I stare up at Washington's face from the Rotunda floor. His expression is grim, despite the mural's brightly swirling colors and allegorical babes, as if the Father of Our Country suffers from constipation. This summer I have begun reading Roman history, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, and I recall the last words of the Emperor Vespasian when death overtook him on the privy: "Dear me! I must be turning into a god."
"The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi," the guide begins, "often called the Michelangelo of the Capitol." She glances in our direction, bobs her head, and beams. Having noticed us guineas in the tour group, she has tailored her pitch. Mighty impressive. They have trained her well, this relentlessly cheerful young woman in the pastel pink suit and beehive hairdo. She acts like she is selling detergent---or antacid, as the case may be, since she pronounces Brumidi "Bromide-ee."
"This fresco, measuring some 4,600 square feet, fills the entire canopy of the Capitol Dome . . ." Ooh's and ah's from some blue-haired old ladies. " . . . Begun in 1865, the painting was completed in just over a year. It glorifies George Washington as our first President. Brumidi was an immigrant, a political refugee. Just like some of you here," she stresses, flashing that neon smile. "A master artist from Rome, who had studied at the Ac-ca-de-mi-a di San Lu-ca---Did I say that right?---Brumidi was the first painter to introduce fresco technique to the United States. Notice the mural's life-sized figures? Actually, they're fifteen feet high. Imagine! The figure of Liberty supposedly is modelled after Brumidi's wife."
She turns and directly addresses my family and me: "Two years ago, you folks'll be pleased to know, Congress honored Brumidi with a memorial bust. The ceremony was held right here in the Rotunda. Vice President Humphrey presided. And of course the Italian ambassador attended, too."
That neon smile annoys me, so I deliberately exaggerate my accent. "He told-a us he had a wunnnnerful time, signorina, and he sends-a his regards."
The smile flickers on, then fades from the guide's lips, while the other tourists gape.
"Actually," my father says, "we're from New Jersey."
"Oh!" chirps the guide, brightening. "Congressman Rodino was at the ceremony. He emceed, in fact."
"We didn't vote for him," I say. "We're Republicans."