Washington DC – The Rotunda

It occupies the centre of the interior of the Capitol, is a grand circular hall, ninety-five feet six inches in diameter, and three hundred feet in circumference. From the floor to the canopy over what is called ” the eye of the dome,” it is one hundred and eighty feet three inches in height. Looking upward, you see at first the thirty-six long windows of the peristyle of the dome, which admit a flood of light, and then the gigantic iron ribs and frame of the dome itself, gradually curving to the ” open eye,” which is fifty feet in diameter. The canopy suspended directly over-head appears very small, yet it is an immense sheet of metal and plaster, covering an area of 4,664 feet. and is two hundred and five feet four inches in circumference, and sixty-five feet four inches in diameter. From the base to the top it is over twenty feet.

On this canopy is an allegorical painting by Constantino Brumidi, designated as ” The Apotheosis of Washington.” It was executed at a cost of $39,500, and is a remarkable work in many respects. It represents Washington seated in majesty, with the Goddess of Liberty at his right, and Victory at his left hand. Encircling the central group are thirteen female figures, portraying the thirteen original states, holding a banner on which is inscribed, E Pluribus Unum.” Around the border of the canopy are six groups of figures, emblematic of the Fall of Tyranny, Agriculture, Mechanics, Commerce, the Marine, and the Arts and Sciences. Each figure is of great size, and most carefully finished. The artistic merit of this painting cannot, of course, be appreciated from the floor, but when one ascends the dome and inspects the canopy from the gallery directly under it, the massive figures, the glowing colors, and the exceeding beauty of the de-sign can be seen to advantage. From the gallery a downward view of the Rotunda can be obtained, almost startling in its effect. The height and extent of the grand hall will be better realized from this position than from the floor below. The canopy is a perfect ” whispering gallery,” fully equal to that in St. Paul’s, in London. Per-sons conversing from opposite sides of the gallery over which the canopy hangs, can distinctly hear the slightest whisper across the huge concave.

Eight oil paintings, each eighteen by twelve feet, are set in panels round the walls of the Rotunda. The first of the series depicts the ” Landing of Columbus at San Salvador,” and was painted by John Vanderlyn at a cost of $10,000. Then follow De Soto’s Discovery of the Mississippi,” painted by William H. Powell at a cost of $12,000; ” The Baptism of Pocahontas,” by John G. Chapman, and ” The Embarkation of the Pilgrims from Delft-Haven,” by Robert W. Wier, each costing $10,000.

The four other paintings are by Col. John Trumbull, a son of Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, of Connecticut, and an aide-de-camp to General Washington during the Revolutionary War. They faithfully represent important scenes of the struggle for American independence. Trumbull studied art in Europe after leaving the army, and was engaged for nearly thirty years in gathering material and executing the paintings. Washington gave him several sittings, attired in full uniform as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and many other distinguished persons represented in the series were painted from life. The paintings were finished in 1824, Trumbull receiving $32,000 for them.

The first painting of the Trumbull series is a representation of the

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776.” This contains life-size figures of the signers, each face being regarded as a correct likeness. John Hancock is represented sitting at a table on which rests the Declaration, and standing near him are Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston, the committee who had reported the draft of the instrument. Disposed in chairs about the room are the members of the Continental Congress.

The second painting depicts the ” Surrender of General Burgoyne, Saratoga, October 17th, 1777.” General Gates is represented surrounded by his officers, receiving the defeated British general and his staff. General Burgoyne tenders his sword, but General Gates de-clines to take it, and instead invites him and his companions to enter his tent and partake of refreshments.

The third of the series represents the ” Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19th, 1781.” It shows the principal British officers passing before the American and French generals, and the troops drawn up in line. It is a spirited delineation, and the canvas seems to reflect the glory of the great triumph.

The ” Resignation of General Washington at Annapolis, December 23d, 1783,” is the subject of the fourth picture. Washington is portrayed as he appeared before Congress to resign his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Many figures are introduced, and Mrs. Washington and her grandchildren are represented among the spectators. This painting fitly closes a series distinguished for exquisite coloring, accuracy and faithfulness of historical details, and strong effects.

Above the paintings are arabesque designs executed in low relief, and panels containing medallion heads of Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh, Cabot, and La Salle. Over the four entrance doors of the Rotunda, in oblong panels, are alto relievos cut in stone, representing ” Penn’s Treaty with the Indians,” by Gevelot; ” The Landing of the Pilgrims,” and a ” Conflict between Daniel Boone and the Indians,” by Causici, a pupil of Canova; and The Preservation of Captain John Smith by Pocahontas,” by Capellano. The relievos cost $14,0oo, and the arabesque designs and heads, $9,500.

Within the sunken space about nine feet wide which encircles the Rotunda above the architrave, is a series of frescos in light and shade illustrating the principal epochs of American history. The work was begun by Brumidi, and after his death was continued by Castigini. Each fresco is broad in its effect and of sufficient size to be clearly seen from the floor.

The Rotunda has a freestone floor which is supported by brick arches resting upon peristyles of forty Doric columns. These columns form the subterranean chamber called the Crypt, in which it was pro-posed to place the body of Washington when the Rotunda was origin-ally designed. The plan was to have a galleried opening in the centre of the floor through which the sarcophagus could be seen. Mrs. Washington consented to the proposition, but after her death Washing-ton’s heirs decided that by the terms of his will the body must remain at Mount Vernon. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, and other distinguished men endeavored for a long time to secure the removal of the body to the Crypt, but as the Washington family were firm in refusal, the project was abandoned in 1832. When the Crypt was first constructed, Congress appointed a keeper of it, and ordered a light to be kept burning continuously within it. This light was not extinguished for over fifty years, and it was not until after the Civil War that the office of Keeper of the Crypt” was abolished.