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Capitol’s ‘True Frescos’ Restored

Surrounded by scaffolding, Arthur Page gestures to murals that adorn walls of the House Appropriations Room in the Capitol’s South wing and lists the litany of damages — ranging from fire to numerous touchups and repaintings — inflicted on the artwork over nearly 150 years.

But now, as a three-month restoration program nears completion, the floor-to-ceiling murals created by Italian-born artist Constantino Brumidi in 1856 have been returned to their original grandeur.

Crowned by a four-part work titled “The Four Seasons” — designed for the room’s initial occupant, the Agriculture Committee — Page said the paintings are “true frescos,” created by applying paint to damp mortar or plaster. According to the Architect of the Capitol’s office, the Appropriations chamber is the only room within the Capitol painted in true fresco from the ceiling to the floor.

Because the fresco technique results in murals that are a permanent part of a building’s structure, it makes the paintings a more “durable” form of artwork and allows them to be restored, explained Page, who serves as president of Page Conservation Inc.

“It is very permanent,” added Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin, who authored “Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol” in 1998. “It can’t fade in the light.”

Work on the project first began in August, when Page’s team conducted a pilot program to determine whether the murals could be restored — an initiative that would require the conservation team to remove 13 layers of oil paint applied to the artwork over more than eight decades.

From 1987 to 1988, conservators repaired the room’s murals — images of classical and American history which include Brumidi’s first mural in the Capitol, “Calling of Cincinnatus from the Plow,” 1855. However, that project focused only on the ceiling vaults and lunettes and not the room’s lower walls, which are painted to resemble stone with carved moldings.

During the pilot program, Page said, the team photographed the entire room, then used an alkaline gel to remove the layers of paint.

“We picked a good wall, and got a method to get [the paint] off that wouldn’t scar the wall,” Page said.

The process revealed numerous repaintings of the murals, and showed the range of hues used on the wall by artists attempting to match earlier repairs to the work.

Wolanin noted that earlier touchups often resulted in the repainting of entire sections.

“If you had a little area damaged, well let’s just repaint the whole background,” Wolanin said of the pre-conservation process. “Every time you painted, there’d be a little bit of a change.”

In addition to removing the excess layers of paint, Page’s team also addressed the problem of removing large, dark cracks from the murals, the results of years of buildup of dirt and oil, which soaked into room’s walls.

“There were dark gray cracks everywhere,” Wolanin recalled.

But by using a water-based gel, the conservators were able to remove much of the grime, and significantly lessen the appearance of the cracks.

The conservators, who returned to the Capitol in late October to begin the bulk of the restoration work, also faced the task of recreating a sizeable section of the mural destroyed by a small fire in 1920, as well as correcting areas damaged by plumbing which had been used for a water fixture installed in the room.

“You had to tone it, and draw it, and start painting it back in,” Page said of the damaged areas. The process is a timely one given that the restoration team uses tiny brushes — the largest appearing no larger than a No. 2 pencil — to recreate Brumidi’s original artwork.

“The smaller the brush, the better it looks when you’re through,” Page explained. “You’re not suppose to overpaint the original, you’re suppose to ‘inpaint’ the damage.”

Page noted the project also included minor changes to the room, such as the removal of a fluorescent light fixture and the relocation of electrical wires to expose additional details of Brumidi’s work.

Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of the project, Page acknowledged, was the need to complete the work before Congress returns to its regular schedule later this month.

In other circumstances, Page estimated a similar project would take a year to complete. “We’ve been running five people at 100 miles an hour,” he said.

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