An Artist’s Activist

Grano Seeks Recognition for Brumidi

Posted July 8, 2005 at 4:17pm

When Members of Congress gather in the Rotunda on July 26 to celebrate the bicentennial of artist Constantino Brumidi’s birth, the event will mark a major personal victory for Joe Grano, a D.C. activist who’s devoted much of the past five years to galvanizing Congressional interest in the life and work of the man once dubbed “the Michelangelo of the Capitol.”

“Had they not done that I would have really had a broken heart,” said Grano, chairman of the Constantino Brumidi Society.

But the planned Capitol tribute, which Grano began lobbying for this spring, won’t mark the end of his efforts.

In Grano’s view, there are few accolades too great for the relatively obscure 19th-century Italian-born artist whose ornate frescos adorn the Capitol interior, including the eponymous corridors in the Senate wing and the Dome.

“The artist may be dead, but his art is alive and inspires people, so I think he should be recognized,” Grano explained.

Grano, a diminutive man with a thick Bronx accent, was first struck by the need to honor Brumidi after attending a Library of Congress book signing in November 1998 for Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin’s book, “Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol.” By 2000, Grano, along with Steve Livengood of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society and others, had founded the Brumidi Society. Prior to his May death, former Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), most famous for presiding over President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearings and a backer of earlier Congressional tributes to Brumidi, briefly served as honorary chairman of the society.

Since then, Grano and his group have emerged as a key force in mobilizing support for Congressional honors for Brumidi.

Grano lobbied on behalf of a concurrent resolution, which Congress approved last year, requesting President Bush to issue a proclamation in honor of Brumidi’s bicentennial. Though the White House has so far declined to issue the proclamation — instead it sent a message to Grano to be read on the 200th anniversary of Brumidi’s birth — Grano’s hopeful some of his other efforts will still pay off.

In addition to continuing his quest for a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for Brumidi, Grano has worked closely with Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who also introduced the proclamation legislation in the House, on a bill reintroduced this month to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Brumidi.

“He’s Brumidi’s top gun on the Hill,” said Mica, who is also co-chairman of the Italian American Congressional Delegation and a Brumidi enthusiast in his own right.

Likewise, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia praised Grano as “the single most important” non-Congressional “force in achieving these honors.”

“Joe is the catalyst,” said Gioia, who is scheduled to speak at the Rotunda event.

Grano, who possesses an infectious energy, is nearly indefatigable when it comes to working the corridors of Congress in support of his tributes. Last summer, he even traveled to the Republican National Convention to meet with Members and representatives of the Italian American and Greek American communities (Brumidi was born in 1805 to a Greek father and Italian mother) to drum up support for his efforts.

On Sunday, as part of the Festa Italiana, Grano will lead a celebratory Brumidi parade from Union Station to the Capitol, during which the marchers will call on Congress to approve the Gold Medal legislation and on the president to issue the Medal of Freedom.

“It’s really important that Congress take note of him, then I think other institutions will follow,” said Grano, who’d also like to see Brumidi honored with a commemorative U.S. postage stamp (In April, Mica and New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to this end), a Smithsonian exhibit and even a PBS documentary. “My theory was you do everything for Brumidi that you do for a prominent person for a significant anniversary.”

About once a month, Grano visits the artist’s grave site, located on the western tip of the Glenwood Cemetery in Northeast Washington. It was there that then-Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) traveled to unveil the bronze plaque marking Brumidi’s grave — which Congress commissioned — in 1952.

Last summer, during a ceremony at the grave to mark Brumidi’s birth (there will be another memorial event there July 24), Grano was inspired to spruce up Brumidi’s resting place.

Since then, the Brumidi Society has raised roughly $4,000 toward this goal — which has facilitated repairs to the wrought-iron fence surrounding the plot, the addition of flower planters and a bench, a Brumidi marker on the gate, and soon, a bronze sign at the cemetery’s entrance directing visitors to the site.

The 59-year-old Grano is no stranger to activism.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Grano, who once ran as a Republican for D.C. City Council on a preservationist platform, led an unsuccessful effort to save the historic Rhodes Tavern, located at the corner of 15th and F streets Northwest, from demolition.

In recent years, Grano, a U.S. Capitol Historical Society docent who practices real estate law just blocks from the old Rhodes Tavern, has also been active in the movement to get Congressional voting representation for the District.

But with Brumidi, Grano, the son of immigrants from the Italian province of Calabria — he humorously touches the top of his shoe to indicate the location — feels a particular kinship.

“I want him to be a folk hero,” he said of the artist, who immigrated to the United States in 1852 after being imprisoned by Pope Pius IX for his alleged revolutionary activities. “For me he represents all immigrants.”

On a recent visit to Brumidi’s grave to water the plants, Grano, dressed in a straw fedora, striped shirt and suit, waxed rhapsodic on Brumidi’s enduring relationship to the Capitol.

“In both time and space he’s identified himself with the Capitol,” Grano said, pointing to the fact that Brumidi died 25 years to the day after he started work on the Capitol ornamentation on Feb. 19, 1855, and that he was buried about two miles from Capitol Hill, just a stone’s throw from North Capitol Street.

Grano hopes his extensive e-mail list of Greek American and Italian American contacts, as well as art and history aficionados, will help draw some 200 people to the the July 24 graveside ceremony. But before then, he may add one final touch to highlight the connection between Brumidi and his birthplace.

“I was thinking of planting a Cypress tree right here to remind him of Rome,” Grano said, gesturing toward a nearby expanse of grass.

Grano, who spends about 20 hours a week on his Brumidi efforts in addition to his day job, admits there are times when the magnitude of his commitments weighs down on him and he questions the feasibility of continuing his advocacy. In 2001, Grano even sold his retirement condo in Florida in part to finance the work.

But with the bicentennial just around the corner, “this is the culmination. This is it,” Grano said.

“There was something about him that was very compelling, that people wanted to help him,” Grano noted of Brumidi. “I feel like I’m working for him.”