The Vatican fresco artist Constantino Brumidi came to the United States from Italy in 1852 looking for work. Brumidi had the good fortune of arriving in Washington just as the superintendent of the project to construct new wings for the Capitol was looking for skilled artists. From the mid 1850s until his death twenty-five years later, he earned the title "Michelangelo of the Capitol." His great contribution was to integrate American themes into the classical style of the Italian Renaissance. Some of Brumidi's best work exists in the second-floor room now named in honor of former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson
Brumidi took particular interest in that prime space, intended to serve as the Senate Library. To emphasize the theme of learning, he designed four semi-circular lunettes in the ceiling to represent major fields of knowledge—History, Geography, Philosophy, and—recognizing that era's technological expansion in the production of newspapers and journals—the field he called Print. He completed the first painting, Geography, in 1858.
A year later, as the Senate moved into its newly completed chamber, members decided that they needed a conveniently located post office more than a library. As workmen installed individual mail boxes for each of the Senate's sixty-six members, Brumidi shifted his attention to other assignments.
In 1866, with the war over, the artist returned to complete the room's decoration, including the remaining three ceiling lunettes. Originally, he had planned to decorate one of those spaces to honor the medium of Print. But the shift in the room's function from a library to a post office, along with the excitement surrounding the successful laying of a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable that year, changed the theme to Telegraph. (In this same spirit of scientific innovation, he also changed the Philosophy panel to Physics.)
Intensely proud of his new country, the artist took a bit of patriotic license. Although the telegraph cable was laid from Europe to America—from Ireland to Newfoundland—he reversed the direction. At the center of the fresco appears a nymph, who is handing the telegraph wire to the allegorical figure for Europe on the left. With a grateful countenance, Europa looks up to a strong America surrounded by images that suggest the nation's natural abundance and its military might.
In the year 1866, however, that image of America's strength as a world power lay mostly within the colorful imagination of Constantino Brumidi.
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