Years on begging galleries around the world to lend works by Titian to the National Gallery in London will produce one of Europe's biggest exhibitions next year.
Britain's first large-scale showing devoted to the Old Master, who died in 1576 aged about 85, will open in February and will include many of his greatest works.
The gallery's senior curator, David Jaffe, said yesterday: "It has taken around three years of heavy begging to get everything together for the show. A lot of the pictures have only come through in the last few weeks."
Explaining why the exhibition will be so important, he added: "Titian only had one real long-term rival in the high Renaissance – Michelangelo. Raphael was a bright-burning meteor that hit the ground fast, but Titian and Michelangelo were the great superstar painters and they were treated as such."
Highlights will include a series of works commissioned by Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, reunited for the first time in 400 years. The series includes the National Gallery's Bacchus and Ariadne, and The Worship of Venus and Bacchanal of the Andrians, both from the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
"These are among the best work Titian ever did," Mr Jaffe said. "He was trying to impress the Duke of Ferrera, who had work from Michelangelo and Raphael to choose from as well. The duke was trying to make the ultimate Renaissance room, and Titian was trying to create the dream of all the Renaissance painters – images that resembled ancient classical paintings."
Titian was noted for his sensuous representations of women, and there will be the chance to see Danaë (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) and Flora (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
His ability to create a convincing yet flattering likeness made him famous throughout Europe as a portrait painter. He was engaged by kings, princes, dukes and popes to paint pictures of themselves and their families. The exhibition will trace his achievements from the National Gallery's early Man with a Blue Sleeve to some of the renowned portraits from his middle years, such as those of Clarissa Strozzi, Ranuccio Farnese, Philip II and Pope Paul III, to the late effort, Jacopo Strada.
Titian transformed the language of painting. His late works display an unprecedented freedom in the handling of thickly textured oil paint, and experts are still unsure whether some of these works are finished.
The exhibition will culminate with a group of these late, dramatic works, including the National Gallery's Diana and Actaeon, Tarquin and Lucretia (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) and The Entombment (Museo del Prado), all of which show Titian exploring the full range of human emotion and pushing the expressive boundaries of painting further than ever before.
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