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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 26.05.06

The Raphael Trail: The Secret History of one of the World’s most Precious Works of Art
By Joanna Pitman,
Ebury, £ 14.99

The provenance of a painting is seldom of interest to a viewer who sees it hanging in a gallery. Who commissioned it? Who owned it? Did the ownership change? Why did it change? Behind every great painting is a story. Viewers ignore that story when they gaze in wonder at the painting in a museum or a gallery. Joanna Pitman?s book traces the story behind one of the world?s greatest paintings, Raphael?s St George and the Dragon.

The painting was commissioned by the grand duke of Urbino in 1506. Duke Guidobaldo chose the talented 23-year-old Raffaello Santi to do the painting. Raffaello Santi as Raphael became famous as one of the greatest Renaissance painters. The duke, one theory goes, had the painting done because he wanted to cement his relationship with the English king, Henry VII, who had honoured him with the Order of the Garter. (The Garter was one of the oldest chivalric orders in Europe, established by Edward III on St George?s Day, April 23, 1348.) Raphael, ?in a brilliant stroke of subtle flattery?, displayed the garter in the painting below the left knee of the saint. In 1506, according to the German art historian, Johann David Passavant, the painting travelled from Italy to England as a gift for Henry VII. This, Pitman believes, is a plausible theory even though the painting is not mentioned in the inventories of Henry VII and Henry VIII.

Henry VIII gave the painting to one of his favourites, William Herbert, who was to become the earl of Pembroke. It hung there in their mansion, Wilton House, in Wiltshire till Charles I decided to swap it for a book of Holbein?s portrait drawings. Raphael?s painting thus came to Whitehall and became part of the greatest collections of art built up by Charles I. The execution of the king and the beginning of the republic meant that the English parliament was under pressure to raise money. It decided to do so by selling of the king?s painting collection. Through this sale, St George and the Dragon arrived in Paris and became part of the collection of Pierre Crozat, one of the great art collectors in Paris in the 18th century. When the Crozat collection was put up for sale, Diderot bought it on behalf of his patron, Catherine the Great, the empress of Russia. The painting thus came to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where it remained and survived the horrors of the Russian Revolution. The cash-strapped Soviet regime decided to sell off sections of the Hermitage collection to raise hard currency. Andrew Mellon, after some hard negotiation, bought part of the Hermitage collection, including Raphael?s St George and the Dragon. When Mellon set up the Washington National Gallery of Art, the painting moved there, and there it hangs, with the viewers oblivious of its adventurous career.

Pitman?s book is a superb piece of historical detection. She tells her story clearly. The real delight is the detail she introduces about each of the owners and their passion for collecting art. Readers not only learn about Raphael?s canvas, but they also gain some idea of the history of art collection. Pitman?s account of the Hermitage alone makes this book unforgettable.