Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto are amongst the most widely admired and influential of all Italian Renaissance paintings, and fully deserve their reputation as world heritage items.
They were painted in Venice between 1556 and 1559 for King Philip II of Spain, then the most powerful monarch in the world and Titian’s most important patron for the last twenty-five years of his career.
The two Diana scenes were conceived as a pair within a loose series of six mythological paintings, with subjects drawn from the Metamorphoses by the classical poet Ovid. In a letter to his patron, Titian himself described them as poesie or painted poems, and emphasised the great effort and care he had expended to bring them to perfection.
The paintings have been consistently admired down the centuries by artists and art lovers for their exceptional pictorial and dramatic qualities. The British king Charles I coveted them, Rubens painted full-size copies of them, and Velázquez was responsible for redisplaying them in the Royal Palace in Madrid.
For most of the eighteenth century they were one of the highlights of the celebrated Orléans collection in Paris, and they have delighted audiences in Britain for over two hundred years.
Seldom have works of art drawn such universal praise and been so immune to the vagaries of fashion and changing tastes. One of Britain’s most respected living artists, Lucian Freud, has described them as ‘simply the most beautiful pictures in the world’.