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Gardner Museum masterpiece to be reunited with works in European tour

A distinct line can be seen where the progress that Head of Conservation Gianfranco Pocobene had made as of December, 2018, on removing varnish from Titian's "Rape of Europa" at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“The Rape of Europa,” a 16th-century masterpiece by Titian, one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance, had its travel plans confirmed Wednesday: The newly restored work will go on a yearlong sojourn from its home at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as the centerpiece of an international tour beginning with the National Gallery in London on March 16, 2020.

“Europa,” the crown jewel of the Gardner’s collection, will be reunited with four of the five other paintings in the Old Master’s “Poesie” series, painted for Spain’s King Philip II between 1551 and 1562 (the London-based Wallace Collection, which owns the sixth painting, “Perseus and Andromeda,” does not loan works as per the traditional interpretation of its bequest). Commissioned as a series to be hung together, the six paintings have been apart for more than 300 years, when the Spanish court began selling them off in the early 1700s.


They’re the product of both an unusual commission and uncommon ambition: Philip gave Titian carte blanche to paint whatever story he saw fit, and the artist took on nothing less than Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Titian sought to tell in paint what, to that point, could only be done justice in words. His title for the cycle, “Poesie,” laid plain his ambition, which blazed a trail for the Renaissance painters who came after him.

“[The series] really paved the way for painting in Europe,” said Nathaniel Silver, the Gardner’s curator of the collection. “Titian didn’t hold back on promoting himself,” Silver said, laughing. “Not only do we see him as a trailblazer, but he wanted to be seen as a trailblazer in his own time. He was experimenting with painting techniques and elevating the form.”

The exhibition will travel from the National Gallery in London, where it will be titled “Love Desire Death,” to the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh on July 6, 2020, and then to the Prado in Madrid on Oct. 20, before finally returning to Boston’s Gardner Museum, where it will run Feb. 11 to May 9, 2021. Each of the museums in the tour own at least one of the paintings in the series. (The fifth painting, “Danaë,” is owned by the Wellington Collection, Apsley House, in London.) The Gardner is the exhibition’s only North American venue.


Details of the tour were guarded closely by the museum as it worked with its much larger partners — all of them national institutions — to finalize details. “This isn’t a whistle-stop tour,” said Silver. “This has been an equal collaboration between all four institutions since the beginning. . . . We really think it will shine a new light on Titian’s techniques, as well as his storytelling.”

“Europa” is believed to be the last of Titian’s six “Poesie” works. It’s widely seen as the Old Master’s most accomplished piece, and one of the most important Renaissance paintings in America.

Head of Conservation Gianfranco Pocobene worked on removing varnish from Titian's "Rape of Europa" at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on Dec. 5. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Gardner undertook a major restoration project on the painting last year, removing it from its galleries for several months as chief conservator Gianfranco Pocobene removed a layer of yellowed varnish to reveal the vibrant color below. Conservation work also revealed as a misconception the long-held belief that the painting, with its ruddy skies, was a scene set at dusk. Titian, like many painters of his time, used a compound called smalt to create blue, which conservators now know to degrade into a brownish-red over time.


“Europa” is the most significant loan in the Gardner’s history. It will be removed from its current place next February and will be absent for a full year.

The painting’s itinerary seems a far cry from the wishes expressed in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will, which stated that all the works in the collection were not to be removed from the installations she had created for them. According to the museum’s working interpretation of the will, however, loans do not fall under that provision, as they’re seen as temporary alterations to the museum’s display, not permanent, and the museum has made several over the years.

In December, Gardner director Peggy Fogelman said she thought Gardner herself would have seen the value in reuniting the “Poesie” paintings, wherever that might be. “Isabella was a real supporter of artists, and supported their vision,” she said at the time. “Titian saw these works as a series, an entire piece, and I believe she would support them being seen together.”

The work’s absence also affords the museum the opportunity to completely renovate the gallery in which the painting hangs. During the tour, the Gardner’s Titian room will be fully refurbished, including new lighting, repair of the fabric brocade wall treatments, and replacement of the floor.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte