The Allure of 19th Century Italian Styles

Italianate styles reigned for half a century, during which Rococo, Renaissance Revival, and cottage furniture made their appearance. Creative ostentation, a joyous use of polychromy, and sinuous curves are always in order. Italianate styles might...

Italianate styles reigned for half a century, during which Rococo, Renaissance Revival, and cottage furniture made their appearance. Creative ostentation, a joyous use of polychromy, and sinuous curves are always in order.

Italianate styles might sound like they originated in Italy, but they are actually an American classic that became the most popular building style for over a generation. These styles were prevalent throughout the country and encompassed a range of architectural designs, including Villas, Renaissance Revival, and Italianate.

Villas were meant to evoke the farmhouses and manors of the Italian countryside. Renaissance Revival, on the other hand, was more formal and symmetrical, often used for public buildings and urban settings. Italianate, as the name suggests, covers everything else and represents the most interpretive of the Italian styles that swept the country.

19th Century Italian Styles This high-style Italian Villa in brick has a central campanile and robust eave brackets. - Cheryl Pendleton

These styles were influenced by the classical vocabulary and had already been filtered through England and the Renaissance. Renowned architects such as John Notman, Henry Austin, McKim, Mead & White, Richard Morris Hunt, Samuel Sloan, and Gervase Wheeler designed in this style. However, most Italianate houses were based on pattern-book examples derived from designs by tastemaker A.J. Downing and architect A.J. Davis. This made Italianate a versatile and adaptable style that could be modified to suit different materials and budgets.

The formal parlor at Magnolia Manor (1872, Cairo, Illinois) is furnished with Renaissance Revival furniture of high quality. - Cheryl Pendleton

The Italianate style arrived in America around the same time as the Gothic Revival, two picturesque styles that brought an end to the long reign of Greek Revival. While Gothic became the predominant style of the Romantic or early Victorian period in England, Italianate emerged as the most fashionable architectural style in America during the 1860s. Builders nationwide embraced its vocabulary and continued using it almost until the end of the century.

Italianate houses are easily recognizable due to their unique details and interpretive style. From the ambitiously eccentric to the simplest rural vernacular, the Italianate style offered a wide range of options. In fact, many 19th-century farmhouses adopted Italianate elements, featuring a rectangular I house with a porch and decorative brackets in the cornice.

When it comes to choosing colors for Italianate houses, it's best to stick with hues that evoke the stone construction of Italy. Buff and straw stone colors, bisque-color limestone, grey-green, stoney grey to blue colors are all suitable options. If the body color is light, opt for darker trims such as olive, drab, or mahogany red-brown. Conversely, if the body is dark, consider using limestone-yellow or limestone-grey for the trim. Sash should be painted in a dark color, while the front door was often varnished instead of painted. Accent colors or a reversal of body and trim are popular on projecting bays.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the Italianate style waned during the postwar economic troubles of the 1870s. By the time things picked up again, other architectural styles such as the Queen Anne, Stick styles, and the early Colonial Revival had taken the spotlight.

The Language

To fully appreciate the Italianate style, it's essential to understand its unique vocabulary. Here are some key terms associated with this architectural style:

  • Arcade: A series of arches with their supporting columns.
  • Ashlar: Smooth-faced, dressed masonry with square edges.
  • Bay: A three-sided projection with windows that goes to the foundation.
  • Belvedere: Translated roughly as "beautiful vista," it's a lookout with windows, usually square, on a roof.
  • Bracketed style: An alternative name for the romantic Italianate style along the Hudson River, named for the large decorative brackets under the roof cornice, associated with architect A.J. Davis.
  • Campanile: A square tower projecting from a villa in Italian architecture, derived from the word "campana" meaning bell.
  • Loggia: The 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 a dome.
  • Oriel: A window structure that projects from the wall surface but does not extend to the ground.
  • Pediment: A triangle-shaped crown, as in a gable or over an opening.
  • Piano nobile: The main floor in Italian architecture, usually reached by a staircase and having the highest ceilings.
  • Pilaster: A rectangular pier treated as a column and engaged partly "in" the wall or trim.
  • Round-top window: Half-circle arched sash, often seen in paired entry doors on Italianate houses.

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

Interiors for Italianate Homes

One of the fascinating aspects of Italianate houses is that there is no particular "Italianate style" when it comes to interior design. This is because the style spanned half a century and different influences were in vogue during different periods. In the 1850s and 1860s, the French Rococo style dominated Italianate interiors, while Renaissance Revival interiors gained popularity after 1870. It was not uncommon for Italianate houses to incorporate Gothic Revival elements as well. These styles were advocated by A.J. Downing in his influential pattern books of the 1840s, with the Gothic style prevailing in England but the Italianate style taking precedence in America.

Decorating an Italianate house can be approached in different ways, depending on the size and budget. Mansions, with their abundance of resources, could be furnished with Rococo Revival pieces by established cabinetmakers. On the other hand, more modest Midwestern builder's houses from the 1880s would likely feature production Renaissance Revival and cottage furniture. While the mansions boasted elaborate cast-plaster brackets and cartouches, the more vernacular houses had simpler ceiling medallions and papered or painted panels on plaster walls, replacing the wealthy man's trompe l'oeil frescoes.

When it comes to interior colors, neutral stone hues were often recommended. Greys, pinks, pale blues, and greens were popular choices, with stronger colors becoming more popular after 1860. Halls were typically cool and neutral, often imitating ashlar with painted or papered finishes. Graining and marbleizing techniques were commonly used on baseboards, columns, niches, and walls. Narrow paper borders decorated with florals, trailing vines, or architectural details were also common between 1830 and 1850.

Floors in Italianate houses were typically covered with wall-to-wall carpeting. Later in the period, hardwood floors became more common, featuring alternating stripes of dark and light wood. Stone or painted marble squares were preferred for hallways, while encaustic tiles in terra cotta, buff, and black were also popular choices. Flat-woven Venetian carpeting and ingrains made up of narrow strips sewn together were affordable options. Pile carpets, including Axminster, Wilton, Brussels, and tapestry, were considered luxury choices.

Italian Styles

"Italianate" is the most freewheeling of a series of Renaissance-inspired styles that emerged between 1845 and 1900.

Bookshelf Recommendations:

  • John Notman, Architect by Constance Greiff: Athenaeum 1979. A scholarly discussion of the work of the Philadelphia architect credited with bringing Italianate styles to America.
  • Historic Maine Homes by Christopher Glass, photos by Brian Vanden Brink: Downeast 2014. A beautiful photography book showcasing famous Maine houses from 1600 to the present, with detailed chapters about Italianate and Second Empire historic houses.
  • Villa Décor: Decidedly French and Italian Style by Betty Lou Phillips: Gibbs Smith 2002. This book explores using French- and Italian-derived palettes and furniture mixes in high-style contemporary decorating.
  • Farmhouse Revival by Susan Daley & Steve Gross: Abrams 2013. Featuring unretouched photographs of preserved and respectfully updated houses, this book showcases a variety of farmhouse styles, including Italianate.

With its distinctive charm and adaptability, the allure of 19th Century Italian Styles continues to captivate homeowners and architects alike. Whether you're drawn to the elegance of Renaissance Revival or the whimsy of Rococo, Italianate architecture offers a timeless appeal that has stood the test of time. So why not bring a touch of Italy to your home with Italianate-inspired design elements? The possibilities are endless!