POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Il "Michelangelo del Capitol"

by David Trumbull -- September 28, 2012

Your visit to our nation's capital city is not complete without seeing the art in the U.S. Capitol Building -- both for its artistic excellence and its place in the many and varied treasures of Italian-American heritage. I refer, specifically, to the murals painted, over a 25-year period, by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1888).

Brumidi was born in Rome, before Italian unification, of a Greek father and Italian mother. According to the Architect of the Capitol, "Beginning at age 13, he studied for 14 years at the Academy of St. Luke and was trained in the full range of painting mediums, including true fresco, and possibly in sculpture. He achieved a mastery of the human figure and learned how to create the appearance of three-dimensional forms on flat surfaces, an effect called trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”)."

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Brumidi, for three years, worked at the Vatican for Pope Gregory XVI. When the French occupied Rome, in 1849, he left, ending up in America, where he applied for citizenship, which was granted in 1857. In America, with a swelling immigrant population, many of them fellow Catholics, he found work decorating churches.

By 1855 he was also working on the decoration of the U.S. Capitol Building, a project that occupied him until this death. According to the Architect of the Capitol: "His major contributions are the monumental canopy and frieze of the new Capitol Dome. In the canopy over the Rotunda he painted The Apotheosis of Washington in 1865. Brumidi began painting the frieze depicting major events in American history in 1878 but died in 1880 with the work less than half finished. Filippo Costaggini carried out Brumidi's remaining designs between 1881 and 1889; the entire frieze was only completed in 1953."

In 2007 Michael Enzi (Republican, Wyoming) introduced a bill to award, posthumously, a Congressional gold medal to Constantino Brumidi. The bill was passed in 2008 and on July 1st of that year President George W. Bush signed it into law. On July 11th of this year House and Senate leaders held the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. House Speaker John Boehner (Republican, Ohio) took the occasion to rehearse some of the troubled history of the building of the Capitol, saying, "Here you had a Capitol that was, at that point, a perpetual construction site, embroiled in bickering and controversy. There were big ideas for the interior, but no artist to get them off the ground. In comes this son of Italy seizing on a second chance to do what he loves, to live out a dream he is not allowed to continue pursuing in his native land."

Speaker Boehner concluded: "It's a perfect match, a truly American story. And it ends, as the best of them do, with the thanks of a grateful nation."