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Allyn Cox, "Completing and Restoring the Capitol Frescos" Museum News, 39: 5 (February, 1961), 14-17.

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Before losing itself in the sands of the 19th Century , the grand stream of Italian Renaissance architectural decoration made a last appearance in the Brumidi frescos of the Capitol Rotunda in Washington .

The artistic generation after Brumidi was trained in the Paris of that time to a more meticulous standard of execution , and tended to overlook greatness of conception where faults and weakness were easy to find . But it is a great conception . The open ceiling , with allegorical and classical figures thrown in masses against the sky : the closed frieze , formally divided into historical scenes and tightly tied to the stone walls , belong in their large ordering to the line of Correggio and his Baroque followers . The descent may be remote , but this is surely the only full-scale example of that vigorous inheritance in the United States .

Constantino Brumidi designed the decorative scheme as a whole , in collaboration with the architect Charles U. Walter , at the time when plans were being made to replace the wooden dome of Bullfinch with the present much larger iron structure . After many years and many interruptions he was able to finish the canopy fresco , and slightly less than half the frieze , beginning with the Liberty group opposite the East door , and ending with William Penn , all but one leg , when a tragic accident ended his career . He left at his death sketches , drawn to scale , for the rest of the circle . These were carried out not too faithfully by Filippo Costaggini , who began by supplying the missing member to the founder of Pennsylvania and noting in pencil , in Italian , that he `` began at this point '' .

When Costaggini had used up all the sketches thirty-six feet of empty frieze were left over . A blank undecorated void , plastered in roughcast , disfigured the wall of the Rotunda until 1951 . Then , advised by the Architect of the Capitol , the Joint Committee for the Library , traditionally responsible for the works of art in the building , ordered the space cleared and painted in fresco , to show `` the Peace after the Civil War '' , `` the Spanish-American War '' , and `` the Birth of Aviation '' , to match as nearly as feasible Brumidi's technique and composition . Later the cleaning and restoration were ordered , first of the older part of the frieze , finally of the canopy . What follows is therefore a description of three separate undertakings , the new frescoing of the gap , and the successive essays in conservation , with some discussion of problems that arose in connection with each .

For the use of students and future restorers , a full , day-by-day record was kept of all three undertakings , complete technical reports on what we found and what we did . These may be consulted in the office of the Architect of the Capitol , or the Library of Congress .

The first preliminary was inspecting the unfinished length of frieze , a jumble of roughcast and finish coats , all in bad condition . It was decided to strip the whole area down to the bricks , and to replace the rough coats up to one inch thickness to agree with the older artists' preparation , with a mortar , one part slaked lime , three parts sand , to be put on in two layers . Cartoons were drawn full size , after sketches had been made to satisfy all the authorities . There was some difficulty here . One had to manage the given subjects , three diverse recent events , so as to make them part of a classical frieze , -- that is , a pattern of large figures filling the space , with not much else , against a blank background . Moreover , all three representations must be squeezed comfortably into little more than the length Brumidi allowed for each one of his .

When it was all arranged to fit , and not to interrupt the lengthwise flow of movement in the frieze , the cartoons were tried in place . The scaffolding , a confusion of heavy beams hanging from the gallery above , was strong and safe , but obscured visibility . Nothing could be seen from the floor , but by moving around the gallery one could get glimpses ; ; and we were able to decide on some amplification of scale . To be sure of matching color as well as form , pieces of cartoon were traced on the roughcast , and large samples painted in fresco , then left two months to dry out to their final key . Later it was gratifying to note that they had set so solidly as to be hard to remove when the time came .

The scaffold was the length of the space to be painted . What bits of Brumidi and Costaggini could be reached at either end seemed in good order , though the roughish sandy surface was thick with dust . Washed , they came out surprisingly clear and bright . It could be seen that both artists used a very thick final coat of plaster , one half inch , and that both followed the traditional Italian fresco technique as described by Cennino Cennini in the 14th Century , and current in Italy to this day . That is , they used opaque color throughout , getting solid highlights with active lime white . Painting `` a secco '' is much in evidence . A brown hatching reinforces and broadens shadows , and much of the background is solidly covered with a dark coat . This brown is sometimes so rich in medium as to appear to be oil paint .

In our own practice , to have the last `` intonaco '' plaster coat thick enough to match , and at the same time to avoid fine cracks in drying , we found that it had to be put on in two layers , letting the first set awhile before applying the second . The mortar was three parts sand to two of lime . Some of the lime that is always on hand in the Capitol basement for plaster repairs was slaked several months for us ; ; but to make it stiffer , of a really putty-like consistency to avoid cracking , we added a little hydrated lime -- hard on the hands , but we could see no other disadvantage . I am told that a mortar longer slaked might have remained longer in condition for painting . As it was , it took the pigment well for six hours , enough for our purpose , and held it firmly in setting . It was obvious that to match Brumidi , white must be mixed with all but the darkest tones . Lime white , hard and brilliant , has a tendency to `` jump '' away from the other colors in drying , and also by its capacity to set , to preclude the use of ready-made gradations , so useful in decorative work . In older Italian practice , lime , dried and reground `` bianco sangiovanni '' , entered into such prepared shades . For convenience we chose a stronger pigment , unknown to the early Italians or to Brumidi , titanium oxide , reserving the active lime white for highest lights , put on at the end of the day's stint . Other pigments were mostly raw umber , some burnt umber , and a little yellow ochre . This last was probably not in Brumidi's palette , but was needed to take the chill , bluish look off the new work next to the old , where softening effects of time were seen , even after thorough cleaning . The use of `` secco '' we tried to restrict to covering joints . Experience showed , however , that it is very difficult to paint a dark umber background in fresco that will not dry out spotty and uneven . Later Brumidi and Costaggini will be seen coping with this same problem . We were forced , as they were , to work a good deal of tempera into background and dark areas . We made it by Doerner's recipe , five parts thoroughly washed cheese curd to one of lime putty ; ; ground together they made a strong adhesive , which became waterproof in drying .

Figure 1 was taken in 1953 . The new part is finished . On the right is the Brumidi Liberty group , as it looked after cleaning operations , which had not yet come around to the other end ; ; where , of Costaggini , only some foliage has been washed , at the point where his work stopped . One is led to speculate as to why the empty space was there , left for our century to finish . Costaggini said it was Brumidi's fault in not providing enough material to fill the circle . Brumidi's son later maintained that Costaggini had compressed and mutilated his father's designs , ambitiously coveting a bit he could claim for his very own . This question might be settled by comparing the measurement of the actual circumference with the dimensions noted , presumably in Brumidi's hand , above the various sections of his long preparatory drawing , which has been kept . Whosever fault , it is evident that Brumidi intended to fill out the whole frieze with his `` histories '' and come full circle with the scene of the discovery of California gold . In painting a fresco , the handling of wet mortar compels one always to move from top to bottom and from left to right , not to spoil yesterday's work with today's plastering . At the very first , then , Brumidi was required , by the classically pyramidal shape of his central group , to fill in the triangular space above the seated girl on Liberty's right , before starting on the allegorical figures themselves . Here he put a small man , whose missing hands might have left his function doubtful , until comparison with the first sketches showed that when the artist came back to the beginning , this was to be the closing figure of the party of `` forty-niners '' , and was to hold a basket . One sees Costaggini's rendering of the same figure more than thirty feet away . The photograph , Figure 1 of the completed frieze , shows how , having been separated from his fellows in useless isolation for eighty years , he has now been given a hand , and by juxtaposition ( and the permission of the Committee ) , given a new job , to represent the witnesses of the first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 .

The startlingly bright effect of the first washings led the Committee to order the rest of the Brumidi-Costaggini cycle cleaned and restored to go with them . The fixed wooden scaffold was removed , and , so as to reach all the frieze , one of pipe , on wheels , built up from the floor . Every few days , in the early morning , as the work progressed , twenty men would appear to push it ahead and to shift the plank foundation that distributed its weight widely on the Rotunda pavement , supported as it is by ancient brick vaulting .

On this giddy and oscillating platform over fifty feet from the floor , after a first dusting , we began to wash . A most useful tool for wetting the surface without running down was made from a greenhouse `` mist spray '' nozzle welded to a hose connection , to be used at low water pressure . A valve in the handle let us cut the pressure still lower . One man sprayed , with a sponge in hand to check excess wetting . A second assistant mopped with two sponges . In parts a repeated sponging was needed , but everywhere we found that water alone was enough to restore the original brightness . No soap or other cleaning agent was used that might bring in unwanted chemical reactions . The painting `` a fresco '' stood up superbly ; ; a little of the `` secco '' came off . Necessary retouching was put on at once . Altogether we found the craftsmanship first rate , especially Brumidi's . We were greatly helped by there being no traces of former restoring . Apparently not more than dusting had ever been done , and not much of that . The plaster was sound , the intonaco firmly attached all over , and the pigment solidly incorporated with it in all but a few unimportant places .

The greatest source of trouble was rain which had repeatedly flowed from openings above , soaking the surface and leaving streaks of dissolved lime , very conspicuous even after cleaning , particularly in the `` Landing of Columbus '' , `` Oglethorpe and the Indians '' , and `` Yorktown '' . Here the Architect , referring to the use of the Capitol as a public building , not a museum , requested some repainting to maintain decorative effect , rather than leaving blank , unsightly patches .

These frescos have had no care for eighty years . With naked gas jets below and leaky windows above , enough to ruin wall paintings in any medium , they have survived , in a building long unheated in winter , hot and damp under the iron dome in summer .