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Paying Tribute to Constantino Brumidi

Constantino Brumidi

During his many years of artistic labor in the Capitol, Constantino Brumidi became a well-known figure in Washington and counted among his friends several prominent members of the Senate. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont (1810-1898) was a close friend and promoter of Brumidi. In addition to supporting the artist’s work in the Capitol, Morrill commissioned several works for his private art collection, including his portrait and depictions of several famous authors, which adorned the walls of his Washington, D.C. home. As a Senator, Justin Morrill is best known for his sponsorship of the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862, which set aside federal lands for colleges and universities. For Brumidi fans, however, Morrill is known as the man who most likely first compared Brumidi with Michelangelo.

Another admirer of Brumidi was Senator Daniel Voorhees of Indiana (1827-1897), a skilled and well-known orator of the era. Voorhees, in background and temperament, stood in stark contrast to the Italian artist. A child of the American frontier, commonly known as the “Tall Sycamore of the Wabash,” Voorhees built a distinguished career in law and government service before coming to the Senate in 1877. Despite their different backgrounds, Voorhees became a strong supporter of Brumidi's skilled and artistic work in the Capitol.

When Brumidi died in 1880, his monumental work unfinished and a portion of his fee unpaid, these two men took to the floor of the Senate Chamber to pay tribute to their late friend.

Justin Morrill
February 24, 1880
From The Congressional Record, February 24, 1880:  

“It is only justice–and that coldly measured–that we should now pay all we ever promised to one who can make no further demands upon us, but whose works will live to remind us of his twenty-five years of most valuable service in a branch of art where he stood on this continent confessedly foremost, whether among foreign or native artists. Covering as he has done so much space with his fresco paintings–so difficult and so durable– it is wonderful that so great a part should be fairly excellent and so little that competent critics esteem otherwise.... Even after that accident by which his life hung many minutes fearfully imperiled under the dome of the Capitol, his latest work there, unfinished though it be, shows that his hand had not lost its cunning, and his acquaintance with American history and skill in its portrayal has, perhaps, never been more happily displayed.

Those who have, without any special intimacy, barely seen this poor and quiet old man as he slowly passed and repassed to his daily tasks... will hardly comprehend his merits as a severe student in the art to which he had devoted his whole life, or his sensitiveness to the harmony and proper blending of colors; still less will they be inclined to credit the rapid and correct drawing of which he was undoubtedly a master; but the evidences of his rare genius and of swift work are too conspicuous to be denied. We have only to look around to behold them all.... So long had he devoted his heart and strength to this Capitol that his love and reverence for it was not surpassed by even that of Michael Angelo for St. Peter’s.”

Daniel Voorhees
February 24, 1880

From The Congressional Record, February 24, 1880:

“May I not be pardoned some brief mention of the wonderful genius, so long, so gently, and so beautifully associated with this Capitol? He died poor, without money enough to bury his worn-out body, but how rich the inheritance he has left to the present and succeeding ages! During more than a quarter of a century he hovered along these walls from the basement to the dome, leaving creations of imperishable beauty wherever his touch has been. Wherever he paused by a panel, or was seen suspending to a ceiling, there soon appeared the brilliant conceptions of his fertile and cultivated mind....

Mr. Brumidi was engaged at the time of his death on what he regarded as the greatest work of his life. He was unfolding with the magic of genius in the Dome of the Capitol the scroll of American history, from the landing of Columbus to the present day. He earnestly desired to live long enough to complete this vast conception.... At no distant day some memorial will be erected in some appropriate place in this Capitol to his memory. He who beautifies the pathway of life, who creates images of loveliness for the human eye to rest upon, is a benefactor of the human race. He will be crowned by the gratitude of his own and of succeeding generations. In the older countries of Europe, where the profession of art has a higher rank than here, Brumidi would have had a public funeral, and his remains would have been deposited in ground set apart for persons of distinction.... It matters little, however, whether we or those who come after us do anything to perpetuate his memory. The wall of this Capitol will hold his fame fresh and ever increasing as long as they themselves shall stand....”

 
  

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