New Exhibit Highlights Brumidi’s Birds

Posted July 20, 2005 at 3:28pm

Recent efforts to identify the birds in Capitol artist Constantino Brumidi’s intricate Senate corridor murals may not have produced an ivory-billed woodpecker, but Senate curators did stumble upon a veritable artistic aviary among the scrolling vines and mythological figures.

During a two-month research project, which included consulting ornithologists from New York to Caracas, Venezuela, curatorial staff located more than 350 birds (and at least 100 species) scattered throughout the images that line the Senate hallways.

These findings are featured in “To make beautiful the Capitol: Birds of the Brumidi Corridors,” a new exhibit that opens next week in the first-floor Senate wing connecting corridor just in time for the Italian-born artist’s 200th birthday celebration Tuesday.

“It was one of the overlooked features,” explained Senate Curatorial Assistant Amy Elizabeth Burton, adding that the birds tended to “get lost” in the elaborate decoration.

Although the majority of the birds are native to North America, such as cardinals and blue jays, Brumidi, who in preparation for his work sketched specimens from the Smithsonian Institution’s collection, also depicted such birds as a caged hoopoe, which hails from Europe, North Africa and Asia, and the Central American macaw and motmot, Burton said. All in all, about a dozen foreign species are depicted in the corridors.

Burton added that, though it has yet to be confirmed, “we have what we think is an Australian rainbow lorikeet.”

Typical of classical design, Brumidi also incorporated “fantasy” birds in the corridors, such as griffins and half-eagles, said Burton, who managed the project with Senate Museum Specialist Richard Doerner.

Brumidi’s avian decorative scheme was inspired in part by the 15th-century Renaissance frescoes in Raphael’s Vatican Palace loggia. Brumidi himself had helped restore some of the Vatican’s frescoes before immigrating to the United States in 1852.

Contemporaneous trends also influenced his choice of the avian leitmotif.

“There was a surging interest in ornithology when he was painting,” Burton said, pointing to the publication of John James Audubon’s pioneering field guide “The Birds of America.” “People were going on expeditions, identifying and classifying them.”

Prior to recent restoration efforts, however, many of the details in Brumidi’s mid-19th century murals had been obscured by subsequent, less sensitive efforts to repair the walls, which included painting over many of Brumidi’s intricate markings. (About 100 of the 350-plus painted birds in the corridors have yet to be restored.)

“Brumidi painted them quite accurately,” Burton said.

Indeed, a highly critical 1860 report issued by a presidential appointed art commission that had decried Brumidi’s “impertinent” Capitol ornamentation also expressed a “delight” with his depictions of North American birds, and other native fauna and flora.

“To make beautiful the Capitol: Birds of the Brumidi Corridors” will be on display beginning Monday in the first-floor Senate connecting corridor. It is expected to remain on display throughout Brumidi’s bicentennial year.