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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - If you wanted to admire masterpieces of religious art by Titian, Raphael, Lorenzo Lotto, Guido Reni, Carlo Crivelli and other masters in museums around Italy's central Marche region, it could cost you a few weeks of time and a hefty hotel bill.
Now, 50 paintings from 15 museums in the region rich in natural beauty and artistic heritage are on exhibition at the Vatican.
Called "Meraviglie dalle Marche," or Marvels from the Marche, the one-stop viewing for paintings from the region opened recently in the Braccio Carlo Magno exhibition space in St Peter's Square.
It includes works such as a lesser-known version of Raphael's "Saint Catherine of Alexandria," (the most famous one is in the National Gallery in Washington), Titian's "Resurrection", and Guido Reni's "Annunciation" and "Saint Sebastian".
The paintings, spanning more than 400 years of Italian religious art, are on loan from public and Church-owned museums in Urbino, Ancona, Ascoli Piceno, Fabriano, Loreto, Jesi and six other cities and towns in the Marche region.
Although the exhibition includes only one painting by Raphael, he takes pride of place, if only because he is the Marche's most famous artistic son, having been born in Urbino in 1483.
Believed to have been painted when Raphael was about 18 years old, "Saint Catherine of Alexandria" measures only 15 cm by 40 cm (6 inches by 15 inches), leading art historians to surmise that it was once part of a triptych whose other two pieces have gone missing.
It shows Saint Catherine in a reflective mood and standing on a wagon wheel and has a Latin inscription painted in gold on the back.
The small painting was once part of the private collection of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and was bought by the National Gallery of the Marche after his death in 1989.
Also on exhibition is one version of Guido Reni's "St. Sebastian," the martyr depicted, according to tradition, tied to a tree and shot with an arrow in his left side.
The painting of the young, muscular saint, depicted with a only a loin cloth covering his middle, has become an icon of the gay community over the centuries.
In his 1929 speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, German writer Thomas Mann, who wrote about homosexuality in his novella "Death in Venice" and whose diaries released after his death revealed that he struggled with homosexuality throughout his life, said:
"I have a favorite saint. I will tell you his name. It is Saint Sebastian, that youth at the stake, who, pierced by swords and arrows from all sides, smiles amidst his agony. Grace in suffering: that is the heroism symbolized by Saint Sebastian."
The exhibition is on display in the Braccio Carlo Magno, at the end of the left-hand colonnade of St Peter's Square, until June 10.
From July 10 to September 30, it will be on display at the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Buenos Aires, in honor of the fact that more than 40 percent of immigrants who left the Marche region went to Argentina.
Reporting By Philip Pullella