Fans of Broadway shows will remember the name Al Hirschfeld, the esteemed and long-lived (he died in 2003 at age 99) artist who drew caricatures of Broadway stars and other celebrities for over 75 years, mostly for The New York Times. His signature feature was actually a signature – or more appropriately, the name – of his daughter Nina which he secretly drew in one or more places in the caricature, giving fans something to do as they admired his artwork. (A collection of his drawings can be seen here.) Was this a sign of fatherly love or genius? It may have been a little of both, but a new discovery shows that great geniuses think – and draw – alike. Dr. Deivis Dr DeCampos, a researcher in human anatomy at the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre in Brazil, has discovered a self-caricature of Michelangelo Buonarroti hidden in a drawing of his friend, Vittoria Colonna.
Was Michelangelo playing a Hirschfeld-like game with his fans. DeCampos doesn’t think so. In his paper about his discovery published in the journal Clinical Anatomy, he speculates that the drawing-in-a-drawing was a genius way of getting around a restriction by the Catholic Church that prevented artists from signing their own works because it was a sign of pride, one of the seven deadly sins. (Do you know the rest?) This same restriction didn’t apply to the person who paid for the artwork – they often had their names displayed
The caricature may have been a signature of sorts, according to lead author Dr. Deivis de Campos, of the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre, in Brazil. During Michelangelo's time, there were many restrictions on artists and their work, perhaps the main one being that artists were not allowed to sign their works.
“This study provides evidence that although much has already been studied in relation to the works of Michelangelo, we still have much to discover. In every work of the artist it is always possible to discover some surprising fact, which is usually associated with some symbol.”
That’s an understatement from Dr. de Campos, who found the caricature in this 1525 portrait that has been studied for centuries. He seems to have a knack for discovering ways Michelangelo messed with the powers of the Catholic Church. Dr. de Campos has previously found other instances where the artist hid images of the female anatomy (think fallopian tubes) in paintings in the Medici Chapels in Florence and on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Mike, you devil!
If you haven’t found his portrait yet, it’s the small figure standing in front of her abdomen and between the lines of her dress, with his feet standing on her lap. (See it?) Vittoria Colonna was one of the most popular poets of sixteenth-century Italy and the married woman – although her husband died in 1525 from battle wounds, was said to be merely an artistic friend of Michelangelo at the time of the portrait. However, they were said to have grown closer until she died in 1547.
It seems hard to fathom that the art of Michelangelo can still hold secrets after five centuries of scrutiny. Al Hirschfeld’s fans were so enamored by his hidden NINA’s (always in caps and usually more than one) that they finally convinced the Tony-winning artist to note how many were hidden in each caricature.
Sometimes even geniuses just want to have fun.