Thomas U. Walter's 1859 cross-section drawing of the new Dome (constructed 1855-1863) shows a recessed belt atop the Rotunda walls with relief sculpture. Eventually it was painted in true fresco, a difficult and exacting technique in which the pigments are applied directly onto wet plaster. As the plaster cures the colors become part of the wall. Consequently, each section of plaster must be painted the day it is laid.
In 1877 the Architect of the Capitol reported, "The belt of the Rotunda intended to be enriched with basso relievos [low relief] is being embellished in real fresco representing in light and shadow events in our history arranged in chronological order, beginning with the Landing of Columbus..."
The frieze is the work of three artists. It was designed by Constantino Brumidi, an Italian artist who studied in Rome before emigrating to America. He worked at the Capitol over a period of 25 years, decorating numerous committee rooms and the areas known as the Brumidi Corridors; he also painted the Rotunda canopy fresco, The Apotheosis of Washington. Brumidi created a sketch for the Rotunda frieze in 1859 but was not authorized to begin work until 1877. After enlarging the sketches for the first scenes, Brumidi began painting the frieze in 1878, at the age of 73. His design traces America's history from the landing of Columbus to the discovery of gold in California. As was common in the history books of the day, the Spanish explorers and the Revolutionary War are emphasized. While working on the figure of William Penn in the scene "William Penn and the Indians," Brumidi's chair slipped on the scaffold platform. He saved himself from falling only by clinging to the rung of a ladder for 15 minutes until he was rescued. He returned to the scaffold once more but then worked on enlarging his remaining sketches until his death a few months later in February 1880.
Filippo Costaggini, who had also been trained in Rome, was selected to complete the remaining eight scenes using Brumidi's sketches. When he finished in 1889 there was a gap of over 31 feet because of early miscalculations about the height of the frieze. Costaggini hoped to fill it with three of his own scenes, but Congress failed to approve his designs before his death in 1904. In 1918 Charles Ayer Whipple painted a trial scene in the blank section; it was later removed.
In 1951 Allyn Cox was commissioned to paint the last three panels tracing the growth of the nation from the Civil War through the birth of aviation. Cox also cleaned and retouched the frieze. The frieze was completed in 1953 and dedicated the next year. In 1986 Congress appropriated funds for a careful cleaning and restoration of the frieze to remove accumulated grime, overpaint, and streaks caused by leaking water. The conservation treatment, completed early in 1987, restored the original details and vividly brought out the illusion of relief sculpture. Minor repairs were made in 1994.
The sequence of 19 scenes begins over the west door and moves clockwise around the Rotunda.
- "America and History"
- "Landing of Columbus" (1492)
- "Cortez and Montezuma at Mexican Temple" (1520)
- "Pizarro Going to Peru" (1533)
- "Burial of DeSoto" (1542)
- "Captain Smith and Pocahontas" (1607)
- "Landing of the Pilgrims" (1620)
- "William Penn and the Indians" (1682)
- "Colonization of New England"
- "Oglethorpe and the Indians" (1732)
- "Battle of Lexington" (1775)
- "Declaration of Independence" (1776)
- "Surrender of Cornwallis" (1781)
- "Death of Tecumseh" (1813)
- "American Army Entering the City of Mexico" (1847)
- "Discovery of Gold in California" (1848)
- "Peace at the End of the Civil War" (1865)
- "Naval Gun Crew in the Spanish-American War" (1898)
- "The Birth of Aviation" (1903)