Leaders Celebrate Capitol Artist's 200th Birthday

Leaders of Congress on Tuesday celebrated the 200th anniversary of artist Constantino Brumidi in the Capitol Rotunda as they stood beneath one of his best-known works, "The Apotheosis of Washington."

The huge mural, painted just under the Capitol dome, represents the first president being drawn to heaven.

The son of a Greek father and an Italian mother, Brumidi came to the United States in 1849 and three years later was working on the decoration of the Capitol. Five years after that he depicted an emissary from the British commander, Lord Cornwallis (search), discussing the surrender to Washington that ensured American independence.

He signed it: "C. Brumidi Artist Citizen of the U.S."

Brumidi was praised particularly by Italian-American and Greek-American members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., and Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., co-chair of the Congressional Hellenic Caucus.

"Brumidi linked the birthplace of democracy, Greece, with the modern headquarters of liberty, America," Bilirakis said.

Though Brumidi was never ranked high by art critics, his work has been better appreciated since recent restoration chipped off overpaintings and accumulations of grime. The Rev. Barry Black, chaplain of the Senate, called him "the Michaelangelo of the Capitol."

A few feet above the ceremony, the last work of Brumidi's 27-year career in the Capitol circled the Rotunda. It's a frieze depicting the course of American history. While working on it, he fell but managed to hold on to the scaffolding until help came. He was back at work the next day, but he died four months later at 75.

Brumidi was born in Rome on July 26, 1805, grew up there and entered the Accademia di San Luca, a renowned painting school, when he was 13. He studied under the sculptor Antonio Canova. Two popes — Gregory XVI (search) and Pius IX (search) — gave him commissions to paint frescoes in the Vatican.

Brumidi's life in the United States was devoted largely to the Capitol. He also did paintings for St. Stephen's Church in New York. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., urged the audience at Tuesday's ceremony to support a project to restore them.