–by William C. diGiacomantonio
To mark the 211th birthday of the Capitol’s premier artist, Constantino Brumidi, we are posting the remarks presented at last year’s 210th birthday observance in a ceremony at Brumidi’s gravesite in DC’s Glenwood Cemetery (2219 Lincoln Rd., NE). There, a small but devoted and enthusiastic fellowship gathered to hear the USCHS’s chief historian, Chuck diGiacomantonio, talk about Brumidi’s coming to America. The group then laid flowers at Brumidi’s grave, shared thoughts about the artist, and afterwards re-convened at a local pizza joint for celebratory food and drink. The Constantino Brumidi Alliance and the USCHS hope to make the observance an annual event. Stay posted for announcements on the USCHS website as next July rolls around….
Part 2 will be published on Wednesday.
The title’s word choice is more than just boilerplate. It is meant to focus some perspective not on what Brumidi was coming to, but what he was leaving behind. As Brumidi’s “Apotheosis of Washington” goes into exile behind sheets and scaffolding, we might ask whether Brumidi’s removal to America was also a form of exile, as it is usually described. Then we might each play amateur art critic and better speculate how Brumidi’s Old World experience influenced his artistic themes and motives once he was here.
The image that often comes to mind of Brumidi the man is that of a short (5’5”), stocky, dark-complexioned, vaguely foreign looking middle-aged man, sporting a hefty Karl-Marx-like beard. But picture, if you can, Brumidi a few decades younger than that. The probably much more dashing artist, half-Greek and half-Italian, was barely thirty when he executed his first major art commissions at the Palazzo Torlonia in his native Rome. The Torlonia family was so impressed that they retained him to work on the Villa Torlonia as well. In 1840 he attracted the attention of connoisseurs in the Curia, who hired him to rework some of the High-Renaissance era Loggias in the Vatican. He was already being regarded as one of Rome’s greatest artists by the time he painted Pius IX in 1847.
Pius IX became a major character in the story of Brumidi’s relocation to America, so he deserves more than just passing reference. His election in 1846 was regarded, justifiably, as a liberal turning point for the Church both spiritual and temporal. Peter’s successor, we’ll recall, was the ruling autocrat of a large swath of central Italy. And although the Papal States had already come to be seen as a plaything in European geopolitics, the Pope’s powers at home were more than just those of a figurehead. In time, Pius IX would become known as “Pio Nono”—which by a slight twist of pronunciation, can be made to mean not only “Pius the Ninth” but “Grandfather Pius”—which was an especially apt description of the man who would become the longest-reigning Pope in history. At his election, he was also one of the youngest popes—a quality that Brumidi captures in his portrait of the energetic, debonair looking Pius in 1847, one year in his papacy.
Pio Nono became the first Pope actually to step on U.S. sovereign territory when he alighted on the deck of the USS Constitution off the coast of Gaeta, Italy, in August 1850. History found Pio Nono in Gaeta as an exile from his experiment in liberalization gone awry. Infected by the so-called “Revolutions of 1848” against the post-Napoleonic reactionary settlement of Europe, Rome rose up against the Pope and established a Republic in 1849.
Brumidi, who had been serving as captain in the city’s militia under the old regime, naturally transferred his allegiance to the new regime. The Republic was suppressed after just a year (thanks, in part, to the pious intervention of Napoleon’s own nephew, Napoleon III), and Brumidi continued his painting uninterrupted—even completing one of his masterpieces, Rome’s Church of the Madonna dell’Archetto, within months of the Republic’s downfall. But by the time critics were praising his latest masterpiece, declaring Brumidi second only to the great painters of the High renaissance, he was already in jail on accusations of stealing art work from convents and monasteries during the short-lived revolt. He was found guilty in January 1852 and sentenced to 18 years—which was quickly reduced. He was pardoned altogether just two months later. And five months after that, he embarked for America.
So, what role did this experience have in Brumidi’s removal to America? Did it really make him a “refugee” rather than just an “immigrant”? In other words, did he feel that he had a choice in whether to stay or go, after his release?
Come back for Part 2 on Wednesday! In the comments, let us know if what you think about Brumidi’s status as an immigrant or refugee.