This Sunday, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society is partnering with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to present “The Price of Beauty: History and Legend at the Heart of the Capital.” The free program (get your ticket here, though you will need separate tickets for the play) is part of the House Lights Up series for the new production of Guards at the Taj. Rajiv Joseph’s play touches on many themes, including definitions of beauty, myths that surround great buildings, and the unsung laborers who build those buildings. “The Price of Beauty” will connect those themes to one of Washington’s own great buildings, the Capitol.
In thinking about the event, I was reminded of Jane Armstrong Hudiburg’s examination of a Capitol myth in a 2014 edition of The Capitol Dome. “‘From the Giddy Height Above’: Investigating Constantino Brumidi’s Final Days in the Capitol Rotunda” looks to first-hand accounts to understand what actually happened the day Constantino Brumidi, then in his 70s, fell from the scaffolding in the Rotunda, where he was working on the Frieze of American History that runs around the base of the Dome. Did he fall to his death? Hang from weak arms for fifteen minutes? Just trip a little? And did this fall affect his ability to complete his work on the frieze?
From Hudiburg’s article:
“There are many popular delusions concerning the Capitol,” lamented the building’s chief guide, H. J. Kennedy, to an Evening Star reporter in 1902. “Among the erroneous impressions that seem to be entertained by almost every visitor is one that relates to the frieze in the rotunda. Nine in every ten people who live in this city, and who bring their friends to see the building, believe that Brumidi fell from the scaffold while at work on the frieze and was killed.” (The Evening Star [Washington], Jan. 4, 1902, p. 18)
Current guides with the Capitol Visitor Center Services, however, are well aware that Constantino Brumidi (fig. 1), the nineteenth-century Italian artist, survived that fall, or actually, that near fall, in 1879 from the scaffolding fifty-eight feet above the Rotunda floor. Indeed, it is one of the favorite stories relayed to the tourists and school groups visiting the Capitol each day. Guides point to each of the frieze’s scenes, which encircle the base of the Dome, beginning with Columbus walking into the New World, and pause at the one depicting “William Penn and the Indians” (fig. 2).
“Do you see where the background behind Penn changes from a darker taupe to a lighter color?” a guide is likely to ask. Heads craned upwards nod. “That is where Brumidi fell. He managed to grab the scaffolding”—and here the guide may mimic swinging on monkey bars—“and held on for several minutes before being rescued. He didn’t get hurt, but he was shaken up, and he never finished the scene.” Seeking a strong reaction, the guide is never disappointed. While older visitors may gasp, middle-school students, in particular, perk up, their faces brighten. Finally, an interesting story to catch their attention: an old man, in his seventies, dangling from a platform high above the Rotunda floor. Still, one is left to wonder, could a frail, elderly man really save himself in such a dramatic fashion? And, if so, how did the accident affect the outcome of the Frieze of American History, one of the most iconic artworks in the Capitol?
You can find the full article–including the author’s best guess as to what really happened on the scaffolding that day–in the online edition of The Capitol Dome starting on page 28. And in the comments below, let us know what myths you’ve heard about the Capitol; we’ll consider investigating some of them!