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Tuesday, May 29, 2012



Washington D.C. is much more that our capital. It is a place of magnificent architecture, painting, and sculpture. Until the 19th Century, it was a pleasant rural town but artistically a blank canvas waiting for some of the world’s greatest artisans.
Constantino Brumidi was born in 1805 in Italy. By his mid-twenties he was already considered one of the country’s leading artists; and was commissioned to restore works of art in the Vatican. By the age of thirty, Brumidi was recognized as Italy’s greatest living fresco painter. Fresco is a very demanding medium. Colors are mixed with plaster and troweled onto a surface (usually a wall or ceiling). Chemical changes in the plaster add beauty and permanence to the work; but require extended periods of application without a break. Areas not completed before the plaster dries have to be scraped off and redone.
Brumidi was a young man of strong political and religious convictions. This kept him at odds with the government and church in Italy. By the early 1850’s, conflicts had escalated to such a point that Brumidi fled the country, and arrived in America. He was recognized as a significant artist in the years following his arrival.
At age 59, Constantino Brumidi was commissioned by the government to paint the Capitol rotunda dome. Scaffolds were constructed 180 feet above the rotunda floor, and Brumidi climbed to the top inches from the ceiling, lied on his back, and applied the colored plaster to the surface. He frequently worked day and night due to the nature of fresco and to satisfy his desire to complete the project while he was still physically able.
When the scaffolds came down, the assembled audience was awestruck. The work rivaled the great frescos of Europe. Brumidi became famous overnight. If he had accepted the many commissions that were offered to him, he would have been a wealthy man; but he had another goal in mind. He once wrote to a friend, “My one ambition is that I may live long enough to make beautiful the Capital of the one country on earth in which there is liberty.”
He spent the next years adorning the Capitol interior with magnificent works of art. In 1877, when Brumidi was 72 years old, he took on another major challenge in the Capitol’s rotunda. Sixty feet above the floor there was a blank wall, eight feet tall and 300 feet in circumference. Scaffolds were again erected. He had been planning for years to fill this space with a panoramic frieze consisting of scenes from American history. For two years he worked like a man possessed, racing against time. While working on his seventh scene, Brumidi lost his balance. As he was falling, he managed to grab a section of the scaffold. He was dangling five stories above the rotunda floor. Several minutes passed before he could be rescued. This ordeal probably hastened his death a few months later.
Constantino Brumidi’s twenty five years of artistry in the Capitol interior was over, but the panoramic frieze still had to be finished. Congress commissioned his pupil, Filippo Costaggini, to complete the work. He worked on it for the next eight years, but all of Brumidi’s sketches had been realized and still a 30-foot section was remained. In 1953, the final sections were completed by Allyn Cox.
Today, visitors are in awe of Brumidi’s masterpieces. If you look closely, his signature can still be seen on some of his works. It always reads, “C. Brumidi, artist. Citizen of the U.S.”

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