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–by Katie East, USCHS intern

Uncovering a National Treasure: The Restoration of the Brumidi Corridors in the United States Capitol

The halls of the Capitol’s Senate wing are slowly becoming bright and vivid. It is only because of the recent restoration that Brumidi’s intricate frescoes are coming back to their original glorious state. In a recent visit to the Capitol, I was lucky enough to speak with one of the experts restoring the Brumidi Corridors of the Capitol. He explained how the ten-year restoration project plans to uncover the masterful art lost under layers of paint. The specialist also explained the process through which they are to achieve their goals. It is through careful scraping with a scalpel and occasional use of solvents that the highly-skilled workers are able to dig through time and uncover Brumidi’s hidden treasures.

(Architect of the Capitol)

From 1857 to 1859, Constantino Brumidi, “The Michelangelo of the United States Capitol,” filled the walls and ceilings of the corridor with visually striking images. Birds, flowers, fruits, insects, classical figures, and historical scenes were brought to life with a three-dimensional quality lost up until the restoration. Brumidi’s main source of success was his mastery of various styles and techniques. An immigrant from Italy, Brumidi was among the most skilled classically trained painters in the United States at the time. After he painted a trial fresco in 1855, Brumidi and his dedicated team of artist-apprentices began the gorgeous span of frescoes that is currently being uncovered.

Brumidi, between 1855 and 1865 (Library of Congress)

Over the years, dirt and hallway traffic took its toll on these lovely works. Without knowledge of proper restoration, coat after coat of paint covered the formerly brilliant colors with darker shades and varnish that turned an unpleasant shade of yellow over time. The differences in color, luster, and design are striking. Small portions of sample restorations show the incremental changes to the art over time. In some instances, certain designs and details were completely painted over, as if their importance was not much realized. Up to eight layers of paint build-up have been carefully scraped away to expose original designs and colors. Altogether, the project has combined full and partial restoration with expert replications based on original descriptions of the work.

Conservator Christiana Cunningham-Adams at work on restoring Brumidi’s frescoes. (Architect of the Capitol)

One can expect that brighter hues, faux marble motifs, and interesting techniques unique to Brumidi will continue to emerge. The ambitious and meticulous task of restoring these great works will have an inarguably positive impact. Future generations will have the opportunity to view our nation’s hub of democracy in its original glory and Constantino Brumidi’s beautiful paintings may be enjoyed for years to come.

Works Cited

“About AOC.” Brumidi Corridors Restoration. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 July 2013. <http://www.aoc.gov/brumidi-corridors-restoration&gt;.

Applewhite, J. Scott. “Bright Art Being Restored in Capitol’s Halls.” Bright Art Being Restored in Capitol’s Halls – USATODAY.com. USA Today, 20 July 2007. Web. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-07-20-brumidi-corridors_N.htm?csp=34&gt;.

“Explore Capitol Hill.” Constantino Brumidi. Architect of the Capitol, n.d. Web. 18 July 2013. <http://www.aoc.gov/constantino-brumidi&gt;.

Wolanin, Barbara A.. Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol. Washington,D.C.: GPO, 1998. Chapter 6: “Decorating the Capitol in the Pompeian Style.”