A Summer Exhibit Brings "America's Michelangelo" Into View in Vermont | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Summer Exhibit Brings "America's Michelangelo" Into View in Vermont

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"Painting"
  • "Painting"

Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880), the creator of some of the greatest artworks in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., moldered in an unmarked grave for 70-some years before his reputation was gradually resurrected in the mid-20th century. Brumidi's achievement was finally accorded formal honors in 2008 when he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

This summer, Vermonters may wonder anew why a superbly skilled painter working in such a prominent venue remained forgotten for so long. Brumidi's baroque style, replete with skydiving angels and swooning nymphs, won't tickle the taste of some contemporary viewers. But many will still admire the artist's mastery of trompe l'oeil technique and the tricky buon fresco (true fresco) medium.

An exhibit celebrating Brumidi's work opens July 22 at the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford.

A talk in South Strafford last Sunday by Barbara Wolanin, curator of Washington, D.C.'s Architect of the Capitol, served as a preview of the show. It's timed to coincide with the scheduled completion this fall of a two-year-long restoration of the building's dramatic cast-iron dome.

Wolanin spoke in part about Brumidi's friendship with Morrill (1810-1898), a self-made merchant who served in Congress for 44 years, including a then-unprecedented six terms as senator. The presence in the Morrill Homestead of a few Brumidi paintings accounts for the United States Capitol Historical Society's decision to situate the show in a central Vermont village of slightly more than 1,000 residents.

Morrill, who left school at age 15, is best known for sponsorship of the 1862 Land-Grant College Act. It set aside revenues from the sale of more than 17 million acres of federal lands for establishment of public higher-education institutions in every state.

Morrill was an art lover who influentially supported efforts to beautify the Capitol, Wolanin noted. He also called for completion of the Washington Monument, construction of a separate Library of Congress building and approval of an enlargement plan for the Capitol's grounds designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Today, Brumidi's stature as "America's Michelangelo" is revived. That comparison can be traced to a speech Morrill made on the Senate floor on the occasion of his friend's death. "So long had he devoted his heart and strength to this Capitol that his love and reverence for it was not surpassed by even that of Michelangelo for St. Peter's," Morrill told his colleagues.

Among the Brumidi pieces hanging in the homestead is one titled simply "Painting." It shows a muse accompanied by cherubim displaying a Brumidi portrait of U.S. historian William Prescott. Brumidi's oil portraits of Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are also displayed at the homestead.

Brumidi painted numerous other works for Morrill's mansion in Washington, which was razed several years ago as part of an urban-renewal initiative. Most of those pieces have been preserved in Washington.

"The Apotheosis of Washington"
  • "The Apotheosis of Washington"

"The Apotheosis of Washington," a fresco painted in the Capitol dome's interior, and a series of richly decorated corridors on the building's Senate side are considered Brumidi's masterpieces. He died prior to completing "The Frieze of American History," a grisaille panorama 300 feet in circumference that rings the Capitol rotunda. Working largely on the basis of Brumidi's design, other artists finished the stunning trompe l'oeil work.

Wolanin described Brumidi, a native of Rome who owned a coffee shop there, as a "jolly man" who "enjoyed women." He married a teenager when he was 50, she noted.

Brumidi immigrated to the U.S. in 1852 after spending 18 months in jail for alleged involvement in a republican uprising against the pope. He worked in New York and Philadelphia as well as in Washington, but there's no evidence that he traveled to Vermont, despite his friendship with Morrill. That absence will be partly offset by the arrival of the "America's Michelangelo" show in central Vermont next month.

"America's Michelangelo: The Life and Classical Works of Constantino Brumidi," July 22 through October 12, at the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford. morrillhomestead.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Summer Exhibit Brings 'America's Michelangelo' Into View in Vermont"

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