— by Randy Groves
Two years ago I wandered past Rome’s Villa Torlonia – the neo-classical palace on the Via Nomentana – that struck my memory more because it was the residence of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini than for any other reason. Another thought crept in: Hadn’t Constantino Brumidi painted some murals somewhere in the impressive villa in its idyllic park setting? I quickly scribbled a note in my journal to check into it and wandered along about my business.
A few days later (and after a little research) I made my way back and toured the palace. I asked a young man working in a small bookstore about the Brumidi murals in the teatro (theater.) Imagine my surprise – especially given the weight we ascribe to Brumidi in the Capitol building – when the young man said he’d never heard of him and had no information. Instead, he pointed to a fenced off building in the southwest corner of the property and told me it was closed to the public.
Alternately puzzled and amused, I wandered away making a mental note to dig into it a little more closely when I wasn’t as pressed for time.
Fast forward two years and a handful of email exchanges in Italian.
Despite some minor irritations on the American side of the Atlantic, I happily secured permission to view and photograph Brumidi’s murals in the teatro. Arriving at Villa Torlonia, I was met by Rome’s Superintendent of Cultural Heritage and the official in charge of Villa Torlonia, Annapaola Agati, at the palace’s limonaia – originally a greenhouse for citrus fruits that Mussolini also used as a movie theater.
In short order, we were in the newly refurbished theater. After almost half a century of decline and neglect, it recently completed a nine-year, 8 million Euro restoration project to return it to its original grandeur. With my first glimpse came the realization the two-year wait was worth every minute.
Immediately I felt as though I were in some type of time warp and had been transported back to the very familiar Brumidi corridors of U.S. Capitol. The various rooms and hallways of the west apartment directly showed his handiwork. Familiar door and wall panels greeted me. The style is nearly identical to the Senate corridors. As in the corridors of their Senate cousins, Villa Torlonia’s art depicts densely intricate lattice work, animals, figures, birds, flora, fauna and perhaps Brumidi’s most endearing subject – cherubs.
Though not appearing to be as refined as the artwork in the Capitol building, it clearly belongs to Brumidi. A small panel bears his signature “Brumidi 1844” – placing him in this spot roughly a dozen years before he painted in the Capitol. I admit wondering if I were being prejudiced in favor of the Capitol or whether Brumidi’s ability undoubtedly improved over time. I still haven’t decided definitively.
As we visited the theater’s apartments (used as housing space during or between shows) I was struck repeatedly with the familiar style elements. Use of color… Frieze… Cherubs… Patterns…
High above the semicircular stage are 12 maidens and Apollo – seemingly exact replicas of those found in the Senate Appropriations committee room (which ironically were most likely painted before those in Rome.) Evidence of Brumidi’s handiwork? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Agati pointed out the while the maidens in both places where Brumidi painted suggest he was at the least involved in planning the art at Villa Torlonia, he left for America in 1852 prior to them actually being painted. The theater wasn’t completed until 1874. Though his influence is evident, the similarities are more likely because they are based on Raphael’s Hours of Day and Night.
Above the stage are four round frieze images of the poet fathers of Italian literature that, again, bear a striking resemblance to round friezes in the Senate corridors. It is worth noting, again, that Brumidi most likely planned but did not paint the frieze images above the stage:
With apologies to my friend Joe Grano, I couldn’t resist asking whether the oft-made comparison with Michelangelo is fair. “No,” Agati said, pointing out Michelangelo is much more important for the pictorial quality of his paintings, and because it was an example and a model that has caught on.
“Brumidi,” Agati said, “is not well known in Italy because he performed only a few works whose most important is the Theatre of Villa Torlonia by the commission of Alessandro Torlonia. Then after being imprisoned, he sailed for America. In Italy there were nonetheless many other good artists and there was plenty of competition.”
The principle difference is the media used. Brumidi, Agati pointed out, worked in oil and tempera in Villa Torlonia as compared to his largely fresco work in the Capitol building. For me, the most natural question is whether Brumidi is truly a master artist, or more of a contract painter who replicated his earlier works with some modification – given their astonishing similarities.
Perhaps the largest and most striking similarity between art in the Capitol and Rome is Brumidi’s most famous work The Apotheosis of Washington, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the oculus of the small dome at Madonna dell’Archetto (Our Lady of the Arch.) An earlier blog entry shows images of the small chapel’s dome and it is easy to compare the two thematically.
“I think Brumidi can rightly be called a ‘master’ because in America he taught a new way of painting that they (previously) did not know,” Agati said.
Perusing the internet, I discovered this little Brumidi nugget on an Italian art and cultural blog called ArtMaSko:
One day, when the restoration of the small theater of Villa Torlonia in Rome is finally concluded, curious visitors with a keen sense of observation might run into a cycle of frescoes whose author, Brumidi, is totally unknown. Apart from specialists, few have had the good fortune to even encounter his name. Who was he? A first answer might be: the one who planned and executed the decoration of the apartments attached to the theater. It is certain that the vault and the lunettes of the hall in the west apartment and the decorations of the small east gallery and apartment are all the work of the artist born in Rome, of a Greek father.
To view more of the images from Villa Torlonia, please click here.
The author and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society gratefully express our appreciation to Umberto Broccoli, Superintendent of Culture, Capital of Rome, and Annapaola Agati for their kind permission and assistance. All photos of Villa Torlonia were taken by the author, courtesy of the Sovrintendenza Capitolina Ufficio delle Parchi Storici Comune di Roma, and may not be reproduced.