Our House, Our Capitol

At the Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the Capitol dome was still under construction. Photo at Wikipedia/ Library of Congress.

Vandals attacked Our House yesterday, but as the aimless barbarians they were, they could do little but pose for idiotic selfies. We can repair the windows; no real damage to the Apotheosis of our Democracy. The walls have been refurbished before. Our House–Our Capitol–has long been a work in progress, changing continuously. After all, it’s built on words.

By Jove

I did not, until today actually understand the distinction between “capitol” and “capital,” which means I’ve probably misused them for years. I thought “capitol” meant the governmental head of something whereas “capital” meant money or referred to a good idea. Actually, the “capitol” is the building, and the “capital” is the place. “Capital” can also refer to a size of a letter or wealth, i.e. the source of wealth.

Jefferson invented the specific idea of the “Capitol,” or rather he stole borrowed it from Rome. The original architect for the Capitol building–and we’ll get to architects in a minute–wanted to call it the “Congress House,” to be distinguished from the “President’s House” or executive mansion, the White House. But Jefferson, always a guy who understood the optics, thought it needed to have classical influences.

Model of the Capitoline Hill by Jean-Pierre Dalbera at the Museo della Civiltà Romana

In Rome, capitol refers to the hill where the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximum was built. The Romans put the temple adopt a hill originally named for Saturn, and it was not accident that Jupiter’s temple was put there. Saturn was overthrown by his son, Jupiter, and arguments abound over which one was the bigger tyrant.

However, Saturn, closely associated with Chronus, was a god associated with time and the seasons, a god who would regularly devour his children as time eats away the past. The Saturnalia–the Roman celebration that spanned weeks in December, ending somewhere between December 25th and say January 6th–was intended to celebrate the Golden Age when Saturn ruled in peace. The Catholic church built their holy days deliberately around of these existing Roman practices when it established Christmas and Epiphany. I had to throw all those facts in because they were just too damn coincidental, yesterday being, of course, Epiphany in so many ways.

Jefferson was a heavy Classical dude–loved the Greeks and Romans–hence, he invented the word “Capitol” to go with the new building being designed for the leaders who would check and balance the figurehead, to ensure the president did not become a king and tyrant. It was a big hint as to where the “head” i.e. “cap” of power should rest, and it wasn’t in the executive mansion.

One design for the Capitol, thankfully NOT selected. Shuttlecock, anyone? Photo at Wikipedia.

Not Our First Merry-Go-Rotunda

L’Enfant, the designer of Washington D.C. proposed the original Congress House, retitled the Capitol, but George Washington dismissed the whole design team, so those designs were scrapped. Jefferson as Secretary of State in 1792 then offered a $500 reward for the Capitol’s design, but most of the choices were awful. Ultimately, one was chosen by William Thornton which heavily resembled the Pantheon. This was also probably no accident, given Jefferson’s love for those wacky Romans.

inside of Pantheon rotunda white stone with golden lit recesses
The Roman Pantheon rotunda, photo by kajmeister.

The Pantheon, though it was destroyed and rebuilt at least three times, has survived more than two thousand years and looks better than ever. Today, it houses both the tombs of Raphael and Corelli and a number of master artworks. One of its major features is the rotunda and dome with an oculus (opening or eye) in the center which allows shafts of light to penetrate in a mystical way. While the relatively flat dome of the Pantheon seems tiny in comparison with the current dome on Our House, Our Capitol, the rotunda inside feels very much like the rotunda in Washington D.C.

glowing light through opening in Roman dome
Pantheon oculus effect, photo by kajmeister.

The Vandals, you probably know, were a particular Germanic tribe that sacked Rome in 455, looting treasures from the Pantheon and many of its ancient buildings. Originally, the Vandal king Genseric was planning for his son to wed the Western Roman emperor’s daughter, but Rome was taken over by a different guy in a coup, so the wedding was off. In revenge, the faction supporting the dead emperor invited Genseric in to sack the city, with an agreement negotiated by the pope to open the gates in order to avoid a civilian massacre. But while they were there, the Vandals helped themselves to the city’s treasure, particularly–wait for it–stripping the tiles off the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. Brokered negotiations, upended plans, opened gates to the barbarians… sounds all too familiar to me.

The Revolving Door of Architects

William Thornton’s “pantheon” design for the Capitol was constructed after all. Much of the wooden structure was burned down, only a few years after its completion, during the War of 1812. Two military engineers, George Bomford and Joseph Gardner Swift, oversaw its rebuilding, which included some expansion and the addition of much larger front steps. Charles Bulfinch was credited with completing the copper dome at last, after the fashion of the Pantheon.

Daguerrotype of William Thornton’s original capital @ 1846. Photo from Wikipedia/Library of Congress

By 1850, however, there was a problem. The United States had a lot more of them–states, that is. The size of the legislative body had massively increased beyond what the original design was intended to hold. During the Fillmore administration, Thomas U. Walter was appointed as the newest architect to create a design for expansion of the building. He added the Senate chamber to the north and the House chamber on the south side, more than doubling the length of the building.

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Oculus

With the building so much bigger, Walter had to design a much bigger dome. Bulfinch’s little gold beanie was far too intimate for the new building. The “wedding-cake style” dome created contains two–one sitting inside the other. The outer cast iron dome is painted to look like the stone of the building. It’s topped by a 19.5 foot bronze statue of Freedom, a woman with a sword and feathered helmet, swathed in a Native American-style blanket. All the really important metaphorical statues seem to be women–Freedom, Liberty, Columbia, Democracy–funny how that is.

The dome took eight years to build, which is why it wasn’t finished when Lincoln was inaugurated. Our country wasn’t finished being built either, but Lincoln helped out with some of that, too.

back view of Jefferson statue in Capitol rotunda
Inside the Capitol rotunda, photo by Matt H. Wade.

Instead of leaving the oculus open as the Romans did, Walter had artist Constantino Brumidi paint a giant fresco in the center, only part of which can be seen looking up today. It represents the deification of George Washington, who likely would have been appalled at being turned into a god, which is what the “Apotheosis of Washington” represents. He’s also surrounded by a series of Roman gods and goddesses: Columbia (War), Minerva (Science), Mercury (Commerce), and Vulcan (Mechanics).

The Apotheosis of Our Ideals

Such ancient Roman-style religiosity seems odd, but less so if the Capitol had its roots in the Romans and the pantheon. After all, the pantheons original purpose was to embrace many gods. Brumidi himself was born in Rome, but reborn when he emigrated to America. Seems fitting. As Wikipedia says:

The Capitolium was regarded by the Romans as indestructible, and was adopted as a symbol of eternity.

Wikipedia explanation of Capitoline Hill

Our Capitol was constructed as the house for that body described by the Constitution, part of or tripartite structure of messy checks and balances. Our House was built to represent our many voices. Those voices often disagree, but in Our House. The ability to maintain that civil debate in Our House is sacred to us. That’s why attacking Our House is a desecration. Note that in 1916 the more pertinent frieze was designed to sit atop the pediment for the House of Representatives: “The Apotheosis of Democracy.”

Triangular statue frieze atop Capitol the goddess of Democracy
Paul Bartlett’s 1916 addition to the House: “The Apotheosis of Democracy.” Photo from visitthecapital.gov.

Mobs can burn the building, but it can be rebuilt. It’s been done before. Glass windows can be repaired. The word “mob” came the word “mobile” meaning changeable, drifting and melting mass of people.

Mobs dissolve. The ideas are still there.

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