Titian’s “Diana and Callisto” at the National Gallery

London is a building site. As you approach the National Gallery from the rear you pass carnage on Oxford Street, nightmares on Regent Street, diggings in Soho and, finally a sign saying PROCEED WITH CAUTION just behind the Sainsbury Wing. All of this activity will presumably be completed in time for when the world arrives in London for the Olympics. In the meantime, the weary commuter can seek refuge in the National Gallery itself who are showing Diana and Callisto in its own little darkened room having saved the work for the nation.

I have no firm opinion on whether it’s a good use of public effort, energy and expense to spend £50m keeping Diana and Callisto here (or more appropriately, in Scotland). Compared to the tens of billions going on the Olympics it’s probably good value; compared to the cuts to making sure disabled people can live independently less so. I’m also a philistine and whilst I am a sucker most of the time for Titian I was not as blown away by being in close proximity to this as I had expected to be.

It is hard to see detail. The gloom in which the painting must be shown and the lack of completed detail (the National Gallery website calls it unfinished) leads to a lot of squinting. It is undoubtedly beautiful and for a specialist or involved art-lover it is significant and important – for the rest of us we may wonder quite what would have been lost if it had been let go.

There will be a further exhibition to come in the summer – Metamorphoses – which looks like it will bring the work to life through a series of contemporary responses. Maybe I’ll be converted then. Until then, rather like all the banging and digging to scrub London clean for two weeks in the summer, I wonder if it’s really worth the hype and hassle.


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