Lustrous flesh, exquisite drawing, expressive gestures, brilliant color -- no wonder the art in "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting" has been coveted by royalty and celebrated for centuries. There are just 13 paintings and a dozen drawings in the exhibit, which opens Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but they're big, pricey and glamorous enough to tantalize the most demanding viewers.

The star attractions are two pictures that hadn't left the British Isles in more than 200 years before this show, and are unlikely to visit again. Roughly 8 feet square, they depict bevies of nymphs cavorting nude with the goddess Diana in woodland glades where humans get into big trouble.

When they were painted by Titian about 450 years ago for King Philip II of Spain, it was the artist who called the shots. Titian was at the height of his fame, an international superstar. As the premier painter in Venice -- then the richest city in Italy (if not all of Europe) -- he rivaled the aged Michelangelo, who had recently finished his "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel, and he overshadowed even the legacies of his near-contemporaries Raphael, Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci.

The young king, eager to decorate the palaces and monastery he was building, paid Titian an extraordinary compliment: He would provide an annual stipend in exchange for whatever pictures the master chose to send him. Letting an artist pick his own subjects was unheard of then, especially for royalty. Between 1548 and his death in 1576, Titian painted nearly 30 pictures for Philip.

The national galleries of Scotland and England paid $75 million for one of the Diana paintings two years ago and promised to raise another $75 million for its partner. Estimated to be worth up to $400 million if they'd gone to auction, the pair were considered a bargain.

"Pictures of this quality are not abundant in this country and these are extraordinary, so for us to have them here is a rare opportunity," said Patrick Noon, the institute's painting curator.

The exhibition features works by an A-list of Venetian talents from the 1500s, when the city was revolutionizing painting. By combining ripe colors with refined compositions and a warm, fleshy opulence, the Venetian school both humanized and ennobled its subjects. Highlights include four paintings by Titian, two each by Paolo Veronese and Paris Bordone, plus scenes by Tintoretto, Lorenzo Lotto, Jacopo Bassano and others. Biblical events and tales from classical mythology are featured along with incisive portraits and related drawings.

From Venice to Scotland

How the art got to Scotland is, not surprisingly, a complicated story. In 1704 the descendants of Philip II gave the two big Titians to the French ambassador, who handed them on to the Duc d'Orléans, a French royal who kept them in his Paris home across the street from the Louvre until the French Revolution. Shortly before he was guillotined, the duke sold his collection, which included six paintings in the present exhibit.

Shipped to England, the art was purchased by British aristocrats. During World War II, their descendants spirited the paintings from London to Scotland to escape German bombings. Since 1945, paintings from the Bridgewater/Sutherland collection, as it is known, have been lent or sold to the National Galleries of Scotland, which put together this show.

Other works in the exhibit were previously owned by Queen Christina of Sweden, King Charles I of England and an impressive array of titled grandees and artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Lawrence and Benjamin West.

Sacred and profane subjects vie for attention in the galleries. A somber stillness pervades the earliest picture, Lotto's "Virgin and Child With Saints" of 1504, in which the holy figures gather in a tentlike enclosure for a "sacred conversation" while woodsmen foreshadow the child's death by chopping a tree in a background landscape.

That work's stiff, sculptural formality contrasts with the warm, almost domestic naturalness of Titian's "Virgin and Child With Saint John the Baptist" (1517-20), in which Mary gracefully hands the babe into the welcoming arms of an unidentified male saint, or perhaps to Joseph, his earthly father. The vivid crimson of the man's cloak and the shimmering red and blue of Mary's contemporary Venetian dress are triumphs of earthly beauty.

The holy family stars again in "The Adoration of the Magi," a lively and remarkably busy country scene by Bassano in which a crowd of scholars, courtiers, soldiers and animal wranglers deliver gifts to the holy child and his parents, who are perched in a complicated ruin inspired by a Dürer woodcut. "The fellow at the center in the bright green and gold striped tunic is probably a portrait of the man who commissioned the painting," said curator Noon, "and the boys behind him in red and blue are most likely his sons."

Voluptuous beauties

Paris Bordone's "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt" offers another vision of Mary reading in a rustic landscape as the babe and his cousin, John the Baptist, play nearby. A voluptuous figure with large hands and a dreamy expression, Bordone's Mary is a big woman swaddled in a loose robe that emphasizes her physical grandeur. Two courtesans whom Bordone painted a few years later in "Venetian Women at Their Toilet" are a similar type, beautiful blondes provocatively slipping out of plush velvet gowns as their maid or procuress looks on.

Later in the century Veronese produced a dramatic and amusing treatment of the classical theme of "Venus, Mars and Cupid," in which a fully armored god of war tugs at Venus' clothes as she, distracted, ignores him to tend to the boy and his dog.

"This is traditionally interpreted as 'Love Conquering War,' but Veronese gives it a whole different read," said Noon. "Here Mars can't even get his hat off before he's trying to remove her dress, but she's just watching her dog. It sort of deflates the whole erotic charge of the scene."

Scenes from mythology have always provided delicious excuses for painters to depict nude women, as Titian did in his "poesies," or visual poems, for King Philip. With their luminous flesh and sketchy landscapes, both "Diana and Actaeon" and "Diana and Callisto" have inspired centuries of artists, as has his exquisite 1518 "Venus Anadyomene," an ethereal nude wringing out her hair.

Speaking of the Diana paintings in 2001, British painter Lucian Freud said, "To me, these are simply the most beautiful pictures in the world. Once you've seen them, you want to see them again and again."

Today it is fashionable and politically correct to scorn such art as the demeaning product of a patriarchal culture, which 16th-century Venice no doubt was. But to ignore the translucent beauty of these paintings or to overlook the inventive energy of the drawings would be a tragedy. They're all quite marvelous and unlikely ever to appear in Minneapolis again.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431