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Congress Salutes 'Michelangelo of the Capitol'

Members of the U.S. Congress recently commemorated the 200th birthday of the Italian-born artist who decorated the Capitol building with frescoes depicting key events in American history. Deborah Tate has a look at the life and legacy of Constantino Brumidi, the painter some have called the Michelangelo of the Capitol.

Although the Congress is on its August recess, the U.S. Capitol is far from quiet. Thousands of tourists visit the halls of Congress each week, even when lawmakers are away.

Rita Meier of Mansfield, Texas, is among them. She stands in the Rotunda, the imposing circular room located under the dome of the Capitol. She gazes at the painting 55 meters above, in the canopy of the dome.

The work is called "The Apotheosis of Washington", and it depicts George Washington, the first American president, being drawn to heaven.

"Phenomenal, very many bright colors, I love the coloring," said Ms. Meier.

In the painting, George Washington is depicted seated in uniform, rising to the heavens with a rainbow at his feet. At either side are female figures representing Liberty and Victory. Encircling him are 13 maidens, each with a star overhead, symbolizing the first states of the union. They hold a banner with the national motto in Latin, "E Pluribus Unum", or "out of many, one."

It is the best-known work of Constantino Brumidi, who painted a number of frescoes throughout the Capitol depicting prominent Americans, important moments in history, and allegorical representations of the nation's ideals. He was a master of creating the illusion of three-dimensional forms and figures on flat surfaces.

On the first floor of the Senate wing of the Capitol are the Brumidi Corridors, said to be among the most ornate and creatively decorated public spaces in the nation. They are inspired by Raphael's loggia in the Vatican, and combine classical imagery with patriotic American themes.

Before leaving for their August recess, members of Congress celebrated Brumidi's life and legacy during a commemoration of his 200th birthday.

Congressman Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, led the ceremony.

"Brumidi was driven by enormous artistic talent and patriotism," he said.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, highlighted Brumidi's biography, noting with interest that he was born in Rome to a Greek father and an Italian mother:

"The coincidence should not be lost on us that classical wall painting, the medium of which he was a master, originated in Greece and reached its high degree of refinement during the Roman Republic," she said. "So he brought with him his classical training and influences, and he became a master of that tradition. He believed that the Capitol required, as he put it, 'a superior style of decoration in real fresco, like the palaces of Augustus and Nero.'"

Brumidi studied at a renowned art school in Rome. He went on to paint murals for Italian noblemen and the Catholic Church. He received commissions to restore the richly decorated frescoes in the Vatican Palace.

It is a point noted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

"He had already established himself as a leading artist in Rome. In addition to Pope Pius the Ninth, [Pio Nono] he also had commissions from Pope Gregory the Sixteenth to paint for three years in the Vatican. Imagine, someone who painted in the Vatican, painted in the Capitol of the United States, bringing all that classical beauty to our great country," said Ms. Pelosi.

Brumidi came to the United States in 1852, after he had received a papal pardon for his role in Italy's republican revolution. He had been imprisoned for, among other things, stealing church artwork and furniture, although he insisted he only moved them for safekeeping.

Within three years of his arrival in this country, he was painting frescoes in the Capitol, a job he would have for more than a quarter century. He took only a few breaks, including some to paint murals at St. Stephen's Church in New York City.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1857. He signed one of his frescoes "C. Brumidi, Artist-Citizen of the U.S."

But at the time, Brumidi faced his share of prejudice. American-born artists resented that an immigrant was allowed to paint in the building that was the symbol of American democracy.

Others took issue with his style, as Lindy Boggs, a former congresswoman from Louisiana and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, noted during commemoration ceremonies.

"There was immediate criticism from some who thought the artists' style was too foreign. One congressman questioned why native animals and crops were not depicted instead of 'heathen mythology,'" said Ms. Boggs.

Undeterred, Brumidi continued painting.

His last work is a frieze circling the base of the dome's canopy. It is a panorama painted in shades of white and brown to give the effect of carved stone, and depicts significant events in American history, from the landing of Christopher Columbus in 1492 to the California gold rush in 1849.

As Brumidi was painting the frieze in 1879, his chair fell off the scaffolding, but he managed to hold on to a ladder until help arrived.

Senate Democrat Leader Harry Reid of Nevada notes that it did not take Brumidi long to return to work.

"A day after he fell and was injured, he was back on the scaffolding, working harder than in the months before," said Mr. Reid. "That was near the end of his career, but it demonstrates the passion that Brumidi had for his United States Capitol."

Four months later, Brumidi died at the age of 75.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee spoke about Brumidi's legacy.

"To emigrate to America, Brumidi surrendered a promising art career in Rome," said Mr. Frist. "He left behind the most prestigious academies in the world. He removed himself from the daily visual influence of the Renaissance architects and the classical painters. All this, he relinquished, for a concept more precious to him than anything else. He relinquished it for freedom. Today, that single desire, that unwavering passion is at the centerpiece of the legacy that he left us. While blending the concepts of old world and new, history and mythology, reality and allegory, Brumidi's masterpieces are a veneration of freedom."

Shortly after Brumidi's death in 1880, Senator Daniel Voorhees eulogized the painter, saying "It matters little whether we or those who come after us do anything to perpetuate his memory. The walls of his Capitol will hold his fame fresh and ever increasing as long as they themselves shall stand."