Italian-Americans

Constantino Brumidi (Photo source: Architect of the Capitol)

The Michelangelo of the Capitol

In the U.S. Senate's sculpture collection, there are plenty of busts of instantly recognizable historical figures such as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But enshrined alongside them, there's also the lushly-bearded, bowtie-wearing likeness of an obscure 19th Century Italian-American artist. While Brumidi, who signed his work "C. Brumidi Artist Citizen of the U.S.," isn't a famous name, he left a lasting mark on the U.S. Capitol, by creating striking frescoes and murals that add charm and grace to the building's interior.

Brumidi's work, which can be found throughout the Capitol, includes the fresco The Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda canopy. But his masterwork is the hallways on the first floor of the Senate wing, an assortment of frescoes and murals known as the Brumidi Corridors. Inspired by Raphael's Loggia in the Vatican, Brumidi's art is distinguished by his blending of classical imagery with patriotic American themes. The Washington Post once described Brumidi as "the genius of the Capitol," and noted that "so many of its stateliest rooms bear the touch of this tireless brush that he shall always be associated with it." Art historian Francis V. O'Connor has called him "the first really accomplished American muralist." A journalist of his time went even further, labeling him "the Michelangelo of the U.S. Capitol."

The Closest Thing to a "Little Italy" in Washington

Holy Rosary Church, which was built by Italian immigrants in the early 20th Century. Credit: Farragutful, via Wikimedia Common

The great surge of Italian immigration to the U.S., which began in the 1880s and lasted until 1920, brought about four million Italians to this country. Many flocked to places such as Little Italy in lower Manhattan and comparable ethnic neighborhoods in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, where new arrivals could speak their native language, find familiar food and churches in which to worship, and plug into a network that helped them to find employment. But Washington, D.C. didn't attract similarly large numbers of Italians. It was a government town without mills, factories or a commercial port, and there were fewer opportunities for unskilled former rural dwellers without language skills to support themselves. Instead, the area drew smaller numbers of skilled immigrants, such as the construction workers, artists and tradesmen who labored on the government buildings erected in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Those early Italian immigrants to DC never really established a true Little Italy of their own. Instead, they mostly settled in two residential neighborhoods that vanished long ago — Swampoodle, near the U.S. Capitol and Union Station, and the Judiciary Square area.