Your NPR news source

Secret May Day Message in U of C Sculpture?

SHARE Secret May Day Message in U of C Sculpture?
Secret May Day Message in U of C Sculpture?

The shadow cast by the “Dialogo” sculpture could have a hidden message.

As you might know—today is May Day—also known as International Workers Day. As a holiday it commemorates milestones of the labor movement—and is championed by socialist and communist causes. You might not know that it's also a day of local legend at the University of Chicago. There, this day is linked with a decades-old mystery, revolving around an Italian sculptor, the angle of the sun, and the university's famously conservative economics department.

For decades, the legend's grown. At this point, it's so pervasive it's even become part the University of Chicago's admissions tours.

CUDWORTH: Alright guys, well—Welcome to Chicago again.

On a sunny morning, about a dozen prospective students and parents are standing in front of Evan Cudworth.

CUDWORTH: I'm an English and Drama double major.

With two years of experience under his belt, Cudworth is a campus tour guide veteran, walking backwards with both ease and speed.

CUDWORTH: We're coming up right now on this really weird looking statue.

Which as Cudworth tells the group, sits outside of Pick Hall—once home to the university's famously free-market economics department.

CUDWORTH: Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, and all this kind of stuff.

As the story goes, the sculpture was unveiled with great fanfare in 1971.

CUDWORTH: But what happened was, on May 1st, the sun came up over the statue, and imposed on the ground was a nice hammer and sickle.

Meaning the sculpture, with the unique position of the sun—at high noon, on May Day—was just right to cast a shadow that closely resembled a Soviet flag-style hammer and sickle. There it was, right smack in the bastion of free-market economics, like an ideological Trojan Horse in the house of Milton Friedman.

CALHOUN: From the photo that I saw, it looks, not indisputable, but sort of undeniable at the same time.
CUDWORTH: Exactly, exactly, like I don't know how you could deny.  It's too big of a coincidence.

The resemblance is so uncanny that—37 years after it was unveiled, to mark the day, it had to be asked.

CALHOUN: Was that intentional?

Mister Virginio Ferrari is the renowned 71-year-old Italian artist behind the sculpture. Speaking from his summer home in Verona Italy—Ferrari said the sculpture was meant to symbolize universal elements interacting.

CALHOUN: You designed a sculpture that casts a shadow that looks unbelievably like a hammer and sickle outside of a beacon of free-market economics—and that it most resembles that on International Workers Day—and you're telling me that's just a coincidence.

Ferrari says he doesn't mind that the legend has overpowered his original intent—and in a way, it speaks to what he loves about art.

FERRARI: It's like talking about the Mona Lisa, you know?  Why the smile is so fantastic, so supreme for some people... and that is, I respect that, you know?

I asked Ferrari—if it really was just an accident—what he has to say about the coincidence. He says, that too, should be left up to interpretation.

More From This Show