Behind Closed Doors
Many of Brumidi’s Capitol Works Lie Out of Public View
Constantino Brumidi may be best known for the murals in the Senate-wing corridors that bear his name, but the genial 19th-century Italian-born artist, who immigrated to the United States in 1852, was also a central figure behind many of the other decorations that cover the Capitol’s walls and ceilings. Indeed, from paintings to staircases to murals, no single artist wielded a greater impact on the Capitol’s interior aesthetics.
[IMGCAP(1)]In honor of Tuesday’s 200th anniversary of Brumidi’s birth, Roll Call set out with the help of Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin and Senate Curator Diane Skvarla to go beyond the well-traveled areas in the Brumidi Corridors to some of his lesser-known works and designs. These might be behind closed doors or right above your nose, but their unique mix of classical beauty and distinctly American inventiveness are sure to inspire — if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
The East Elevator Lobby
Head inside the Member- and staff-only East entrance to the Capitol’s Senate wing and you’ll be met by a bank of a half-dozen elevators. That wasn’t always the case. Prior to the 1960s, the lunette-like areas just above the elevators were filled by six frescoes — depicting, among other things, justice, war, peace and prudence — painted in an illusionistic stone relief style. Today, the murals, which lined the then-open colonnade entrance, are obscured by the elevator shafts and can be seen only on the extremely rare occasion when the elevators are stopped on a different floor and the doors are open. So don’t count on getting a peek, said Wolanin. Ever.
The Members’ Private Staircases
On the east and west ends of the Senate’s north Brumidi corridor and on the House side are the ornate Members’ private staircases, leading to their respective chambers. “We call it the Brumidi staircase because Brumidi did the first sketch for it,” explained Wolanin, pointing to one of the bronze railings. But it was actually a French sculptor, Edmond Baudin, who created the staircases from subsequent, more detailed sketches. The design includes scrolling vines, cherubs, eagles and even a stag, modeled from life. “They got the stag who was in the park in Philadelphia” where Baudin’s studio was located. “He did not like being carried up the four flights of stairs to the artist’s studio,” Wolanin noted with a laugh.
After the Republicans took back the Senate in the 2002 midterm elections, the Zodiac Corridor, though part of the original Brumidi Corridors, was blocked off to make extra office space for Democratic staff on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Though obscured by a temporary wall constructed to blend with the original hall, the ceiling of this area, with its landscapes and colorful astrological signs, a common feature in classical design, can still be seen through the plexiglass window placed above the door to S-125A, located near the west end of the north Brumidi Corridor.
Revolutionary War Scenes and Floating Ladies
Just around the corner from the blocked-off Zodiac corridor is S-128, the old Senate Committee on Military Affairs and Militia room. Today used as office space for Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the room boasts the Capitol’s only battle scenes painted by Brumidi. Five lunettes feature Revolutionary War frescoes depicting “The Battle of Lexington,” “Death of General Wooster, 1777,” “Storming of Stony Point, 1779,” “Washington at Valley Forge, 1778,” and “The Boston Massacre, 1770.” The ceiling is also decorated with Revolutionary scenes such as the surrender of British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and the Boston Tea Party.
“He started working on these in the 1850s,” Wolanin said. But “the Military Affairs Committee wanted to meet in the room and they kind of kicked Brumidi out. He didn’t get actually back until after the Civil War.”
Interestingly, the delay may have also affected what Brumidi chose to depict. The original sketch for the lunette featuring Brumidi’s Boston Massacre scene was altered in his final execution — which did not take place until Reconstruction — to make Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave who was killed by British soldiers, the “hero of the scene,” Wolanin said.
S-128 adjoins the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing room (S-127), formerly used by the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. While S-128 and S-127 are closed to the public, much of S-127’s recently restored nautical-inspired wall panels — featuring uncharacteristically demure, floating maenads (frenzied female followers of the Greek god Dionysus) — can be seen through a window, whenever the Pompeian-style room is not in use. Until recently, it was the only committee room designed by Brumidi with some viewing access for the public, Wolanin said. This month, the Architect of the Capitol’s office added glass panels to the door leading into the House Appropriations Committee hearing room (H-144).
John F. Kennedy Room
Upstairs, just off the second-floor main Senate corridor is the John F. Kennedy Room (S-210), so-called because the 35th president used the space when he was the Democratic presidential nominee and president-elect. Now part of Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership suite, the elegant cream, green and reddish brown room, which survived a 1983 bomb explosion just outside the Senate chamber, is believed to have been designed by Brumidi, said Wolanin, noting that similar colors, textures and tonality can also be found in Brumidi’s other works, as can the numerous geniuses, or “little cherubs with leaves coming down the bottom half of their body,” on the ceiling.
Indeed, the “plain fields” that checker the ceiling — some of which have subsequently been filled with the official seals of the home states of previous occupants — were likely left open for Brumidi to complete at a later date, according to Wolanin. Indeed, Brumidi had once offered a cost estimate for their completion, she said.
Senate Reception Room and Vice President’s Office
Step inside the gilded second-floor Senate Reception Room (S-213) and you’ll be struck by one key fact: It’s a work in progress. Indeed, despite contemporary additions of prominent U.S. Senators, several rondels and other spaces for paintings remain empty.
“He was going to have the first 16 presidents,” Wolanin explained. “He would write letters, ‘please I must finish the room and I have the design.’ … A lot of times there just wasn’t extra money or there wasn’t anyone that was sponsoring him to do it.”
In fact, Brumidi’s progress was so intermittent that when he first designed the decorations for the room in 1856 he wrote his proposal in French because Brumidi, a recent immigrant, had yet to learn English. Twenty years later when he was begging Congress to let him finish “he was writing in English,” Wolanin wryly noted.
During that time, Brumidi adorned the ceiling with geniuses, elaborate pendentives featuring the four cardinal virtues, and vaults depicting war, liberty, peace and plenty. But the only presidential image he completed for the room was of President George Washington seated with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Instead, the job of filling in the blanks has been left to future generations.
In 1957, a committee headed by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) selected the first five Senatorial giants to fill the blank spaces — Daniel Webster (Whig-Mass.), John Calhoun (D-S.C.), Henry Clay (R-Ky.), Robert Taft (R-Ohio) and Robert La Follette (R-Wis.). Last fall, the Senate Commission on Art added additional Members: Sens. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) and Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.). And a painting depicting the Connecticut Compromise is currently under way, Skvarla said.
“The idea is this will continue to evolve,” she said. “And that in another approximately 50 years or so other historic scenes will be added. Some may be in our past, but hopefully some will be in our future.”
Just off the reception room in S-212 is the small but cozy room used by the office of the vice president. “This is one that people don’t know about,” Skvarla said. Dominated by an enormous ceiling painting of classical figures representing the North welcoming the South back into the union, the room is one of the few Brumidi painted that contains images dealing with a then-current event.
During a recent visit to the room, as Fox News played on one staffer’s computer screen, another aide mused on the significance of working in such a hallowed space.
“Every now and then it’s funny to remind yourself you are under a real Brumidi,” she laughed.
Wolanin strolls into what is one of Brumidi’s most lavish Capitol works — the President’s Room (S-216) — and asks the assembled if they can spot the one set of cherubs not painted by Brumidi. It doesn’t take long to identify the cheerful trio of singing cherubs in the Northeast corner as those that were repainted by Eben Comins after a leak destroyed the plaster in 1931. (Falling plaster also destroyed the patriotic cherubs that once encircled the magnificent bronze chandelier which still hangs from the center of the ceiling.)
A veritable visual feast, the President’s Room features, among several other images, portraits of four key figures in America’s development: Explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus, Pilgrim leader William Brewster and Benjamin Franklin with his Poor Richard’s Almanac. Look closely, Wolanin said, and you’ll see that the almanac is written in Brumidi’s native Italian tongue.
Other prominent men represented include Secretary of State Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton and Secretary of War Henry Knox. Overseeing the room from a lunette on the south wall is a portrait of Washington (in a trompe l’oeil frame) based on artist Rembrandt Peale’s famous interpretation of the first commander in chief, which hangs in the Old Senate Chamber.
Mainly a ceremonial room, S-216 is still the place presidents retire to after their swearing-in and before the Statuary Hall luncheon typically to sign their first executive order, Skvarla said. President Ronald Reagan signed the federal employee hiring freeze memorandum as his first act, Skvarla recalled, though others have chosen more innocuous acts. During President Bill Clinton’s Senate trial, Chief Justice William Rehnquist used the room as his working office, bringing in computers and plastic coverings for the furniture during his time there.
Members’ Dining Room Painting
Originally painted as a fresco in the House chamber, Brumidi’s depiction of the Revolutionary War event, “Cornwallis Sues for Cessation of Hostilities under the Flag of Truce,” was covered over with wood paneling during a 1950 House chamber remodel.
The only fresco Brumidi was ever allowed to paint in the Hall of the House, the scene — which depicts George Washington gesturing toward an emissary from Cornwallis — was completed in little more than a month at the end of 1857. The then-recently naturalized Brumidi took care to sign a strap on a corner dispatch case, “C. Brumidi Artist Citizen of the U.S.”
The large mural, one of the few Brumidi works on the House side, was chopped out of the wall and moved to the new Members’ Dining Room (H-117) in 1961 after the East Front extension construction of the 1950s and 1960s.
Dome Canopy and Frieze
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, an endless stream of tourists crowded into the Rotunda to snap photos of the Dome’s ceiling on digital cameras. Not one of them questioned by a reporter was aware of the artist behind the fresco on the nearly 5,000-square-foot canopy seen through the eye of the Dome.
Perhaps his most impressive work in the Capitol, Brumidi painted “The Apotheosis of Washington” over an 11-month period at the end of the Civil War. Brumidi’s depiction of Washington rising to the heavens was not uncommon during a time when the first president was frequently represented as a saint or near deity. “He was so revered a lot of artists painted him rising up to the heavens,” noted Wolanin, who oversaw the publication of “Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol.”
On the ground below the levitating Washington, Brumidi included figures symbolizing war, science, agriculture, mechanics, commerce and marine. Notably, Brumidi chose to illustrate telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse in his science grouping as Thomas U. Walter, the architect of the mid-19th century Capitol extensions and the current Dome. He also included an image of Captain Montgomery Meigs, the extensions’ supervising engineer, in his commerce ensemble, but later he scraped it out at Meigs’ urging, said Wolanin, who posited that Meigs’ personal scruples made the idea of being pictured in a scene with a bag of money distasteful to him.
Wolanin added that other images Brumidi included, such as Neptune and Venus helping lay the transcontinental cable, were ahead of the times.
“Even when he was painting it, it hadn’t been completed,” she said.
Brumidi would spend his final days painting the frieze at the base of the Dome, which traces the evolution of American history. His health was increasingly failing. In October 1879, while working on “William Penn and the Indians,” Brumidi fell and hung from the scaffolding for 15 minutes before being rescued. He returned to work the next day, but only managed to complete Penn’s right foot before his death on Feb. 19, 1880, 25 years to the day after he first began his Capitol decorations. As a result, Penn’s left foot is by Filippo Costaggini, the fellow Italian immigrant artist Brumidi recommended to complete his work, Wolanin said.
Costaggini, in turn, would run into problems. Because Brumidi was given erroneous dimensions for the space when he began executing the initial designs for the frieze in 1859, Brumidi’s calculations for his illusionistic sculptured relief-style frieze were off. Costaggini increased the scale of the figures, but he still couldn’t fill the roughly 30-foot gap that existed after completing the Brumidi sketches. Like Brumidi, he would die before finishing the frieze (a presumed self-portrait can be seen painted into the base of a tree trunk in one scene, a possible “protest” against Congress’ failure to commission him to complete the necessary additional scenes, Wolanin said). The gap would remain empty until the early 1950s when Allyn Cox was hired to complete the work.
All in all, Wolanin noted, it was “like a 100 year project.”
Tours highlighting Brumidi’s Capitol work will be given on Aug. 3 and 4 at 2 p.m. Full-time, permanent staff wishing to take part should contact the Capitol Guide Service to reserve space at (202) 224-8406.