An Italian Connection

by Breda Ennis, appearing in Volume 7

The connection referred to in the title is between a small church building in Rome—The Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Archetto—and the large and imposing Capitol Hill building in Washington.  Both have a cupola or dome which was decorated by the Roman artist, Constantino Brumidi, whose destiny was strongly affected by the political events of his day, both in Italy and in the United States.    

The Sanctuary is the most elegant and refined Marian church in Rome, but is probably little known to American visitors and scholars.  It was built originally to house a beautiful image of the Madonna entitled Causa nostrae Laetitiae (“Cause of our Joy”), a name given to it by the Roman population.   According to popular belief this small painting—the work of the artist Domenico Muratori—was not only strikingly beautiful, but also had  miraculous powers.  On July 9, 1796, it was believed that the Madonna moved her eyes, and as a result the painting (or “icon”) received great veneration.  In fact, from that time until today, large numbers of the faithful have gathered in the sanctuary before the image of the Virgin to recite the Rosary.

In 1850, Count and Countess Muti Papazzuri Savorelli—the owners of the alley and archway—decided to have a church built to house the sacred image.  The commission was given to their son-in-law, the famous architect Virginio Vespignani.  The work was completed in one year, and the church was solemnly consecrated on May 3rd in the presence of numerous cardinals and the King of Bavaria.

The interior of this late neo-classical church is rectangular in shape, with a tiny apse and slight extensions off the area under the mini cupola, which give it the form of a Latin cross.  Vespignani considred it his best work.  The building has a majestic atmosphere, but since it is small in size the sense of intimacy between the conregation and the sacred image on the altar is never lost.  The tiny sanctuary can only seat about twenty people  Architecturally, it is such a living space that one has the feeling that just by stretching out a hand one can touch the altar, and even reach the top of the cupola.

To build this grandiose Christian temple, Vespignani demolished a bedroom in the overhead arch to fit in a small cupola. When one walks up the narrow  passage-way from the iron gateway, there is no indication that behind the simple glass doorway lies a tiny nave and a shimmering gilded apse and the altarpiece.   The smell of wax from the lit candles heightens the sense of peace and holiness.  The walls are delicately decorated with gilded stucco work, helping to illuminate a space whose only source of natural light comes from the glass panels of the entrance door.   In the niches of the walls there are ten Grecian-style stucco angels by Luigi Simonetti.  The Archivolt, which rests on two columns of cipollino, is of white marble with inlaid pieces of agate, lapislazzuli, malachite, and diaspro.1 

It is only when one looks up at the minute dome that one sees the work of Constantino Brumidi.   He was chosen to decorate the ceiling and dome of this diminutive church, and by January 1851 he had completed his work.  In the centre of the mini cupola is a fresco of the Immaculate Conception.  The Madonna is surrounded by angels.  Below this is a circle of coffers.  Four contain frescoes of lively cherubs, and four have what looks like precious stones set in a royal crown.  The Madonna in the center anticipates the symbolic figures Brumidi would later fresco in the Capitol in Washington.  Other figures he painted here on the cupola’s pendentives, representing four virtues (Wisdom, Prudence, Innocence, and Strength), also anticipate the work in the Capitol.   If one looks closer at the figure of Strength a similarity with the figure of Liberty/Fame in the Rotunda in Washington can be seen.   Here the figure is clutching a lion, while the Liberty/Fame figure holds a fasces: a symbol of power carried by Roman Magistrates. 

A few years before Brumidi began working on the Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Archetto, a new Pope was elected.  The Pope, Pius IX, started granting constitutional rights to the people of Rome and the Papal States.   The City of Rome was granted a municipal government, and the Pope set up a council to advise him on important issues.  He fostered the partipipation of laymen in administering the city, authorised the formation of a civic guard, and received worldwide praise for his actions.   Yet, when the Pope refused to support a war against Austria—one of his close allies—the situation developed to such a difficult point that the Pope had to flee for pro-tection to Gaeta.  In his absence, the Constituent Assembly abolished the temporal power of the Pope in the city of Rome and proclaimed the Roman Republic in 1849.  The population of Rome gave total support to the idea of a Republic, but this led to the intervention of a number of Catholic powers: Austria, France, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.  Napoleon III sent French troops to Rome in April 1849.   They took over the city and the Pope returned to power in April 1850.

As a consequence, in February of 1851 Brumidi was arrested and imprisoned along with a number of revolutionary leaders.  As a captain of the civic guard, he had seized three convents (removing their art works) in order to house troops from Piedmont who had come to help the Republicans.  Now he was accused of stealing some of these artworks.  Tried in court, he denied the charges, saying his actions were taken to protect the paintings from French troops.   Nevertheless, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.  After a number of petitions to the Pope, some of them signed by the monks of the three convents involved, Pius IX reduced his sentence by two thirds.  Two months later, the Pope granted Brumidi full and unconditional pardon and ordered his release, probably remembering that Brumidi had executed an elegant portrait of him five years earlier!

After a few months Brumidi went to the United States.  The work he had done on the Archetto church was the last he did in Italy, and indeed one could say it was the seed which grew and flowered wonder-fully in the Capitol building.   He arrived in New York on the 18th of September, 1852, which was the fifty-ninth anniversary of the laying of the Capitol cornerstone by George Washington.   When he finally got his U.S. citizenship he was so proud that he signed one of his works in the Capitol building “C. Brumidi, Artist, Citizen of the U.S.”  

Nearly fifty years of age when he arrived, he remained in the U.S. for the rest of his life.  A man of great charm and culture, he died in relative poverty.  Though very well compensated for his work in the Capitol building,  he was a bad manager of his money and was well known for his generosity to friends and people in need.

Brumidi’s artistic training in Rome pre-pared him very well for the work he would do in the U.S.   At the prestigious Accademia di San Luca, he studied painting under Vincenzo Camuccini.  He also worked with Filippo Agricola, who was well-known for his interest in historical and religious subjects.  His training in sculpture was indebted primarily to Antonio Canova, but also to  his disciple Bertel Thorwaldsen—one of the leaders  of the classical revival in Italy.  Brumidi’s only known sculptures are the four marble lunettes in low relief, two angels, and a crucifixion relief above the altar in the Weld-Clifford Chapel in the crypt of the Church of San Marcello al Corso in Rome (near the Archetto Church).  He  took great inspiration from the work of Raphael and the murals in Nero’s Domus Aurea.  With Camuccini and Agricola he worked on the restoration and decoration of the Vatican’s Third Loggia.  His talent for fresco and tempera work can be seen also in the Torlonia Palace in Rome.  His knowledge of architecture led him to design a project for a grandiose new avenue from the Quirinale to the Vatican, including a triumphal arch in honour of Pius IX.

Brumidi brought the technique of true fresco, called “buon fresco,” to the United States.  In the 1850’s and 1860’s he was the only artist in the U.S. capable of using this technique, which the ancient Romans had mastered centuries before.  Later, in the Renaissance, it became important once again, and arrived at a point of perfection with the work of Raphael and Michelangelo in the early sixteenth century.   Baroque painters used a thicker pigment, and this was the method that Brumidi learned when the art form was revived again in the early  nineteenth century.

The great artistic challenge for Brumidi in Washington was how to blend the modern and the classical, bringing the two worlds into contact with each other.  He responded to this challenge by putting American motifs (flowers, fruit, animals and technological inventions) into a classical framework.  Apart from the Rotunda, he was responsible for the decoration—executed by himself or with assistants—of the “Brumidi Corridors” on the first floor of the Senate wing.  Done in the Pompeian style, the decoration has a musical harmony inspired by the second Loggia in the Vatican.  

Among the rooms Brumidi decorated in the Capitol are the House Appropriations Committee Room (at that time called the House Committee on Agriculture Room), and the Senate Appropriations Committee Hearing Room (formerly used by the Committee on Naval Affairs).    He decorated ceilings and walls with elaborately embellished symbolic figures, gilded plaster filigree, happy cherubs,  and severe historical portraits.  The architecture and the decoration almost become a single unit.

Brumidi’s most excellent work is in the dome of the Capitol.  In 1862 he was commissioned to paint a fresco on the concave canopy over the eye of the new dome.  He began this massive artistic endeavour in 1865 and finished it in eleven months.  “The Apotheosis of Washington” fresco covered a space of 4,664 square feet.   It was  created in such a way that it could be read clearly from the floor, and be visually correct when viewed from the balcony just below.   It depicts President George Washington rising up to the heavens.  He is flanked by two figures: Victory/Fame and Liberty.   The circle is completed by maidens who represent the thirteen original Sister States.  There is a rainbow under Washington’s feet.  The six groups of figures around the perimeter of the fresco represent War, Science, Shipping, Commerce, Mechanics, and Agriculture.

What is curious about Brumidi’s destiny is that once again he found himself doing artistic works during a period of political turmoil.   He worked right through the Civil War.  While he was painting the canopy, President Lincoln was assassinated and the Capitol itself was used as a hospital for injured soldiers.2   

When the canopy was finished, it could be said to rival the grand illusionist ceilings of earlier periods, such as Correggio’s “Assumption of the Virgin” in the dome of Parma Cathedral, or Ruben’s “Apotheosis of James II.”  Brumidi also designed a  frieze of illusionist sculpture—to go around the base of the Rotunda—depicting scenes from American history.  The life-size figures were to be done in sepia grisaille fresco, a monochrome of whites and browns giving the effect of relief sculpture.   He began the cartoons in 1877, but was only able to work on the actual fresco for three years, since he died in 1880.   He worked right up to the day before he died.   Two other artists finished his work.

Even while devoting all this energy to a fine secular build-ing, Brumidi never ceased to give his attention to religious works.  In the many pauses in the work on the Capitol building he was able to accept out-side commissions.  He had met Archbishop John Hughes in Rome, and he had emigrated to the U.S. when the Catholic Church was expanding its building program.  He painted his “Mystical Vision of St. Ignatius at la Storta” for the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius in Baltimore.  A lifelong friend, Fr. Benedict Sestini, S.J-who had come from Rome to Georgetown—recommended him for the Altarpiece for the Church of St. Aloysius on North Capitol Street, near the Rotunda.

Brumidi’s great religious masterpieces include the works  he did in the Church of St. Stephen on 28th Street in New York City.  He created the fifteen-foot-high “Martyrdom of St. Stephen” and a monumental seventy-foot-high Crucifixion for  the altar wall.    These are works of his later years.   One of his last known religious commissions was the Crucifixion scene executed for the Academy of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale, New York. 

Unfortunately, it is not known if Brumidi ever spoke about the construction of the tiny Madonna dell’Archetto Basilica in Rome.  What is curious to reflect on, how-ever, is that he spent approximately the same amount of time working on the ceil-ing and cupola of the Archetto church in Rome as he did on the gigantic “Apotheosis of Washington” fresco in the Capitol building.

Monuments from the past can often speak to us with a unique and mysterious power and eloquence.   What the Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Archetto and the Capitol Building have in common, however, is that they are both living buildings of the present.  One is devoted to the daily religious practices of prayer and the promotion of charitable works, and the other is devoted to the secular activities of government and power.  Brumidi’s artistic gifts to both—the great power, beauty, and energy of his conception—are still there for us to marvel at today.