When a fellow Italian like Constantino Brumidi gets to be called the “Michelangelo of the Capitol”, the readers of We the Italians understand that this is one of the topic that deserve to be addressed in an interview. This is why we are honored and grateful to have with us Dr. Barbara Wolanin, Ph.D. in art history, Curator Emerita (from 1985 to 2015) for the “Architect of the Capitol”, the builder and steward of the landmark buildings and grounds of Capitol Hill in Washington DC.
Dr. Wolanin was hired to oversee the conservation of Brumidi’s frescoes among many other important projects. Each year over her thirty years, another area of Brumidi’s murals were restored to their original beauty, with many rooms still left for her successor. Welcome Dr. Wolanin, and thanks for promoting and preserving Brumidi’s art
Dr. Wolanin, first of all: who was Constantino Brumidi?
Constantino Brumidi was an outstanding artist who created important murals in both Rome and America. He was born in 1805 in Rome. He started to show his talent at the Accademia di San Luca” when he was only thirteen years old. After fourteen years of training, he started working for big commissions and was considered one of the best painters in Rome. He worked for the Vatican and for the Torlonia family, particularly for Alessandro Torlonia. He was in charge of all of the original murals in the Theatre in the Villa Torlonia.
He ended up getting involved in the Roman Republican Revolution, because he was a Captain in the Civic Guard permitted by Pope Pius IX. He tried to keep safe valuable things in a convent and monastery during the war. But after the Pope came back in power, he was arrested and accused of all kind of things, and kept in jail for over a year. There he stated that he wanted to leave and go to America, because at that time the United States had started building big churches and cathedrals and was being asked to wanted to paint artworks for them.
What were his first works, once arrived in America?
Soon after he got out of prison, he arrived in New York in 1852. He applied for American citizenship right away. He first took on private portrait commissions. He then went to Mexico City and painted a Holy Trinity for the cathedral, and then came to Washington DC and became his first paintings in 1855, when the new extension with two wings was built on the United States Capitol. He painted mostly on the Senate part of the Capitol, because the Senators were wealthier, they had been to Europe and they were more able to appreciate his work. After a new dome was approved by the Congress, he added monumental frescoes under it.
He painted the altarpiece for the Church of St. Stephen’s in New York, later returning to painted the Crucifixion above the high altar. He did many church commissions in addition his work at the Capitol and paintings for private homes.
Please, tell us something about Brumidi’s masterpieces in the Capitol
Brumidi worked almost full time for his first few years in the Capitol from 1855 to 1860 as the construction of the new wings was being completed. After that his work was more sporadic as there were no longer construction funds to draw on and Captain Montgomery Meigs who had the vision of murals in the Capitol was no longer there. But plans and ideas Brumidi has planned with Meigs continued to be carried out until his death.
There are two major public areas embellished with murals designed and executed or overseen by Brumidi: The Brumidi Corridors and the Rotunda. The system of corridors on the first floor of the Senate wing has been in recent years called the Brumidi Corridors, with the less decorated inner corridors included after testing and restoration of the original designs. The main corridors near the entry areas have wall panels and ceiling vaults decorated with complex designs inspired by Raphael’s Loggia in the Vatican. Brumidi combined classical settings and motifs with portraits and scenes from American Revolutionary and early history with landscapes, fruits, flowers, birds, animals and insects and new inventions flourishing in America and American patriotic symbols, a hymn of praise to his adopted country painting in brilliant color and intricate detail. He worked with a team of artists and decorative painters, painting the portraits, landscapes, and historical scenes himself.
When the Congress approved a new cast-iron dome over the Rotunda, Brumidi and Meigs planned “The Frieze of American History” and Brumidi prepared a detailed ink study in 1859, almost twenty years before he actually was on a scaffold and painting it in fresco in 1878. He was only able to complete about a third of the scenes before his death in 1880, but recommended another painter trained in Rome to complete his designs.
Because of a miscalculation by Meigs when giving the height of the scenes to Brumidi, the frieze he planned did not meet up as planned and it was only in 1953 that it was filled in by Allyn Cox with three additional scenes. What is remarkable about the frieze is how well Brumidi created the illusion of sculptural relief by painting in browns, blacks and whites, with his sure sense of how light falls on forms. The scenes start with Columbus Landing and ends with the Discovery of Gold in California.
The Apotheosis of Washington painted on the curved canopy over the Rotunda was probably planned by the Architect, Thomas U. Walter, who redesigned the dome to create a place for a monumental mural. The first president rises to the heavens, surrounded by allegorical figures and thirteen maidens representing the first states, all painting in rich and subtle color. On the ground below are six scenes, each with a Roman god or goddess, combined with figures from American history and the latest American technology. For example, Neptune and Venus are helping lay the Transatlantic Cable - which hadn’t even been completed when Brumidi was painting in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. He created an effective illusion of the heavens opening above all of the visitors who enter the Rotunda and over all the important ceremonies that happen there.
Both the Frieze and the Apotheosis were painted in true fresco, as were the historical portraits and scenes in the Brumidi Corridors. Captain Meigs searched for years for someone to paint frescoes in the Capitol, and Brumidi believed his were the first frescoes in America, painted on fresh plaster with deep knowledge of the requirements of the technique and with great confidence and joy in making the figures come alive.
Brumidi painted numerous other rooms and offices in the Capitol, include his first fresco in room H-144 painted for the House Agriculture Committee. Most of his murals are in the Senate wing because it was completed later and the Senators had greater appreciation for European styles. These include the President’s Room signed and dated 1860, the Naval and Military Affairs Committees now used by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the Senate Reception Room.
Is it true that Brumidi's grave in Glenwood Cemetery was forgotten by everybody until 1952, when a bronze marker was set in place at the formerly unmarked grave?
The idea of marking his grave was spearheaded by Myrtle Cheney Murdock. She was the wife of a Congressman who gave tours on the Capitol. She got very interested in Brumidi and she published the first book on him in 1950. She was the one who found out where he was buried (in the family plot of the woman who was considered his American wife, even if they never get married), and Mrs. Murdock pushed to get the Congress to pass a law to provide the marker for his grave in the Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, DC.
Finally, in 2008 the US Government awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Constantino Brumidi, now displayed in the Capitol Visitor Center, as part of an exhibit honoring him. Was the Italian American community instrumental in achieving this well deserved honor?
Yes, the Italian American community did lobby to have Brumidi recognized by the Congress, and was absolutely instrumental in the 2008 decision of the Government. In particular, I’d like to mention an Italian American who more than anybody else did any possible effort for this goal. His name was Joseph Grano, and he founded the Constantino Brumidi Society at the end of the 1990s. You would meet him gathering people to clean up Brumidi’s gravesite every year on the anniversary of his birth, or working with the United States Capitol Historical Society, lobbying as many members of the Congress he could to give Brumidi the Congressional Gold Medal. He was able to get the wonderful ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda to celebrate Brumidi anniversary in 2005 and saw the unusual posthumous gold medal on display. Unfortunately, he died in 2013.
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