VENICE -- A dazzling new retrospective of Titian, some 500 years after he was born, shows more vividly than ever how the Venetian artist was a man ahead of his time.

The collection of approximately 80 masterpieces from all over the world, the biggest show of Titian in a half-century, is striking testament to the genius of one of history's premiere masters of color and portraiture. On view through the summer at the Palazzo Ducale (Doges' Palace) in Venice, the lagoon city where the artist lived and painted, the retrospective will move on this fall to Washington's National Gallery of Art.

Arranged in chronological order, this assemblage reveals the transformation of Titian's palette and subject matter from exuberant youth to contemplative and melancholy old age. The evolution of his style, demonstrated by later works, displays an unfettered and confident brushwork that broke away from that of his contemporaries and was essentially unrivaled until the 19th-century impressionists.

The show also highlights the complexities of a painter who managed to balance reverence for religious subjects with frank admiration of female eroticism, of a man who was one of the most sought-after court artists of the Renaissance and who proved a penetrating amateur psychoanalyst of his wealthy subjects as well.

Roughly a third of the paintings have been recently restored, allowing viewers to see more of Titian's original splendor than in the last comprehensive retrospective in 1935, a Venetian exhibition in which many works were in poor condition. Some of the paintings have come home for the first time in centuries -- among them, the regally beautiful "Venus at the Mirror," which Titian reportedly loved so dearly that he kept it in his studio until his death.

"Venus" is one of six works donated by the National Gallery to the Venice show, along with the famous "Feast of the Gods," a wonderful mythological scene by Bellini that was completed by Titian and is one of the Washington museum's most valuable paintings.

The National Gallery was approached two years ago by Italian officials to collaborate with the city of Venice (and Galileo Optical Industries) on pulling together Titian's scattered works for the ambitious retrospective.

Museum Director J. Carter Brown says Italy chose the National Gallery because it owns the most extensive collection of Italian paintings and sculpture in the Western Hemisphere. "So if {the show} is to come to the New World, there is a certain logic to it coming to Washington, where it will be in context with its compatriots," Brown said at the inauguration in June. "In a sense it will be coming home, even to us."

The Washington show will include a few paintings not on display here, and leave out some works, such as the drawings, from the Venetian show. Most of the paintings will be seen in both cities, although the Washington retrospective will depart from a strictly chronological format in favor of a display that juxtaposes different facets of the artist, showing the contrasts in his style and character.

"He was an intensely private genius who devoted himself to his art to the exclusion of almost everything else," said David A. Brown, the National Gallery's curator for Italian Renaissance art, during a tour of the show. "And yet at the same time, he was very successful in his own time and, unusually, cut quite a figure in society. ... We want to show this tension between these two sides."

Such creative tension is perhaps best expressed by Titian's portraits, widely considered to be the finest ever rendered by an artist, and a great influence on successive masters, including Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Rubens.

Titian -- known as Tiziano Vecellio in Italy -- was named the official painter of the Venetian doges, or dukes, in 1517, and later became the favored court artist for European nobility from Spain to Austria. But while part of their world, he kept a certain distance, rendering his subjects in flesh and blood, and not stooping to paint away all their flaws.

"Other portraits {from his era} tended to be more like icons," said David Brown. "Titian was the first one really able to characterize his sitter in a psychological way -- his stature allowed him to. The portraits weren't unflattering, but they weren't obsequious either. ... He managed to show the true nature of the highborn without offending them."

His portrait of the noble Ranuccio Farnese -- on loan from the National Gallery -- shows a youngster with moist and timid brown eyes, his lips slightly pursed in seeming wistfulness, his boyishness clearly weighed down by a luxurious but heavy mantle worn over his shoulders, a symbol of his rank.

One of his most famous subjects, also from the Washington museum, is the doge Andrea Gritti, who glares out from Titian's painting, his clenched lips revealing the fiercely determined, and likely cruel, nature of an absolute ruler.

A later portrait of another doge, Francesco Venier, also shows a man of determination, but one struggling with infirmity. Titian is not afraid to show the sag of a cheek, the veins close under the skin, the reddened nose, a loose thread hanging from his cap. The doge raises his right hand slightly in a tentative gesture, and outside his window a house burns strangely in a blaze of impressionistic light.

In stark contrast to the intensity of expression that characterize these portraits is a rendering of Isabella d'Este. According to David Brown, the notoriously conceited noblewoman asked Titian to copy a portrait of her done 25 years earlier, so that "her vanity prevented him from portraying her frankly." As a result, her gaze appears blank, almost vapid. And yet if she seems weak in character, the fine detail of her brocade sleeves and fur boa clearly demonstrate what Brown calls Titian's "incomparable skill with a brush."

Although his technical bravura was unmatched until the 17th century, it was color, more than fine detail, that brought Titian much of his fame. Many regard him as the finest exponent of color in painting, period.

A luminous, 19-piece ceiling painting of "The Vision of St. John the Evangelist" -- brought together for the first time since 1800 -- shows off his luminous colors to great effect. Two of his Madonnas painted in midlife, the "Madonna with Child and Saints" from London's National Gallery and the "Madonna of the Rabbit" from the Louvre in Paris, show an exquisite palette. The former features sunny flesh tones and vivid royal blues, the latter rich reds in the robes of a young woman playing with a rabbit and a child against a dramatic sunset.

These two subjects also show the remarkable tenderness of expression and beauty that typify many of Titian's female subjects, whether a virginal Madonna or voluptuous nude reclining on soft pillows. Nor, given the number of love goddesses displaying fleshy curves, does he hide his appreciation of female sensuality.

Even in religious paintings, the female subjects combine strong physical appeal with piety. Multiple versions of a penitent Mary Magdalen -- two of which appear in the Venice show -- display sensual lines and beautifully executed tresses but also her very real distress.

Such tensions, between the sacred and the terrestrial, between kindness and evil, seem to dominate more and more of Titian's later works. In keeping with the introspective and somber tenor of his last years, Titian's palette shifts visibly from strong summer colors to the soft bronzes, faded reds and browns of what David Brown calls "a strange autumnal world."

Never afraid to depict human cruelty, some of his last paintings verge on the ghoulish. In the disturbing "Punishment of Marsia," in which Apollo is shown flaying his victim, a small dog laps up the dying man's blood, while the vengeful god, as Brown puts it, "looks as if he's quietly peeling a piece of fruit." Within the painting, a self-portrait of Titian, disguised as King Midas, looks on in silent disgust.

Titian, who was born sometime between 1477 and 1490 -- depending upon which art historian one reads -- lived at least into his mid-eighties, a lonely existence for a man who outlived most of his contemporaries. He also bore witness to plagues and invasions, and watched as his beloved Venice gradually lost power to the Turks.

His late paintings reflect this deep melancholy: His last work, "The Entombment," is a sad symphony of cold, tomblike colors. But at the same time, these works show a precociously loose and vigorous brushwork and impressionistic composition that was not echoed until 19th-century artists such as Monet.

Wrote Renaissance art historian Vasari, who had been highly critical of Titian and came around only reluctantly: "The late {paintings}, made with strokes boldly applied and with blobs, {are executed} in such a way that up close nothing can be seen, but from a distance they appear perfect."

The Venice show is up through Oct. 7. It will open in Washington Oct. 28 and run through Jan. 27.