The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

11.Constantino Brumidi's Frescoes in the United States Capitol

BARBARA A. WOLANIN, Curator for the Architect of the Capitol

Constantino Brumidi's frescoes in the United States Capitol are receiving close attention during their current conservation. Thoroughly trained in the tradition of Italian Renaissance and Baroque mural painting, Brumidi had arrived in the United States in 1852, just as the extensions of the Capitol in Washington were being constructed and the new dome was being planned. His first fresco was painted in 1855, while his designs for the frieze and canopy in the Rotunda were completed by 1859. He devoted much of his time for the last twenty-five years of his life decorating the rooms and corridors of the Capitol.

Since Brumidi's frescoes were created, they have been darkened by soot and grime and distorted by periodic retouching by later, much less talented artists, making it impossible to appreciate the quality and illusionistic effect of his work. In the past few years, Congress has authorized appropriations to allow the Architect of the Capitol to conserve the frescoes and murals most in need of attention. The most ambitious and dramatic project is the conservation of the 4,664-square- foot frescoed canopy depicting The Apotheosis of George Washington 180 feet from the floor of the Rotunda, which was filled with scaffold in June 1987. The work is expected to be completed in a little over a year, in time for the celebration of the bicentennial of Congress in 1989. 1 The conservation is being carried out by Bernard Rabin, knowledgeable in fresco because of his many years of experience in Italy (Color Plate 14). His work is characterized by fine craftsmanship, respect for the integrity of the original, and dedication to scientifically valid techniques. He has brought in several outside consultants, including the internationally recognized authorities on mural conservation Laura and Paolo Mora from the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome, who have also been advisers for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and who have restored major frescoes by Giotto, Mantegna, and Tiepolo. They are appreciative of Brumidi's skill and of his understanding of the function of the mural in the architectural space of the Capitol. 2

The removal of grime and dark overpaint from the frescoes in the Capitol, using primarily water, is yielding results as dramatic as those in the Sistine Chapel, revealing the luminous color and striking spatial illusion of the original. In the process much is being learned since the scaffolding provides a rare opportunity to examine normally inaccessible surface details. The documentation of examination and treatment and the chemical testing of materials provide new information and insight into the working methods of the artist. More broadly, the uncovering of original forms and colors and the reconstruction of damaged areas with the aid of early photographs make possible a valid assessment of the quality of Brumidi's work, which clearly calls for more scholarly attention devoted to his visual sources and his overall iconographical program. 3

When Brumidi arrived in Washington, Italian artists were not new to the Capitol. The Neo- Classical style of the building created a demand for sculpture, and stone carvers had been brought from Italy in the early decades of the nineteenth century to do the work. Even when American sculptors began receiving commissions, the modeling and carving were most often carried out in Italy. 4 During the construction of the new wings and dome (Plate 80), Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, Supervising Engineer between 1853 and 1859, saw the need for monumental and durable mural decoration. Aware of both the difficulties and the advantages of the true fresco technique,

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