Why the `Naked Maja' needs a bit more cover

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A FIERCE row has shaken the Spanish art world following the disclosure that Madrid's Prado museum has lent two priceless Goya masters, The Naked Maja and the Clothed Maja, to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, insured for what critics condemn as a ridiculously small sum.

The Goyas - two of the finest in the Prado's vast collection - form the focus of an exhibition that opened on Thursday and runs until November. The Prado sent them to the Russian gallery in return for the loan of a Leonardo da Vinci and a Caravaggio in 1990. The Majas ("belles") travelled to Russia in separate planes, each accompanied by a Prado curator to ensure safe passage at every stage of the journey.

But the sensitive Spanish art world is furious that the works were insured for only 3bn pesetas (pounds 12.5m) the pair, prompting calls for a ban on the transport of all great works.

One art expert, Miguel de Oriol, condemned the loan as "absolutely ridiculous and an intolerable scandal that should not be allowed in the case of two works of such incalculable value". A Prado spokesman said: "Of course the Goyas are worth much more than this, but with institutions of confidence such as the Hermitage, it is common practice to insure masterpieces for a symbolic amount, simply to facilitate the movement of the works."

The two paintings, although matching, were painted at different times between 1797 and 1800, and the brushwork on each is quite distinct. The pair were reputed to form an erotic game, whereby the clothed one could be moved to reveal the secret naked version beneath. They were considered very risque at the time, although the clothed version is thought by many to be the more seductive.

Unconfirmed legend says the model is the Duchess of Alba, reputed to have been the artist's mistress, whom he painted on many occasions. The naked version, a closely observed work, shows the first example of pubic hair in the history of European painting.

Critics fear not so much that the works might be stolen - there would be no market for such renowned pieces - but that they might suffer damage, either through the rigours of travel upon aged and fragile fabric or, especially in this case, through the unforeseen hazards of political upheaval.

The loan was "a rash imprudence in present circumstances, with Russia so unstable," fumed Francisco Nieva, a member of the Spanish Academy.

The furore echoes one last year over a proposal to move Picasso's Guernica from Madrid's Reina Sofia museum to the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. The Reina Sofia said the painting was too fragile to travel, but disappointed Basques in Bilbao were convinced Madrid was just being dog-in-the-manger.

The Reina Sofia's director Jose Guirao is more relaxed about the Goyas: "In my experience, the security of Russian museums is very good - even if other aspects of Russian life don't work."