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The Dragon's Trail: The Biography of Raphael's Masterpiece

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Raphael's "St. George and the Dragon" is the work of a genius -- an exquisitely rendered vision of heroism and innocence by one of the greatest painters of all time. Yet the painting's creation is only the beginning of its fascinating story, which spans centuries of power play and intrigue, and has made it a witness to the rise and fall of the great powers of the Western w Raphael's "St. George and the Dragon" is the work of a genius -- an exquisitely rendered vision of heroism and innocence by one of the greatest painters of all time. Yet the painting's creation is only the beginning of its fascinating story, which spans centuries of power play and intrigue, and has made it a witness to the rise and fall of the great powers of the Western world as it seduced its owners to ever greater heights of corruption and greed.Raphael's masterpiece was commissioned by Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the ruler of Urbino, in 1506. Raphael was only twenty-three years old, but he had already begun to acquire a reputation as a painter who was as ruthless in his pursuit of money as he was talented. The duke sent the painting to England's King Henry VII as a thank-you for naming him a knight in the Order of the Garter. The painting then mysteriously disappeared for one hundred years until King Charles I saw it hanging in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke and acquired it for a book of Holbein drawings. After Charles was beheaded in 1649, his collection was broken up and the painting made its way to the private gallery of the third-richest man in France, where it was ensconced in its own special room. Thirty years later, the philosopher Diderot was instructed by Catherine the Great of Russia to buy it for her vast collection at the Hermitage. The heroic curators of the Hermitage protected "St. George and the Dragon" from fire, water, and the anarchists of the Russian Revolution, until Joseph Stalin sold it in 1930 to raise cash. The secret buyer was Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary of the United States, who in doing so blatantly violated a U.S. sanction againstdoing any business with Soviet Russia. Mellon eventually founded The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., where "St. George and the Dragon" rests to this day. Exceptionally written and breathlessly paced, "The Dragon's Trail" is a microhistory that touches on the rise of the Tudors, the downfall of a Stuart, the twilight of the French aristocracy, the terrors of the Bolshevik revolution, and the depths of the Cold War -- all witnessed by one painting that inspired the best and the worst instincts in its owners.


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Raphael's "St. George and the Dragon" is the work of a genius -- an exquisitely rendered vision of heroism and innocence by one of the greatest painters of all time. Yet the painting's creation is only the beginning of its fascinating story, which spans centuries of power play and intrigue, and has made it a witness to the rise and fall of the great powers of the Western w Raphael's "St. George and the Dragon" is the work of a genius -- an exquisitely rendered vision of heroism and innocence by one of the greatest painters of all time. Yet the painting's creation is only the beginning of its fascinating story, which spans centuries of power play and intrigue, and has made it a witness to the rise and fall of the great powers of the Western world as it seduced its owners to ever greater heights of corruption and greed.Raphael's masterpiece was commissioned by Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the ruler of Urbino, in 1506. Raphael was only twenty-three years old, but he had already begun to acquire a reputation as a painter who was as ruthless in his pursuit of money as he was talented. The duke sent the painting to England's King Henry VII as a thank-you for naming him a knight in the Order of the Garter. The painting then mysteriously disappeared for one hundred years until King Charles I saw it hanging in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke and acquired it for a book of Holbein drawings. After Charles was beheaded in 1649, his collection was broken up and the painting made its way to the private gallery of the third-richest man in France, where it was ensconced in its own special room. Thirty years later, the philosopher Diderot was instructed by Catherine the Great of Russia to buy it for her vast collection at the Hermitage. The heroic curators of the Hermitage protected "St. George and the Dragon" from fire, water, and the anarchists of the Russian Revolution, until Joseph Stalin sold it in 1930 to raise cash. The secret buyer was Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary of the United States, who in doing so blatantly violated a U.S. sanction againstdoing any business with Soviet Russia. Mellon eventually founded The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., where "St. George and the Dragon" rests to this day. Exceptionally written and breathlessly paced, "The Dragon's Trail" is a microhistory that touches on the rise of the Tudors, the downfall of a Stuart, the twilight of the French aristocracy, the terrors of the Bolshevik revolution, and the depths of the Cold War -- all witnessed by one painting that inspired the best and the worst instincts in its owners.

30 review for The Dragon's Trail: The Biography of Raphael's Masterpiece

  1. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    I love biographies of paintings, and this one was as wonderful as I'd hoped. The author's quest to untangle into all the owners of Raphael's "St George and the Dragon" read like a novel - so many huge players, Henry VII, Charles I, Catherine the Great, Andrew Mellon ... You couldn't make it up! Just a couple of quibbles. She mentions seeing Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in the Rijksmuseum, but that painting is in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and I wondered why she didn't include a biblio I love biographies of paintings, and this one was as wonderful as I'd hoped. The author's quest to untangle into all the owners of Raphael's "St George and the Dragon" read like a novel - so many huge players, Henry VII, Charles I, Catherine the Great, Andrew Mellon ... You couldn't make it up! Just a couple of quibbles. She mentions seeing Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in the Rijksmuseum, but that painting is in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and I wondered why she didn't include a bibliography, or at least further reading.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    I hesitated to get this book, thinking it might be very dry reading, but it was actually quite compelling. I learned some history along the way and realized all these masterpieces you see in museums have quite a story behind them.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brian Kovesci

    I don't really care for Raphael so the painting itself doesn't interest me, but this book could have been about any painting since it's real story is the journey of the painting: Italy to England to Russia to the United States. I needed this kind of a reminder because I tend to walk through Renaissance exhibits in museums. It's like, okay, another foreign royal who looks gay I don't care about. But the painting is an object that has passed through many hands. It has been in precarious situations I don't really care for Raphael so the painting itself doesn't interest me, but this book could have been about any painting since it's real story is the journey of the painting: Italy to England to Russia to the United States. I needed this kind of a reminder because I tend to walk through Renaissance exhibits in museums. It's like, okay, another foreign royal who looks gay I don't care about. But the painting is an object that has passed through many hands. It has been in precarious situations the work itself doesn't convey. The subject of this book could have met its end in a fire, in a flood or in harsh weather in transit. It survived overthrown governments and world wars and economic downturns and upturns. I now want a history like this of paintings I actually care about.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Hanna

    This book is unique because its about the provenance of a famous painting, rather than the painting itself. Its like the adventure the painting took through politics, across the world!! It was a very cool look at art and art history through that lens. Very readable and entertaining. The author has lots of love for the piece and for the research. The author pretty early on makes it known that she is not an expert, a scholar, or an art historian. Shes simply interested in the topic and doesn’t bel This book is unique because its about the provenance of a famous painting, rather than the painting itself. Its like the adventure the painting took through politics, across the world!! It was a very cool look at art and art history through that lens. Very readable and entertaining. The author has lots of love for the piece and for the research. The author pretty early on makes it known that she is not an expert, a scholar, or an art historian. Shes simply interested in the topic and doesn’t believe that research should be confined to academics (!!!!) (awesome!!!). Knowing that though, its important to acknowledge that this is not an academic book. The citations are lax, there is a heavy bias, and there is a lot of speculation. Highly recommend it though!! Take a journey thru some of the most impactful events of modern history through the eyes of a masterpiece!

  5. 4 out of 5

    David Serxner

    I wish I could say this was a fantastic book, but I cannot. It is a history of Raphael's masterpiece "St. George and the Dragon" in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I was up this weekend and bought a damaged copy in the sale rack in the Gallery Bookshop. The book is inexpensive enough, only $25.00 hardcover, which is a nice price. There are no color illustrations, only small details of the Raphael for each new chapter, and no other illustrations of anything else at all. There is no I wish I could say this was a fantastic book, but I cannot. It is a history of Raphael's masterpiece "St. George and the Dragon" in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I was up this weekend and bought a damaged copy in the sale rack in the Gallery Bookshop. The book is inexpensive enough, only $25.00 hardcover, which is a nice price. There are no color illustrations, only small details of the Raphael for each new chapter, and no other illustrations of anything else at all. There is no bibliography, there are no end notes. All of the interesting quotes are not cited, so you cannot, unless you are a detective or a scholar, find any of the sources Ms Pitman has used. Also, not to nitpick, but the Vermer "Head of a Girl with a Pearl Earring" is in The Hauge in the Mauritshaus, not in Amsterdam in the Rijksmueum. Still, it is a fascinating story of art, intrigue, collecting, the disease that is collecting, and some of the most interesting periods in European (and later on, American) history. This little gem of a painting (and it is a favorite of mine--but I like his portraits better) was painted in Italy as a present to an English King, was sold to a collector in France, then purchased by Catherine the Great for her collection in the Hermitage and Winter Palace. It just survived the Russian Revolution, only to be sold by Stalin to Andrew Mellon, who gave it, along with the rest of his collection of paintings, to form the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. What I find to be the most amazing thing is the reaction to the sale by the current director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky. He all but cries huge sobs and refrains from tearing out his hair over the sale by Stalin of treasures from the collection (that is a different debate); however, he does not see the problem in having a collection of early 20th century art, masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse, and others that were looted by the Soviets from Russian private collectors after the revolution. Also, look at all of the works of art: paintings, drawings, and the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann 's treasures from "Troy," from Museums and collections in Berlin and Germany that were looted by the Red Army during the end phases of WWII. Now, now Mr Piotrovsky, you cannot have it both ways... Is this a good book? Well, yes and no. It is a good read for a person who wants a really fascinating adventure story--because for me as an art history wonk, it is a fascinating adventure. For me as a person with a degree in Art History, not so much a good book. Reasonably priced, yes, but it suffers from the lack of illustrations, and it REALLY suffers from the lack of notes and a bibliography. Also, did Ms Pitman have to repeat the rumor about Catherine the Great and the horse? Talk about trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. We all know the story, and most of us know the truth. Catherine died of a stroke, but she lay there, dying for a while, whilst her son searched to make sure he had not been cut out of the line of succession. So why repeat the dirty little tale? I finished the book in three days. Bought it on Friday, finished it on Monday home sick in bed. If any of my friends want to borrow it, this is one that I would consider lending...

  6. 4 out of 5

    Carin Marais

    In The Dragon’s Trail, Pitman tells the story of a renowned classic masterpiece by one of the Renaissance’s most famous artists. I doubt that anyone can stand in front of (or simply look at a print of) one of Raphael’s paintings without being moved by the beauty and talent of the artist’s brush. His painting, St. George and the Dragon – commissioned in 1506 – was painted when Raphael was only twenty-three years old. But Pitman does not simply tell the story of how it was painted or the reason fo In The Dragon’s Trail, Pitman tells the story of a renowned classic masterpiece by one of the Renaissance’s most famous artists. I doubt that anyone can stand in front of (or simply look at a print of) one of Raphael’s paintings without being moved by the beauty and talent of the artist’s brush. His painting, St. George and the Dragon – commissioned in 1506 – was painted when Raphael was only twenty-three years old. But Pitman does not simply tell the story of how it was painted or the reason for the painting, but follows the long lifespan of this wonderful painting throughout the following centuries until the present day. This is a tale not only about a painting, but its owners and their place in history, including kings, revolutions, wealth and poverty and stretches from Italy, England and Russia to America. Pitman writes beautiful, dramatic prose which reads more like a novel than a book of art history or history. The Dragon’s Trail is both a book for the lay person and the art lover alike, but, most of all; the passion with which the book is written is contagious. Pitman’s love of art and especially this artwork is brought vividly to life in this volume. I can suggest this book to lovers of history, art and the Renaissance. But, though the book’s dust jacket does carry a beautiful colour rendition of the painting, I would have liked to see a colour print of the painting inside the book as well and not one in greyscale. Perhaps in the next edition? For overall enjoyment and readability, I give this book four and a half out of five stars. Definitely a volume I’ll read again.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jennyb

    Raphael's St George and the Dragon's peripatetic journey to end up in the National Gallery in DC is a hugely interesting tale. The way that tale is told in this book... Well, let's just say that the book doesn't diminish the interest of its provenance, but at times it doesn't contribute hugely to it either. My main gripe is that every person whose hands this painting passed through is characterized the same way: ambitious, greedy and grasping art collectors, slavering after the status this tiny Raphael's St George and the Dragon's peripatetic journey to end up in the National Gallery in DC is a hugely interesting tale. The way that tale is told in this book... Well, let's just say that the book doesn't diminish the interest of its provenance, but at times it doesn't contribute hugely to it either. My main gripe is that every person whose hands this painting passed through is characterized the same way: ambitious, greedy and grasping art collectors, slavering after the status this tiny masterpiece could confer upon them. Really? Could not one of them genuinely have loved this because it's a beautiful work of art? Isn't it just possible that one of them wasn't a social climbing snob, or a rapacious sovereign demonstrating their own power and glory? Basically, where the author is left to fill in the blank, she fills in the same blank, over and over. Despite that, if you're interested in this kind of thing, the book is a good, quick read, and you'll appreciate knowing the background of it even more the next time you find yourself in Room 20, gazing upon the small but humbling St George. (Incidentally, there is another, larger version of St George and the Dragon on another wall in room 20, behind you and to the right, and I must admit, I like the power and the drama of that version more!)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Full Review at Booklikes I am always amazed at how small this painting it is. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but its size surprises me. I always think it should be bigger. But for all its smallness, it is a very impressive painting. Pitman’s book is a history of the painting, much like the television series Private Life of a Masterpiece (which if you haven’t seen, you should).

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    I never really thought about the history of ownership of Raphael's St. George and the Dragon, which is odd considering I'm one of the many people who have fallen under it's spell. It is just too bad that this book had to deal with the author's flights of fancy at times. I wish there were citations at the end of the book. I never really thought about the history of ownership of Raphael's St. George and the Dragon, which is odd considering I'm one of the many people who have fallen under it's spell. It is just too bad that this book had to deal with the author's flights of fancy at times. I wish there were citations at the end of the book.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    So I just can't finish this book. Partly 'cuz I'm too damn busy and partly 'cuz sometimes I'm just not into it. It's basically the provenance of a Raphael painting. It tells the history of all the different people who owned it over the centuries. There's more about the collectors than there is about the painting. Of course, I knew this when I bought it. So I just can't finish this book. Partly 'cuz I'm too damn busy and partly 'cuz sometimes I'm just not into it. It's basically the provenance of a Raphael painting. It tells the history of all the different people who owned it over the centuries. There's more about the collectors than there is about the painting. Of course, I knew this when I bought it.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    Perfect book to engage the general reader with art history, perfect for young adult to adult readers with a bit of curiosity about a good story about a little painting making its rounds through history.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Martha

    A nice biography book of a great painting. The author gets a little rambling & redundant sometimes, but I enjoyed it.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

    A really good book about Raphael's St. George and the Dragon. It follows the trail of the painting and most of its owners. A very interesting read! A really good book about Raphael's St. George and the Dragon. It follows the trail of the painting and most of its owners. A very interesting read!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Veronica

    A very interesting look into the life and history of a painting. The people who owned and sought it, and the political and social changes witnessed by it were fascinating.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    I'm only in the beginning, but so far I can say the writing is completely dull. Which is too bad, because the story itself is good. I'm only in the beginning, but so far I can say the writing is completely dull. Which is too bad, because the story itself is good.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Roxie

    Total disappointment

  17. 4 out of 5

    Pascal Blanquer

    Could have been a great book Great topic but bit boring and not well written

  18. 4 out of 5

    Converse

    Art History through its buyers. Tells of the migration of Raphael's "St. George and the Dragon" from Italy, to England, France, Russia, and the USA. Art History through its buyers. Tells of the migration of Raphael's "St. George and the Dragon" from Italy, to England, France, Russia, and the USA.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Denzer

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bri

  21. 5 out of 5

    Margaret

  22. 4 out of 5

    Gail

  23. 5 out of 5

    Stacie Hammond

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lakshmi Krishnakumar

  25. 4 out of 5

    Florina

  26. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia

  27. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  28. 5 out of 5

    Shea

  29. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca L

  30. 5 out of 5

    Katie

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