The Rape of Europa - The Intriguing History of Titian's Masterpiece by Charles FitzRoy, book review

Titian's dazzling masterpiece has the most colourful of pasts
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The Independent Culture

Even the most casual observer of the British art scene must have clocked the epic fundraising campaign to save for the nation two of Titian's most important paintings inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses.

This book, at least in part, explains why the departing National Gallery director Dr Nicholas Penny, described here as already retired (Mr FitzRoy appears to have been as surprised as everyone at the protracted wait for a successor), fought so hard not to lose Diana and Actaeon and its sister work, Diana and Callisto, even at a joint price tag of £100m.

But it is only in his final paragraph that FitzRoy makes the link. For in defiance of journalistic logic when faced with such a major art-world drama, this is not the history of those two paintings. Instead, the narrative focuses on The Rape of Europa, another of the six giant canvases commissioned from the Renaissance genius, Titian, by King Philip II of Spain four-and-a-half centuries ago.

In fairness to the writer, an art historian and descendant of Charles II, who is one of the book's protagonists, his mission is to explore "the extraordinary history" of a masterpiece, not to chronicle a 21st-century fundraising campaign.

"The theme of this book traces this history as the painting has moved in succession from Venice to Spain, France, England and the United States, reflecting the rise and fall of the various nations," he says near the start.

And it is royal politics, international diplomacy and economic fortunes that provide the bigger picture, although it was only when this notion was repeated three-quarters of the way through the book that I realised that some passages outlining "the rise and fall of the various nations" were the point and not just interesting padding.

The story of The Rape of Europa takes the reader from the inbred, art‑loving Spanish royals of the 16th century to the 500-piece art collection of the dissolute Duke of Orléans who was to lose it – and his head – during the French Revolution, to the wealthy art-buyers of 19th-century Britain.

FitzRoy details how much of the Duke's collection arrived in Britain thanks to the consortium led by the canal-building aristocrat, the Duke of Bridgewater, a name still associated with many significant loans to British galleries but who proves a red herring here as The Rape of Europa comes by a different route.

It is eventually bought by another English aristocrat, the Fifth Earl of Darnley. When he faces financial troubles, the painting is eventually sold to the eccentric Bostonian Isabella Stewart Gardner, in whose public museum it remains.

FitzRoy is right: it is a story that illuminates the varying fortunes, first of European nations and then of the United States. He includes some lovely details – among them that the family of the writer Edith Wharton was a source of the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses"; and that the drunken, lecherous Peter the Great was reportedly so shocked by dinner with the Duke of Orléans – where guests were each allotted three bottles of champagne and naked ballets were an entertainment of choice – that he declined a second invitation.

But too much seems tangential, so the end result is a little frustrating. The book suffers, too, from the lack of colour illustrations of the works so ravishingly described. Yet there is something admirable in the effort.

The National Gallery in London declined to buy The Rape of Europa when Darnley offered it for £15,000 at the end of the 19th century. FitzRoy says it is the one painting Dr Penny regrets losing. This book goes some way to explaining why the erudite gallery boss worked so hard to prevent a similar mistake.