We’re marking the anniversary of Brumidi’s birth by revisiting remarks from a 2015 celebration. See here for Part 1.
–by William C. diGiacomantonio
So, what role did his experiences have in Constantino 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?
Instead of hearing Brumidi invoke human and civil rights like freedom of expression, we find him bargaining with the Vatican for his release—within months of his arrest, and well before his conviction—so that he can go to America to broaden his commercial opportunities as an artist. It is not a promise to remove a political thorn from the backside of Pius’ restored and increasingly reactionary regime.
Maybe Brumidi just expressed his bargaining position this way because it sounded more noble than groveling for forgiveness for the consequences of supposed political crimes. But there is no evidence that Brumidi remained under any police surveillance, much less sanctions, following his pardon. It certainly can’t be said that his flight to America constituted an indictment of the corruption of Church governance. And in fact, from almost the moment he arrived in the New World, his steady flower of art commissions for religious institutions comprise a kind of “seal of approval” by high churchmen who could not have been ignorant of Brumidi’s prior run-ins with the Church.
Here’s what I think: there is no reason to believe that Brumidi resented the Papacy—much less the Pope himself—as much as the administration of justice wielded in its name. Note that he was not prosecuted for treason, but for a criminal charge of larceny. (The pardon resulted from affidavits that Brumidi was simply removing the art work to more secure locations, away from rioters.)
Another way to think about the question of “refugee” versus “immigrant” is to consider what America was offering as an alternative to the world Brumidi was leaving behind.
Brumidi disembarked in New York City in September 1852—one of the 45,000 Italians who would arrive in America by 1870, during the first wave of Italian Immigration. (A second “great wave” of Italian immigration, the one we associate with old family photos from Ellis Island, lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s—when a young Italian farmboy named Carmen diGiacomantonio landed there, whose grandson is speaking to you now. There are others here today with similar stories, I know.) Brumidi’s work in the U.S. Capitol followed his personal introduction to Montgomery Meigs two years later, in December 1854. We all know that Brumidi would become a favorite among the many foreign artists whom Meigs employed and his preferment must seem to us, from this vantage point, as one of those inevitabilities of history. But of course nothing in history is inevitable. And in fact, Brumidi’s employment on the Capitol faced a serious backlash against what was seen as an over-reliance on foreign-born artists, to the exclusion of native born artists.
Recall that Brumidi’s first years in America coincided with the high-water mark of the Know-Nothing movement. In 1854—the very year Brumidi was first introduced to Meigs—the Know-Nothings reached the height of their political influence as a nativist, “America first,” anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movement—owing in no small part to the notoriety of Pio Nono’s “un-American” form of political repression.
The 1850s was not the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last time, that native-born American workers would resent foreign hires. (Peter L’Enfant had been pilloried in the press for hiring too many fellow Frenchmen when he converted New York’s old city hall into the nation’s first Capitol—Federal Hall—in 1788.) But to an artist seeking freedom of expression, it must come as rude awakening, whenever it happens.
We have Brumidi’s own word for it, that he eventually came to regard America as a land of unequaled political freedom and economic opportunity. The commemorative plaque we passed coming into the cemetery today is testimony that as early as 1855 Brumidi considered his new mission in life “to make beautiful the capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty.” I would only suggest that perhaps that sense of mission was forged less out of fear of the past that optimism for the future. It does no disservice to Brumidi’s unquestioned sense of patriotism to say that his immigrating had less to do with being driven into a forced exile from a land of despotism, than freely seeking and embracing new, liberal traditions of political freedom and economic opportunity.