The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview
53. Constantino Brumidi, Section of Frieze, ca. 1880, showing figure of William Penn (ninth from left), with Filippo Costaggini's continuation of Brumidi's design to right (photo: Architect of the Capitol).

There is also an indication that Brumidi's original conception of the frieze attempted to create a formal as well as an iconographic unity with its environment. It would appear that he was trying so to arrange the sequence of events that those with a predominantly horizontal composition, such as the burial of De Soto (Plate 54) and the Lewis and Clark, would fall over the North and South doors, while those with a dominant triangular structure, such as America and History and the Colonization of New England would crown the East and West doors. This would have subtly distinguished the front and back from the sides of the building, broken the relentless verticality of the rest of the scenes, and given a pleasing rhythm to the entire design. But faults in the measuring of the sketch and the wall, and the death of the artist, prevented this aesthetic unity from being realized. 19

Despite these lacunae, it is justifiable to read Brumidi's inscription in the canopy fresco-- "From the many, one"--as pertaining to his artistic ambitions in this great chamber as much as it may have expressed the political sentiments and goals of his patrons. That his grand design for the rotunda was left incomplete and is now obscured does not subtract from the genius that made the attempt, and gave us so many masterpieces of the muralist's art in the process.


NOTES

I want to thank Professor Irma Jaffe and the Istituto della Encielopedia Italiana for the invitation to present the first draft of this essay at its symposium at Fordham University in November 1989, and the U. S. Capitol Historical Society and Dr. Barbara Wolanin, the Curator for the Architect of the Capitol, for the fellowship in 1987 which made this research possible. I was able to spend over two months in residence at the Capitol, studying its archives and murals--many from the scaffold of Bernie Rabin, who has crowned his career as a restorer by bringing back to life almost all of Brumidi's great murals. We can now see what this artist achieved in the Capitol, not only in its rotunda,

-92-

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