The Fresco Fiasco: Smithsonian Scientists Examine the Capitol’s Art


Recent visitors to the United States Capitol might have noticed the frescoes. The building’s frescoes are like a sailor’s tattoos: each one tells a story. Take the famous Apotheosis of Washington, which dangles overhead in the Capitol rotunda and shows George Washington surrounded by Liberty, Victory, Science, War, and other allegorical figures. Or the naturalistic scenes that dot the Senate-side corridors.

Tourists might—might—also have noticed that the frescoes looked a bit worse for the wear.

Actually, they were downright grimy. The Architect of the Capitol started to restore the frescoes in 1985, scraping away fourscore and some years of dust and paint.

They scraped right down to the original colors applied by Constantino Brumidi in 1856. In his day, Brumidi was a renowned frescoist and Italian bad boy who immigrated to the United States in 1852, after the Pope tried to jail him for fomenting revolution in Rome.

Looking at Brumidi’s original work, conservators found a mystery. Brumidi sprinkled his historical scenes with butterflies and insects. But what species? The curators wanted names.

They recruited a team of Smithsonian entomologists. With the help of a rare book librarian, the bug guys set out to match Brumidi’s painted reproductions with common American insect species. They went through archives and specimen collections.

Some of the first naturalist artwork in Western culture appears in medieval books of hours, calendars with elaborate borders of animals, plants and insects. Based on that, the entomologists thought Brumidi’s work might be a similar catalog of American flora and fauna in the mid nineteenth century.

So what did they find?

"There were some good natural history illustrators in America at the time," says entomologist Robert Robbins, at the National Museum of Natural History. "Brumidi was not one of them."

Robbins says the Senate corridors are no Sistine Chapel. In addition to muddling his geography by putting European butterflies where no European butterfly had gone before, Brumidi and his assistants’ work was often messy and indistinct.

The result is a series of aesthetically charming, scientifically lacking frescoes. Although most of the birds are locals, only one caterpillar and one butterfly seem to be American. The rest are all European species.

But scientists don’t entirely blame Brumidi for the inaccuracies. "There were no good butterfly collections in the United States at the time," says Robbins. So while Brumidi based his birds on specimens borrowed from the Smithsonian, he was left to his imagination and memory when it came to the butterflies and insects.

Were the scientists disappointed with their findings?

"In reality?" says Robbins. "We did this for fun."

See a Gallery of Brumudi’s butterflies vs. Smithsonian’s specimens. Can you find a resemblance?

(Fresco in the Brumidi Corridors, U.S. Capitol, U.S. Senate Commission on Art)