Restoration ramps up for Brumidi’s frescos

When staffers and other visitors hustle through the Senate first floor, many might be oblivious to the ornate Italian frescos surrounding them. Over the next few years, however, they might have no choice but to notice.

The Brumidi fresco, which spans the walls and ceilings of much of the first floor of the Capitol’s Senate side, is getting a five-year makeover, complete with scaffolding, contractors and ladders.

The Italian fresco artist Constantino Brumidi created these Vatican-reminiscent paintings in the 1850s. At the time, no Americans had the expertise to replicate a Vatican-like fresco in the Capitol, so Congress went straight to the source. (Brumidi had previously painted frescos in the Vatican.)

Though Brumidi’s paintings have a distinct Italian style — Roman gods, elaborate weapons and Renaissance themes — they also mix in American symbols. Floral motifs on the walls have American foliage; Roman gods and goddesses sit with the Founding Fathers; shields with the stars-and-stripes hang high above entrances.

What are most distinctive about Brumidi’s frescos are their three-dimensional qualities. The Italian painter mastered the ability to give murals depth and texture — paintings along the walls appear, from a distance, to be framed. Murals adorned with cannons, American flags and swords look like they’re carved into the wall.

However, with years of damage from smoke and moisture, Brumidi’s frescos require painstaking restorations. Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin said that previous curators tried to touch up the frescos with oil paint, but these attempted renewals altered the look of Brumidi’s decade-long efforts.

Wolanin and a team of contracted fine-art restorers want to change all of this. Over the years they’ve begun to scrape away the oil paint, but beginning in August — at the request of Senate leaders — their restoration efforts will kick into high gear.

This means that scaffolding, ladders and contractors will be a regular scene on the first floor. Wolanin said extensive restorations like these usually only occur during recess. However, because Senate leaders want the restorers to make more progress, they’re allowing the effort to extend into regular session.

“If you just do it in the recess, that’s not that much time, and it could drag out for years and years and years,” she said.

Wolanin said the restoration process is grueling. Restorers can spend a whole night working on one tiny section of a mural. 

“If you can imagine with one of these big panels, taking a scalpel and every inch of that carefully removing the over-paint,” she said. “You have to do it carefully, because if you go too far you can remove the original or go into the plaster.”

Architect of the Capitol communications officer Eva Malecki said the scaffolding and contractors would not interfere with regular Senate business.

“The Senate has been very supportive in letting us try this,” she said. “We’re doing all we can to make sure we don’t interrupt. Scaffolding will be built around doors so people can get in and out.”

Wolanin said she hopes the restoration will be done in five years. She warned, however, that a leadership change could slow down the process.

“Both parties are very supportive; we don’t expect a problem,” she said. “But we don’t know — things can change.”

Art: Constantino Brumidi’s frescos

Location: Capitol first floor, Senate side