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Discover the Timeless Beauty of 19th Century Italian Styles

Italianate styles, a true American classic, reigned for half a century and left an indelible mark on the country's architectural landscape. In this article, we will delve into the captivating world of Italianate styles, exploring...

Italianate styles, a true American classic, reigned for half a century and left an indelible mark on the country's architectural landscape. In this article, we will delve into the captivating world of Italianate styles, exploring their unique characteristics and enduring appeal.

Unveiling the Italianate Styles

Italianate styles encompass a range of architectural influences, including Rococo, Renaissance Revival, and cottage furniture. Exuberant displays of creativity, vibrant polychromy, and sinuous curves form the cornerstone of these styles. The Italianate architecture, despite its name, became the most popular building style across the United States for over a generation.

Villas, Renaissance Revival, and Italianate

Italianate houses can be categorized into three main types: Villas, Renaissance Revival, and Italianate. Villas evoke the charm of Italian countryside farmhouses and manors. Renaissance Revival, usually seen in public buildings and urban settings, exudes a more formal and symmetrical aesthetic. Italianate, on the other hand, encompasses a wide range of variations that adapt easily to different materials and budgets.

19th Century Italian Styles This high-style Italian Villa in brick showcases its robust eave brackets and central campanile.

A Blend of Influences

The Italianate style in America was influenced by classical architecture, English interpretations, and the Renaissance movement. Esteemed architects such as John Notman, Henry Austin, McKim, Mead & White, Richard Morris Hunt, Samuel Sloan, and Gervase Wheeler all contributed to its development. However, the majority of Italianate houses were based on pattern-book examples derived from the designs of tastemaker A.J. Downing and architect A.J. Davis. This adaptation of the style made it accessible to a wide range of builders, resulting in its widespread popularity.

The Italianate Reign

The Italianate and Gothic Revival styles emerged around the same time, replacing the long-standing dominance of Greek Revival. While Gothic became the prevailing style in England during the Romantic era, Italianate took center stage in America. By the 1860s, Italianate had become the most fashionable architectural style nationwide, and its influence endured well into the 20th century.

The formal parlor at Magnolia Manor The formal parlor at Magnolia Manor showcases Renaissance Revival furniture of the highest quality.

The Allure of Italianate Houses

Italianate houses, with their distinctive details, offer a range of interpretations. From the ambitiously eccentric to the charmingly simple, these houses can be found in various forms. Remarkably, many 19th-century farmhouses fall under the Italianate category, characterized by a rectangular shape, a porch, and decorative brackets in the cornice.

When it comes to exterior color choices, buff and straw stone colors emulate the stone construction of Italy. Bisque-color limestone, grey-green, stony grey, and blue hues are all appropriate choices. For light body colors, darker trim colors such as olive, drab, or mahogany red-brown create a striking contrast. Alternatively, limestone-yellow or limestone-grey trim can beautifully enhance a darker body color. Sash should be painted in a dark shade, and front doors were often left varnished. Accent colors or a reversal of body and trim are popular choices for projecting bays.

The Evolution of Style

As the postwar economic troubles of the 1870s unfolded, Italianate style began to wane. Subsequently, Late Victorian favorites like the Queen Anne and Stick styles, as well as the early Colonial Revival, gained popularity. However, the enduring charm of Italianate houses continues to captivate those who appreciate its timeless beauty.

The Language of Italianate Architecture

To fully appreciate Italianate styles, it helps to understand the specific architectural language associated with them. Here are some key terms related to Italianate architecture:

  • Arcade: A series of arches with supporting columns.
  • Ashlar: Smooth-faced, dressed masonry with square edges.
  • Bay: A three-sided projection with windows that extends to the foundation.
  • Belvedere: A lookout with square windows, offering beautiful vistas.
  • Bracketed Style: An alternative name associated with architect A.J. Davis, known for the romantic Italianate style along the Hudson River.
  • Campanile: A square tower projecting from a villa in Italian architecture.
  • Loggia: An arcaded or colonnaded porch on an Italian building.
  • Modillions: Repeating blocks or console brackets running along the entablature and below the cornice.
  • Oculus: A round or oval window, often seen in domes.
  • Oriel: A window structure that projects from the wall surface but does not extend to the ground.
  • Pediment: A triangle-shaped crown, typically seen in a gable or over an opening.
  • Piano Nobile: The main floor in Italian architecture, usually reached by a staircase and featuring high ceilings.
  • Pilaster: A rectangular pier treated as a column and partially engaged "in" the wall or trim.
  • Round-Top Window: A half-circle (rather than segmental) arched sash, often found in pairs on entry doors in Italianate houses.

American cottage furniture, lace curtains, and typical wallpaper in the 1883 Michigan Italianate. American cottage furniture, lace curtains, and typical wallpaper in the 1883 Michigan Italianate.

Interior Splendor: Italianate Homes

While Italianate houses are easily recognizable from the outside, their interiors encompass a wide range of styles due to the style's longevity. In the 1850s and 1860s, the (French) Rococo style dominated interiors of Italianate houses, while the Renaissance Revival style gained popularity after 1870. It was common to find a touch of Gothic Revival in Italianate houses, as both styles were promoted in influential pattern books by A.J. Downing in the 1840s. However, in America, the Italianate style prevailed.

Decorating Italianate interiors can vary depending on the scale and resources available. Mansions, with ample funds and skilled labor, often featured Rococo Revival pieces from established cabinetmakers. In contrast, smaller Midwestern builder's houses in the 1880s were typically furnished with production Renaissance Revival and cottage furniture. While mansions boasted elaborate cast-plaster brackets and cartouches, more modest homes opted for simple ceiling medallions and papered or painted panels on plaster walls.

Color schemes for Italianate interiors leaned towards neutral stone hues such as greys, pinks, pale blues, and greens. From 1860 onwards, stronger colors became more popular. Halls were often cool and neutral, imitating ashlar or smooth stone blocks with paint or wallpaper. Graining and marbleizing techniques were commonly used on baseboards, columns, niches, and even entire walls. Narrow paper borders adorned with florals, trailing vines, or architectural details were prevalent from 1830 to 1850.

Flooring choices for Italianate homes ranged from carpeted softwood boards to hardwood patterns with alternating stripes of dark and light. Stone or painted marble squares were favored for halls, while encaustic tiles in terra cotta, buff, and black added a touch of elegance. Flat-woven Venetian carpeting and reversible ingrains made of narrow strips sewn together were popular and affordable options. Luxurious pile carpets such as Axminster, Wilton, Brussels, and tapestry were also widely used.

Exploring Italian Styles

Italianate styles represent the most uninhibited and exuberant interpretation of Renaissance-inspired architecture from the mid-19th to the early 20th century. For those interested in further exploration, we recommend the following books:

  • "John Notman, Architect" by Constance Greiff: A scholarly discussion of the work of Philadelphia architect John Notman, credited with bringing Italianate styles to America.
  • "Historic Maine Homes" by Christopher Glass, photos by Brian Vanden Brink: A beautiful photography book showcasing famous Maine houses from 1600 to the present, with notable chapters on Italianate and Second Empire historic houses.
  • "Villa Décor: Decidedly French and Italian Style" by Betty Lou Phillips: A guide to incorporating French and Italian design elements and palettes into contemporary high-style decorating.
  • "Farmhouse Revival" by Susan Daley & Steve Gross: An un-retouched collection of preserved and respectfully updated historic houses, featuring many examples of Italianate and other architectural styles.

Italianate styles continue to inspire architects, designers, and homeowners alike thanks to their timeless allure and adaptability. Let yourself be captivated by the unique beauty of Italianate architecture and discover how it can transform your living spaces into something truly extraordinary.