The Capitol Dome

Spring 2014

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beginning with Columbus walking into the New World, and pause at the one depicting "William Penn and the In- dians" (fig. 2). "Do you see where the background behind Penn changes from a darker taupe to a lighter color?" a guide is likely to ask. Heads craned upwards nod. "at is where Brumidi fell. He managed to grab the scaffolding"—and here the guide may mimic swinging on monkey bars— "and held on for several minutes before being rescued. He didn't get hurt, but he was shaken up, and he never fin- ished the scene." Seeking a strong reaction, the guide is never disappointed. While older visitors may gasp, middle school students, in particular, perk up, their faces bright- ening. Finally, an interesting story to catch their attention: an old man, in his seventies, dangling from a platform high above the Rotunda floor. Still, one is left to won- der, could a frail, elderly man really save himself in such a dramatic fashion? And, if so, how did the accident affect the outcome of the Frieze of American History, one of the most iconic artworks in the Capitol? Brumidi, of course, is known for far more than the decorative frieze that he left unfinished. In addition to his famous fresco, e Apotheosis of Washington (1865), painted on the curved canopy under the Dome, the artist left his mark throughout the Capitol, including the frescoes and murals in the Brumidi Corridors of the Senate wing, the Senate Reception Room, the President's Room, and numerous committee rooms. In fact, by the time Brumidi finished the frieze's first scene in April 1878, no one could "remember when Brumidi was not painting the Capitol." 4 "T here are many popular delusions concerning the Capitol," lamented the building's chief guide, H. J. Kennedy, to an Evening Star reporter in 1902. "Among the erroneous impressions that seem to be entertained by almost every visitor is one that relates to the frieze in the rotunda. Nine in every ten people who live in this city, and who bring their friends to see the building, believe that Brumidi fell from the scaffold while at work on the frieze and was killed." 3 Current guides with the Capitol Visitor Center Services, however, are well aware that Constantino Brumidi (fig. 1), the nineteenth-century Italian artist, survived that fall, or actually, that near fall, in 1879 from the scaffold- ing fifty-eight feet above the Rotunda floor. Indeed, it is one of the favorite stories relayed to the tourists and school groups visiting the Capitol each day. Guides point to each of the frieze's scenes, which encircle the base of the Dome, 28 ' F rom the Giddy H eight A bove': Inves ga ng Constan no Brumidi's Final Days in the Capitol Rotunda by Jane Armstrong Hudiburg "Within the great dome, just below the spring of the arch, a panel encircles the wall, and here this old Italian artist Constantino Brumidi with brush and easel is bringing into life and beauty a series of historical pictures, that will live and last for centuries to be admired by other generations long, long into the future. e task is a great one, and we could wish that the vigor of immortal youth might be given this old painter, that this, his last best art conception, might be complete, ere the brush falls from the nerveless hand." —Reporter for the Donaldsonville Chief (LA), September 7, 1878. 1 "I have watched you, maestro, clinging to the ceiling like a fly, slapping around commissary paint, until I grew dizzy, and I have wondered when you would fall from the giddy height above upon the giddy throng below and break your Roman nose." —Reporter for the Washington Post, April 1, 1878. 2 Fig. 1. These photographs of Constan no Brumidi late in life are part of the Brady-Handy Photograph Collec on in the Library of Congress. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS THE CAPITOL DOME SPRING 2014

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