- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2007

Constantino Brumidi, hired in 1854 to decorate the U.S. Senate, dipped his paintbrushes into a rainbow of colors and became “the Michelangelo of the Capitol.”

But more than a century’s worth of grime and layers of paint brushed over his 19th-century masterpieces in misguided attempts to restore them have dimmed the luster in what are known as the Brumidi Corridors.

Slowly, though, it’s been getting brighter down the hall.

Conservators are painstakingly removing layers of overpaint as they uncover the original brightness of murals along five connected hallways on the first floor of the Senate wing.

The restoration project began in the mid-1980s with Brumidi’s lunettes. The crescent-shaped frescoes painted above doorways depict snippets of America’s history, such as inventor Robert Fulton looking at his steamboat on the Hudson River or the signing of the first peace treaty with Britain.

Next on the renovation list were the elaborate wall paintings done between 1857 and 1859 by Brumidi and his assistants. A 10-year program to restore them is winding down, said Barbara Wolanin, curator for the Architect of the Capitol.

Congress has spent $2 million during the period. Work on Brumidi’s colorfully painted ceilings remains to be done.

“When we started this, all the lower walls were like dark, dirty yellow, dirty green, brown,” Miss Wolanin said during a recent tour. “When I started researching Brumidi, the early guidebooks said he painted the walls in red, white and blue. And when you looked at them they were just like this. They were just really ugly.”

One aspect of Brumidi’s work that was buried beneath the added coats was his ability to make the flat paintings appear three-dimensional, with borders looking as if they were carved from sandstone, she said.

From a distance, the murals look alike — so much so, that they are often mistaken for wallpaper, Miss Wolanin said. But no two are alike. Closer inspection shows different flowers, fruits, and indigenous plants, birds and other animals in each design.

Born in Rome in 1805, Brumidi trained at the Accademia di San Luca, the most prestigious art school in the Italian capital.

In 1840, he was among a group of artists commissioned to restore the elegant frescoes in the Vatican palace. His career took off after that project, and eventually he came to be considered one of the best artists in Rome.

Brumidi apparently longed for the job that would consume more than two decades of his life.

“My one ambition and my daily prayer is that I may live long enough to make beautiful the Capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty,” he once said.

His prayer was answered in late 1854. That’s when Brumidi arrived in Washington and met Capt. Montgomery Meigs, the Army Corps of Engineers officer who made him famous.

Capt. Meigs, in charge of building and decorating the House and Senate additions to the Capitol, was looking for an artist to paint frescoes. He allowed Brumidi to paint a sample in his temporary office, then hired the artist.

The House wing was almost complete by the time Brumidi accepted the assignment, so he worked mostly in the Senate — on its walls and ceilings, in public and in private areas, beginning in 1855.

He was proud to be an American and showed it in his work, Miss Wolanin said. Between the splashes of color, he incorporated eagles, shields with flaglike stripes of red, white and blue, and portraits of the nation’s revolutionary leaders.

The design of the corridors is based on Raphael’s Loggia in the Vatican, which were painted in the early 1500s.

Besides his work decorating Senate corridors and meeting rooms, Brumidi is the artist responsible for two significant works beneath the Capitol’s cast-iron dome.

His masterpiece, “The Apotheosis of Washington,” is a colorful fresco in the eye of the dome. The image of George Washington rising to the heavens with gods and goddesses leaves almost anyone who strolls beneath it gazing 180 feet upward in awe. It took Brumidi 11 months to paint it in 1865.

In 1877, at age 72, he began work on the “Frieze of American History,” which encircles the base of the dome with scenes from America’s history, such as the landing of Christopher Columbus and Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas.

At one point, Brumidi nearly fell 60 feet to almost certain death from the scaffold where he was painting it. He later said he clung to the rungs of a ladder for 15 minutes until help arrived.

Brumidi never climbed the scaffold again.

He died in February 1880 before he could finish the frieze, about six months after the near-death experience. Two other artists completed the work.

Brumidi married three times and had three children. He is buried in Washington, less than three miles from the domed building he spent 25 years, or one-third of his life, embellishing.

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