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Five-hundred-year-old paintings by Titian and Raphael that have never before left Spain are among the amazing works coming to the NGV this winter

Charles V of Spain, who reigned from 1519 to 1556, was not your tuppenny-ha’penny European king. The heir to three different dynasties, his kingdom additionally embraced Germany, the Netherlands, Burgundy, Spanish America and Naples; he also happened to be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. So it’s unsurprising that he was exposed to the greatest Italian art of the High Renaissance and said to himself: I’ll have some of that, thanks very much.

Charles and his successors became mad collectors of works by Italian masters Titian, Raphael, Correggio, Tiepolo and many more. Titian ended up the era’s most important portrait painter of Spanish royalty, working for Charles’ successor, Phillip II, almost exclusively for the last 20 years of his life. A full-length 1551 portrait of Phillip by the Venetian artist is just one of the works coming to the NGV International in May as part of an unprecedented exhibition of works from Spain’s national gallery, the Museo del Prado.

The painting “is one of the great portraits of power,” says the NGV’s curator of international art, Laurie Benson, who is overseeing the show. “Phillip’s there in armour, it’s a really strong image of a warrior leader. Titian’s court portraits are not introspective psychological studies; they’re about outward appearance and status.”

This will be the first major show of Italian paintings the Prado has ever exported. Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery was the first beneficiary of the museum’s new open attitude, hosting the landmark Portrait of Spain exhibition in 2012. Italian Masterpieces, the NGV’s 11th blockbuster Melbourne Winter Masterpieces show, features 70 paintings and 30 drawings spanning the 16th to the 18th centuries – works from Rome, Venice and Naples, or executed in Spain for the royal household. The works span the high renaissance through mannerism, the baroque, rococo and neo-classicism.

A 1517 portrait of the holy family by Raphael is another highlight. Benson says it’s an example of a perfect high renaissance painting in that it shows the emergence of naturalism in the portrayal of the figures of Christ, John the Baptist and the Madonna. “We’re watching a very intimate moment between two kids and a mum, the kids behaving just like normal kids behave. This is religion trying to broaden its appeal so viewers can readily associate with the messages.”

Perhaps the most imposing painting in the show is a view of Rome’s Colosseum. Almost three metres long, the work was commissioned to decorate a Spanish palace constructed in the 1630s. Neapolitan architectural artist Codazzi painted the cross section of the building while another artist, Gargiulo, added in 2,000 of figures of spectators, gladiators and animals. “There are animals fighting humans, elephants, bears, cheetahs, even a couple of bullfights, and the emperor on his golden throne. You could spend hours in front of it because there’s so much going on.”

Image: Viviano Codazzi, Italian (c. 1604) –1670, Domenico Gargiulo (Micco Spadaro)m Italian (c. 1609–10) – (c. 1675), Perspectival view of a Roman amphitheatre (Vista prospettica di un anfiteatro romano) (c. 1638), oil on canvas, 220.5 x 352.7 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid (P02632), Image courtesy of Museo del Prado, Madrid

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By Nick Dent   |  

Italian Masterpieces from from Spain’s Court, Museo del Prado details

180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne 3006

Telephone 03 8620 2222

Nearby Stations: Flinders Street

Price $10.00 to $26.00

Date 16 May 2014-31 Aug 2014

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