The serpentine and sometimes mysterious journey of St. George and the Dragon, from Raphael’s medieval studio to Room 20 in Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
Pitman (On Blondes, 2003), critic for The Times (London), has an engaging, even exciting subject: the provenance of one of the world’s best-known paintings. Her cast of characters includes Raphael, Henry VIII, Charles I, Catherine the Great, Diderot, Tolstoy, Stalin, Mellon—even Shakespeare has a cameo. It’s a shame, then, that her tone is frequently precious, with occasional lapses into hysteria. The author can hardly contain herself as she describes the finished work, “like an exquisite polished diamond, its facets sparkling from within.” The history of St. George and the Dragon has well-known gaps, especially in its first 100 years, when it may or may not have gone to Henry VII. The author has done her research: Whenever she reaches one of the several points of contention among art historians, she presents each side in addition to drawing her own conclusions. Since she includes neither endnotes nor a bibliography, however, readers are left to wander and wonder. (A timeline to clarify the chronology would also have been helpful.) Pitman visited most, if not all, of the relevant places, but it’s not really necessary to tell us about her meals and her means of travel. Equally extraneous is her habit, when a significant building no longer exists, of standing on its site and letting loose her imagination. She decorates the historical stage and elaborates on her principals’ backstories, all the while employing prose that gushes and ultimately grates.
Too many fistfuls of glitter tossed into a tale that’s colorful enough in its own right.