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The Dragon's Trail

The Biography of Raphael's Masterpiece

About The Book

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 against doing 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.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions
1. Who was Raphael at the time Duke Guidobaldo de Montofeltro commissioned him? Who was Raphael as he grew older? How would you characterize him right before his death? Compare and contrast Raphael to other artists of his time in terms of age, ability, drive, commissions, longevity of work, and so on.
2. Why would Duke Guidobaldo de Montofeltro commission Raphael to create a work for such an important purpose when Raphael was so young and the Duke had so many other artists from whom to choose? How do you feel about the choices Raphael made in the creation of the painting -- color, theme, symbol usage, and so forth?
3. Did King Henry VII like the painting? Did he "appreciate" it aesthetically? What was King Henry the VII like -- As a king? As a man?
4. How did the painting happen to end up in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke? What did the Earl think of the work? Why would he give it to King Charles I in exchange for a book of Holbein drawings?
5. What made King Charles I want the painting upon seeing it hanging in the Earl's collection? How would you characterize King Charles I? Were his motives for wanting the painting independent of his aesthetic interest in the piece?
6. When the painting later resurfaced in the private gallery of "the third richest man in France," how do we learn it got there? Why did that collector have an interest in the piece? Where did he keep it and why?
7. Why did Catherine the Great want the piece for the Hermitage? Why was it the philosopher Diderot who had to get it for her? How would you characterize Catherine the Great? And what about Diderot? What were their feelings about the piece aesthetically? What about its role as a political pawn?
8. What feelings did the keepers of the Hermitage have about the piece? What did they go through to protect it? Why did Stalin ultimately sell it?
9. Who was Andrew Mellon? Was his interest in the painting political? Aesthetic? Or both? Did the ends justify the means in terms of his obtaining the work, establishing the National Gallery, and installing it there?
10. What do you know now about the following?
a. The Tudors
b. The downfall of a Stuart
c. The French aristocracy
d. The Bolshevik Revolution
e. The Cold War
What roles did each of those periods of time or events play in the life if this painting? Why were they so important to it? How might have this painting's life been different if it weren't for these historical events? In what way does the life of this painting exemplify all that was good, all that was bad, and all that happened through the years, from 1506 to the present day?
11. Compare and contrast all of the owners of this painting. How are they alike? How are they different? What trait do they share? What drove these individuals to want this painting as intensely as they did?
12. What is being depicted in the painting? What additional imagery can be found? Why are those images important? What do they mean -- then and now? How did the original purpose of the painting influence Raphael's choices in terms of color, style, imagery, content, composition, subjects, and so on?
13. What is it about this painting that has made it so popular? Had you heard of this work before reading about it? How important is this painting to art history as a whole in relation to other prominent works?
14. What kind of commentary does Pitman make throughout the text, either directly or indirectly, about the politics surrounding St. George and the Dragon?
15. Do you think Pitman would say that art is still considered "the thing to have" for the wealthy? Why or why not? If not, what do you think Pitman might suggest has replaced art as a means for displaying wealth? What do you think this says about us as a culture?
16. Pitman was forced to fill in some blanks and make some "educated guesses" in her pursuit for answers about the ongoing whereabouts of Raphael's painting. On what basis did she do that? How do you feel about her "leaps of faith"? Why? How did they affect your overall feelings about this treasure hunt of sorts? Did you accept her conclusions?
17. What kind of art and art history experience, knowledge, and background did Pitman have prior to researching and writing this text? Do you think a background in art is necessary to read a book like this?
18. In what ways has researching and writing this book affected Pitman's general feelings about art, art history, Raphael, and his work? In what ways has it affected yours?
19. Does this book tell the story of a painting? Is it ultimately about art or history? Is it possible, necessary, or meaningful to separate the two?
20. What is art? What purpose does it serve in our world? In what ways does Pitman's text help us to understand its purpose? Is our love for that which is aesthetically pleasing as dangerous as it is marvelous? How is that evidenced in this text?
Enhancing Your Book Club

Head to your local art museum. Pick a favorite painting or sculpture. Research its history. Share those histories at your meeting. Does the piece you chose have a past in any way akin to that of Raphael's St. George and the Dragon?
See what other information, besides that exposed in the book, you can find online about Raphael's St. George and the Dragon. Share that information at your meeting.
Find images to bring to your meeting of the other works featured in the text, particularly any with which you may not be familiar.
Invite a professor or art historian to come to your book club to discuss this painting and/or other famous (and infamous) works of art.
Check out these sites for more information on Raphael and this work:

About The Author

Joanna Pitman was Tokyo correspondent for the Times (London) from 1990 to 1994. She is now the photography critic for The Times. She is the author of a previous book, On Blondes. She lives in London with her family.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (April 22, 2008)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743265140

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Raves and Reviews

"Read it you must: it is an exhilarating documentation of a remarkable painting." -- The Art Newspaper (UK)

"An extraordinary journey through history . . . Pitman also shows paintings have strange histories, the struggle to acquire them often being more fascinating than the stories they depict." -- The Mail on Sunday (UK)

"An enthralling piece of detective work...a pithy and chilling insight into the mind of this precocious artist." -- The Times (UK)

"Art history for the general reader comes no more stylishly packaged than this. Pitman pursues historical truth, yet makes it read as a thriller." -- Country Life (UK)

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