Revisiting the genius of Botticelli in all its glory

Seasons are dictated by nature and ‘spring’ is when nature turns most beautiful with flowers blooming in even the remotest corners of the world. It is thus, the perfect time to write about a painting that offers the very essence of spring — Primavera, also known as the ‘allegory of spring’ by Italian painter Sandro Botticelli. This unique work of art and it’s even more famous companion The Birth of Venus, are among the most precious and closely guarded works of art at the Uffizi Gallery in the ancient city of Florence in Italy.

But despite their best efforts, the Uffizi Gallery had been unable to save Botticelli’s the Birth of Venus’ from theft, when along with it, more than 200 others from the gallery and the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, were stolen by none other than Adolf Hitler. How the painting was saved and returned to the Uffizi soon after the end of World War II, is part of the hottest bit of art news in recent times and is as exciting as a cloak and dagger movie script. Documentary evidence states that these unique works of art were miraculously discovered by a brigade of the Maratha Light Infantry (part of the British Army, during World War II) who were advancing towards Florence, and decided to halt at the Castello di Montegufoni in Tuscany. Here they are said to have stumbled upon and ‘rescued over 200 exquisite pieces of Florentine Art’, including The Birth of Venus.

On reading about this episode, I remembered a conversation many years ago with my father, an army doctor actively involved in World War II. On discussing the treasures that lay within the pyramids in Egypt, he had said, “It’s a good thing Hitler was mainly interested in paintings and sculpture, or he would have been more aggressive and plundered the precious artifacts that lie inside the pyramids”. History confirms that Hitler, himself a competent artist, had planned to create the largest museum of art works in the world. Thankfully his planned project remained a dream and with the end of the war, most of the artworks that he had collected including Botticelli’s two masterpieces, were returned to surviving owners and museums.

The Birth of Venus, representing Venus the ‘goddess of love’, is referred to as a ‘landmark of 15th century Italian painting’. Commissioned by Lorenzo de Pier Francesco de Medici, Sandro Botticelli is said to have completed the painting somewhere between 1482 and 1485. Created on an allegorical theme taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it shows a fully-grown Venus emerging from the sea and standing in a shell on the seashore, with the winds blowing her hair gently while a handmaiden waits with a cloak to cover her nakedness. The background is covered with violets, considered the flowers of love.

Botticelli had already created another masterpiece, before even thinking about Venus. Primavera, painted by Botticelli in 1482, highlights ‘the skillful use of colour’ and may have helped in persuading the Medicis to commission another spectacular painting. It depicts a group of mythological figures with a central one wearing a robe scattered with flowers, in keeping with the theme of ‘spring’. Displayed at the Uffizi Gallery since 1919, it has been described as ‘one of the most written about paintings in the world’.

(The writer is an author and a former art gallery owner)


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