The Capitol Dome

Spring 2014

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"Raphael in the Vatican was a fool to Brumidi in the Wash- ington Capitol. High up in the lofty dome, or down in the darkest corridors, where no foot but that of the watchman treads, Brumidi paints away, covering the walls with men and women, and gods and goddesses, and birds and beasts, and flowers. By the yard or by the mile, by the week or by the year, he paints on, paints ever." 9 If Brumidi was a fixture in the Capitol, so was the scaffolding that accompanied his works-in-progress (fig. 3). Many of the work platforms elevated the artist a mere yard or two; the wooden sca f folding required for the "Apotheosis of Washington" raised Brumidi one hun- dred and eighty feet. His knowledge of three-dimensional forms in space ensured that the figures, some of which are fifteen feet tall, appear to have normal human proportions despite being painted on a curved surface seventeen stories above the Rotunda's floor. 10 While lower to the floor, the frieze's scaffolding proved to be a more flimsy apparatus than the one that served the "Apotheosis of Washington." Attached to the Rotunda's curved walls, it moved as work progressed. One newspaper reporter, writing in 1878, provided a vivid de- scription of the platform: "Brumidi's scaffold is supported on three diagonal props of wood, each forty feet long, resting upon the cornice of the old dome, and extend- ing outward, and half way up their length making a shelf upon the broad architrave of the new or superincumbent dome of iron. Ropes from the gallery above the new cor- nice hold these long stanchions." To reach the scaffold- ing, "e old man has to climb up the inner gallery— which is built in the dome's shell—by a ladder, step on the balustrade, and go down a second ladder nearly one hundred feet from the floor below. en he stops on a little railed scaffold, turning himself half way round and goes down the third long ladder. If he should fall, he would mash down yonder like a basket of eggs [emphasis added]." 11 Brumidi's history as an artist began in Rome, where, at the age of thirteen, he entered the renowned art school, Accademia di San Luca or Academy of St. Luke, to study painting, sculpture, and the art of frescoing (painting on wet plaster so that the colors become a permanent part of the wall or ceiling). His demonstrated skills led to work restoring sixteenth-century frescoes in the Vatican. For this effort, he and his partner had the opportunity to cre- ate their own Vatican design, a wall painted to resemble a three-dimensional curtain. Brumidi then found work as an artist throughout the city, including commissions to create large-scale murals in the Palazzo Torlonia and the theater in the Villa Torlonia and frescoes on the dome and ceiling in the Church of the Madonna dell' Archetto. 5 Fleeing Rome in 1852 after being imprisoned for his part in the Republican Revolution, Brumidi landed in New York City. ere, and throughout the region, he painted portraits and decorated private homes. Later he would paint altarpieces and church frescoes, including multiple murals in St. Stephen's Church (New York) and Taylor's Chapel in Baltimore. In 1854, he went to Mexico City, where he painted a Holy Trinity for the cathedral. En route back to New York, he stopped in Washington, D.C. and visited the Capitol. 6 ere, Brumidi secured a meeting with Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, the superintendent of Capitol construction, who granted him a test assignment, a lunette in a room intended for the House Committee on Agriculture. 7 e sample fresco painting led to a long and fruitful relationship between the artist and the Army engineer, who became quartermaster general of the Union Army during the Civil War. Indeed, Meigs later claimed that "the best pictures and decorations of the building are his design. . . . I have as yet seen no [one] who could com- pare with him as a director of the decorations of the inte- rior of the Capitol." 8 Or as one reporter opined in 1876, 29 Fig. 2. The central figure of William Penn in the "William Penn and the Indians" sec on was the last part of the Rotunda frieze on which Brumidi worked. The difference between Brumidi's style and that of his successor, Filippo Costaggini, is read- ily apparent. ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOL THE CAPITOL DOME SPRING 2014

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