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Rediscovering the Charms of 19th Century Italian Styles

CEO Khai Intela
Italianate styles have left an indelible mark on America's architectural landscape. For over half a century, these styles, including Rococo, Renaissance Revival, and cottage furniture, showcased creative ostentation, a celebration of polychromy, and sinuous curves....

Italianate styles have left an indelible mark on America's architectural landscape. For over half a century, these styles, including Rococo, Renaissance Revival, and cottage furniture, showcased creative ostentation, a celebration of polychromy, and sinuous curves. While the name may suggest otherwise, Italianate styles are an American classic, embodying the most popular building style for an entire generation across the country.

The Three Categories

Italianate houses can be broadly categorized into three groups: Villas, Renaissance Revival, and Italianate. Villas evoke the charm of Italian countryside farmhouses and manors. Renaissance Revival, often seen in urban settings and public buildings, exudes formality and symmetry. Italianate encompasses a wide range of styles, offering versatility and adaptability for different materials and budgets.

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

Architectural Influences

The Italianate style emerged in 19th-century America, drawing inspiration from classical vocabulary that had already undergone transformation in England and the Renaissance era. Noteworthy architects such as John Notman, Henry Austin, McKim, Mead & White, Richard Morris Hunt, Samuel Sloan, and Gervase Wheeler contributed to the style. However, many Italianate houses were based on pattern-book examples derived from designs by tastemaker A.J. Downing and architect A.J. Davis. This accessibility made Italianate a vernacular style, easily adaptable to various materials and budgets.

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

The Freewheeling Italianate Style

Italianate style, which flourished between 1850 and 1900, is known for its interpretative nature. It encompasses a wide range of expressions, from the ambitiously eccentric to the simplest rural vernacular. In fact, many 19th-century farmhouses were Italianate in design, featuring a rectangular I-shaped layout, with a porch and decorative brackets in the cornice.

To capture the spirit of Italian construction, it is recommended to choose exterior colors in buff and straw stone hues. Bisque-color limestone, grey-green, stoney grey, and blue tones are also suitable. For homes with light body colors, darker trims in shades like olive, drab, and mahogany red-brown create a striking contrast. On the other hand, if the body is dark, limestone-yellow or limestone-grey trims can be considered. Sashes are often painted in dark colors, and the front door is usually varnished rather than painted. Popular accents include using accent colors or reversing the body and trim on projecting bays.

Changing Tides

The postwar economic troubles of the 1870s saw a decline in the popularity of Italianate style. By the time the economy improved, other architectural styles like Queen Anne, Stick, and early Colonial Revival had taken over as favorites of the Late Victorian era.

The Language

To fully appreciate Italianate styles, it is helpful to understand some architectural terms:

  • 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: Translated as "beautiful vista," it refers to a lookout with windows, typically square, on a roof.
  • Bracketed style: An alternative name associated with architect A.J. Davis, referring to the romantic Italianate style along the Hudson River. It is named for the large decorative brackets found under the roof cornice.
  • Campanile: A square tower projecting from a villa in Italian architecture, with campana (bell) as its root.
  • 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, commonly found in gables or over openings.
  • Piano nobile: The main floor in Italian architecture, usually accessed via a staircase and featuring higher ceilings.
  • Pilaster: A rectangular pier treated as a column, partially engaged in the wall or trim.
  • Round-top window: A half-circle arched sash, commonly 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

While Italianate houses are relatively easy to identify from the exterior, there is no specific "Italianate style" for interiors, given the style's longevity spanning half a century. In the 1850s and 1860s, houses in the Italian style often embraced the (French) Rococo aesthetic, while Renaissance Revival interiors gained popularity after 1870. It is not uncommon to find a Gothic Revival piece or two in Italianate houses, as both styles were advocated in influential pattern books by A.J. Downing in the 1840s. However, in America, the Italianate style surpassed the Gothic in popularity.

When it comes to decorating the interiors of Italianate homes, there are different approaches depending on the scale and resources available. Mansions, with their ample budget and skilled labor, may feature Rococo Revival pieces from established cabinetmakers. On the other hand, Midwestern builder's houses in the 1880s were more likely to be furnished with production Renaissance Revival and cottage furniture. While mansions boasted ornate cast-plaster brackets and cartouches, more modest homes had simpler ceiling medallions. Trompe l'oeil frescoes found in grand houses were replaced with painted or papered panels on plaster walls in vernacular homes.

Neutral stone hues, such as greys, pinks, pale blues, and greens, were commonly used for interior color schemes. From 1860 onwards, stronger colors rose in popularity. Halls were often cool and neutral, mimicking ashlar or smooth stone blocks through painting or wallpaper. Graining and marbleizing techniques were commonly employed on baseboards, columns, niches, and even entire walls. Narrow paper borders decorated with florals, trailing vines, or architectural details were popular from 1830 to 1850.

Flooring in Italianate homes typically consisted of narrow softwood boards, which were meant to be carpeted wall to wall. In later years, hardwood floors featuring alternating stripes of dark and light wood became common. Stone or painted marble squares were favored for hallways, while encaustic tiles in terra cotta, buff, and black were also used. Affordable options included flat-woven Venetian carpeting and ingrains, which were narrow strips of carpet sewn together to span the room. More luxurious carpets included Axminster, Wilton, Brussels, and tapestry varieties.

Discovering Italian Styles

Italianate styles have left an enduring legacy, earning their place as the most freewheeling among the Renaissance-inspired styles from 1845 to 1900.

Recommended Reading:

  • John Notman, Architect by Constance Greiff: This scholarly discussion explores the work of John Notman, the Philadelphia architect credited with bringing Italianate styles to America.
  • Historic Maine Homes by Christopher Glass, photos by Brian Vanden Brink: Immerse yourself in the beauty of famous Maine houses from 1600 to the present, with a particular focus on Italianate and Second Empire historic houses.
  • Villa Décor: Decidedly French and Italian Style by Betty Lou Phillips: This book offers insights into using French and Italian-inspired palettes and furniture mixes for high-style contemporary decorating.
  • Farmhouse Revival by Susan Daley & Steve Gross: Experience the unfiltered charm of preserved or respectfully updated historic houses, showcasing a range of interior styles, including Italianate.

Italianate styles continue to captivate with their vibrant aesthetics and timeless appeal. Explore the rich heritage of 19th-century Italian styles and find inspiration to infuse your own home with their unique charm.