Brumidi US Capitol Artist Uncovered
The first thing that I think of with the phrase “Art in the US Capitol” a single name pops into my head; Constantino Brumidi. After all, he painted the Apotheosis of Washington on the Dome Canopy, the Rotunda frieze, and the Senate wing corridors. His art is viewed by one million people every year. He has helped make our American Statement to the world. What people forget is that he was an immigrant too. He originally came from Rome, and painted murals in the Vatican Palace and Madonna dell’Archetto church. Things went south for him when he participated as a captain of the civic guard in the Republican Revolution of 1848. He was imprisoned and later exiled from Italy. He chose to emigrate to the United States in the early 1850s. And, when I think of his life before he arrived in America I can’t help considering our new immigration policies. What Steve Miller and others don’t get is that their policies would not allow a man like Burmidi to enter the United States. They would conclude he should be kept out of America because of both his past, and he wasn’t fluent in English when he first arrived.
Brumidi came to America during a time when immigrants were being pushed out by the No Nothing Party. There was rampant hatred among many American’s against immigrants that they thought were going to still jobs from them. The No Nothing Party only wanted Americans to earn government contracts, work on monuments, government buildings, and other high-profile projects. The problem that became quickly apparent was that many times Americans lacked the experience, knowledge, and skill set to do the projects that they so desired to accomplish. This was made clear with the fiasco of the Washington Monument. You think an elevator problem today is bad. Try having crumbling foundations and walls.
Thankfully President Abraham Lincoln and C. Montgomery Meigs had more sense than the No Nothing Party did. They were the ones that saw past Brumidi’s immigrant status, and knew how fantastic he was. Why did they entrust our great American Symbol to Brumidi? They knew his art work. In Rome, Brumidi had mastered fresco technique and sculptures. His creativity and capability was well known by the time they were thinking of how to decorate the new dome of the US Capitol.
But with time dust, cigarette smoke, and gas lamps covered much of what Brumidi had done with a yellowed, dull, and faded veneer. In the past, when walls weren’t up to par we would just paint over them quickly. When we did this, we lost Brumidi’s work, and began to think that he was a subpar artist that just decorated the building.
Fast forward to the late 1980s, and our government embraces the idea of restoration. Bernard Rabin with a team of conservators restored Brumidi’s work on the 4,664-square foot canopy of the Dome, and the 300-foot frieze just below the canopy. What Bernard Rabin and his team found was nothing short but re-writing of art history fact. Brumidi didn’t just paint fresco, but combined all kinds of techniques when he needed to create his desired effect. He used tempera to create poster-paint effects with glue. He also used oils if he needed to create another effect. He also used the effect of Trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) which created three-dimensional sculptural effects. This is the first time that I have heard of a single artist during the 1860s that was bold enough to mix it up with his work. And, he pulled it off!
This discovery was nothing short of a very time-consuming process. Cunningham-Adams who is currently working on the Senate corridors has at times needed to scrape away at least 15 layers of touch-up paint. They have found in the corridors Brumidi’s original murals that used a rare lime-wash fresco technique. This is a very sophisticated method using water-based pigments that are absorbed in a wet lime surface. Using lime created crystals that added a luminous quality to the paintings and brightened the room.
What an amazing find! And, I am very glad that we accepted Brumidi and allowed him to enter the country. To see his work join us on our US Capitol Tour. Saturdays at 1:00 pm.
This article is based on a historical document from the US Capitol Historical Society