He was cut from the same cloth as Michelangelo Buonarroti, indeed, the same nationality, and much the same temperament as well. He was born in 1805, some 241 years after the death of the Florentine master but he knew much of the same territory. As a young man, he studied at the Academy of Arts in Rome, and spent the early years of his artistic life haunting the halls and habitats of the Vatican, restoring many of the same frescos that may have inspired Michelangelo. They certainly inspired Constantino Brumidi. Who? If you've never heard the name before, don't feel bad, most Americans haven't either. Yet his magnificent frescos, no doubt inspired by Michelangelo's, have looked down on some of the most historic occasions in the history of this country. Next time you're in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, look up. Look up 180 feet. That's where you'll see his work.
Like many immigrants who came to this country, Brumidi came seeking freedom and liberty. He fled Rome in the early 1850s to escape political persecution. For an artist however, his arrival in this country could hardly have come at a worse time as political upheaval here was swelling like a volcano amid a torrent of antislavery and secessionist turmoil in Washington. Commissions for fresco artists were not very plentiful. He painted a few portraits, decorated a few drawing room ceilings in private homes, and lived meagrely. In the centre of the city, the Capitol building was being enlarged. In 1855, joining the effort, Brumidi found work as a decorator. The war came. In a grand, symbolic gesture of unity and hope, Abraham Lincoln declared that the work would go on despite the war. Brumidi was the right man in the right place at the right time. His meagre work in Washington and the reputation derived from his Vatican work, in 1864, landed him the plum commission of a lifetime--the concave, ceiling of the new dome.
It wasn't the Sistine Chapel, though the working conditions were just as bad, and in some ways worse. The ceiling was more than twice as high off the floor, and at 4,664 square feet, no small undertaking. Working flat on his back atop a wooden scaffolding some 17 stories tall, the rising summer heat was stifling. Keep in mind, the man was already 60 years old. The subject was the Apotheosis of Washington. The round composition features Washington, enthroned, godlike, between two female figures, Liberty and Victory, amidst a rejoicing heavenly throng of thirteen other figures representing the original thirteen states. This made up the central ring, while an outer ring the figures (some were portraits from American history) were divided into five groups starting with a sword-wielding female warrior representing Freedom (for whom Brumidi's young wife was the model). Other groups represented the economic bedrock of the nation, the arts and sciences, as well as marine, commercial, mechanical, and agricultural endeavours. Unlike Michelangelo, who took some four years to paint his ceiling, remarkably, Brumidi completed his work in only eleven months; shortly after the end of the war. It was so well received that he spent the rest of his life decorating the Capitol, including a circular frieze around the inside of the cylindrical drum supporting the dome. It was while working on this commission that he died in 1880. Over a period of some 25 years, his annual compensation for his work averaged a meagre $3,200 (about $80,000).