new republican authorities established the terms for "The Sale of the Late King's Goods". Pictures were sold in Somerset House, including many of the prized Titians that now hang in the Prado, the Louvre and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Portraits such as Charles V, originally presented to Charles by the Spanish royal family, were unscrupulously snapped up by Habsburg diplomats and shipped back to Madrid. Other pictures, such as Arundel's Flaying of Marsyas, were dispersed throughout Europe, circulating between private collectors and finally ending up in public galleries where we see them today. Ordinary Englishmen also profited from the sale. Soldiers, grocers and tailors all bought Titians, proudly displaying them in their shops and parlours, and only reluctantly returning them on the orders of King Charles II at the Restoration in 1660.

Charles's execution unwittingly led to a democratisation of art and its circulation that went far beyond the cloistered rooms and private galleries of the popes and princes for whom the pictures were originally designed. Titians were being discussed, displayed, bought and sold throughout London and the art capitals of Europe. This gave the artist a new level of popular appeal, and ensured that demand for his work was never higher. The sale of Charles I's art collection was not a national tragedy, as many royalist art historians have claimed, but a moment when ordinary people claimed art for themselves, and took one step on the road to the creation of national, public galleries.

The National's sumptuous show will only cement the critical and popular acclaim for Titian established in Britain in the 17th century. These pictures should be celebrated not only for their technical mastery, but also as some of the first to be seen by those outside the royal circle - the kind of people that will be queuing to see this show from now until May.

Jerry Brotton is the author of The Renaissance Bazaar (OUP). He is currently writing The Sale of the Late King's Goods, a history of the art collection of Charles I

"Titian" is at the National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2865) until 18 May

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, What has America ever done for us?