Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What do I mean by Italianate?

"Victoria Mansion" in Portland, ME. The house is more suitably known as the Morse-Libby House and was built in 1860. It is a 'textbook example of Italianate architecture and was designed by Henry Austin. Image from Wikipedia.

In answer to the question I posed in my title, one could say a lot. Italianate is a 19th century architectural style, a system of ornamentation, a mode of designing house plans, a romantic or downright silly interpretation of Northern Italian building, a Victorian horror... The Italianate style can be viewed as all of these things. It was perhaps the most popular and most long-lived architectural style of the 19th century, yet there exists no comprehensive monograph or study of it on its own. Without the grandiosity of Second Empire, the restlessness of Queen Anne, the ponderousness of Gothic Revival, or the reasoned calmness of Greek Revival, Italianate architecture seems to fall by the wayside in discussions of 19th century style. Often when I've talked to my friends about it, their answer is that this or that Italianate building just looks like "a regular old building" to them. Some of us live our lives around Italianate architecture without even noticing it. This blog attempts to address this lack of interest by looking at American Italianate architecture, primarily domestic, and hopefully showing that indeed Italianate can express restlessness, grandness, calm, and weightiness. Because of its long life and its adaptation in nearly every geography of the US, Italianate architecture developed a versatility; it became a simple canvas on which many concepts could be grafted, whether those visions suggested Florence, London, Athens, or even Delhi. Living in New Haven, Connecticut, a city and state which both have a rich relationship with Italianate architecture, I have come to appreciate just how complex and malleable this style is, and so I decided to write this blog.

I'd like to start off with a little discussion about what Italianate architecture is. It is a style of building that was popular throughout the 19th century which took its inspiration from the monasteries and villas of Medieval and Renaissance Northern Italy. It did not aim to be a replication of its prototypes, but rather a representation in a concentrated form of the monasteries it emulated. The first Italianate building is generally considered Cronkhill House in the UK, designed by John Nash in 1802, pictured to the right (image from wikimedia commons.) In essence, Cronkhill is a Regency cube, stuccoed, with two asymmetrically placed towers. It has broad overhanging eaves with notable supporting brackets and low hipped roofs. All these features are the hallmarks of the Italianate Style, although Cronkhill does not express them to the degree that they would be in the US. Italianate began in England, but changes and reinterpretations of its precepts when it arrived in the US altered it so much that American Italianate is its own unique style with its own vocabulary and variations.

Italianate was introduced to the US by Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) and Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) in their book Cottage Residences (1842). In this hugely influential book, Davis and Downing provided plans for country houses in a variety of styles (Gothic, Swiss, Italian etc.), discussed the suitability of each style, provided exterior decorative and gardening ideas, and discussed proper color choices.  They characterized the 'Italian Style' as suitable for a warm climate because of its verandahs and balconies and said that the style recalls "to one familiar with Italy and art, by its bold roof lines, its campanile and its shady balconies, the classic beauty of that fair and smiling land, where pictures, sculpted figures, vases and urns...make part of the decorations". For Davis and Downing, the Italian style was a romantic form that suggested to its beholder (their man of artistic and picturesque appreciation) thoughts of Italy and its artistic associations and warm Mediterranean climate. In a world of the Grand Tour and an emphasis on Italian art and architecture, in which one's class was displayed through one's aesthetic refinement, the Italianate style could not have failed to prosper.

The essential hallmarks of Italianate architecture included for Davis and Downing:
  • Very broad eaves supported by strong, noticeable brackets. The notability of these brackets sometimes caused the style to be called "Bracketed". The brackets and eaves remain the most significant stylistic feature of Italianate architecture.
  • Low hipped roofs. These low roofs mimicked the roofs of Italian architecture, although occasionally on towers and cupolas different roofs could be employed. As the style evolved in the 1870s a higher pitched hip roof was developed.
  • A tower or cupola. Irregularly planned houses usually feature a tall tower or campanile. Symmetrical villas often have a cupola or belvedere in the center of the hip roof.
  • Verandahs. Often the verandah runs the length or part of the length of an Italianate house. Sometimes verandahs are included on the sides between projecting sections.
  • Irregular or Regular Plans. These two types of plans form the basis of most Italianate houses, although the style was adapted for use with a variety of plans and shapes.
  • Other features include 'Juliette' balconies, exterior wooden awnings (projecting eaves over windows), tent roofs, two story porches, bay windows, and elaborate hood moldings around windows. The various features of Italianate can vary from builder to builder and region to region.
Two of Davis' plans particularly characterize Italianate architecture, the symmetrical and the irregular. The symmetrical plan of an Italianate house involves the door centered on the façade with two bays flanking it. The irregular plan, or as Davis says, the embodiment of "artistical irregularity" is more complicated. It involves in order from one side of the front façade to the other a projecting pavilion, usually with one central window, a tower which is recessed from the projecting pavilion, which is where the door is often located, and a set-back pavilion which may have a lower roofline than the projecting pavilion and is often fronted by a porch. This set-back pavilion is usually longer than the projecting pavilion. The Morse Libby House in Portland pictured above is a classic example of the irregular plan. The picture at the left shows Downing and Davis' plan for an irregular Italian villa (from Wikimedia). The picture below shows a symmetrical Italianate villa on Orange Street in New Haven. Although the two story porch is uncommon, nonetheless it reflects the symmetrical plan.

A symmetrical Italianate plan on Orange Street in New Haven. The Watson-Coe House 1867-1868.

Of course, Italianate architecture uses a variety of plans. The gable-front Greek revival plan as well as the five bay Georgian plan (whether with a hip roof or gable ends) persisted through the 19th century and many Italianate houses follow these plans. A great many Italianate homes follow the side-hall plan, in which the door is placed to one side of a three bay composition. There is also another type of towered plan in which the tower is placed to one side of the composition and the projecting pavilion is placed at another with a recessed section connecting them, which I call the "side-tower" plan. Although they may seem tedious, these plans are significant for the development of other styles as well. Second Empire architecture, for instance, often closely follows these plans, simply adding a mansard roof into the composition. I have drawn a pretty basic chart of these various plans, of course variations will be dealt with as they come up.

So much for plans. I'd like to add a few more things before I conclude this post. First, Italianate, as I've said, is a flexible style. It was never dominated by one particular style of ornamentation and detail. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Henry Austin's application of Indian (or as he might have said 'Saracenic') ornament to the Italianate plan. These houses in essence retain the style and feel of Italianate even though there are elements of Indian architecture in the design. Another style which was often applied was the so-called "Steamboat Gothic", which consists of porches (usually) with elaborate and complex jigsaw work that doesn't particularly fall into any of the traditional stylistic categories. Italianates can be the best examples of regional and personal vernacular in the US. As time went on each new generation's concept of ornament was applied to the Italianate plan and thus we can see the whole range of styles and decades reflected in Italianate houses.

Italianate architecture was versatile in its use outside of domestic architecture. Although Davis and Downing envisioned it as a style suited to warmer climates and country or suburban villas, it was used in urban row-houses, churches, schools, public and commercial buildings, and even cemetery mausoleums. Although this blog focuses primarily on domestic design, I will sometimes include examples of other types of structures which have their own quirks. I would welcome photo submissions from people who would like to have an Italianate house or building in their area posted. I would ask that when doing so you try to include a general picture of the building, views from both sides and close-ups of unique details. It's been a long post, but introductions always have to be a bit long and complex. At any rate, I will post some interesting new buildings soon for your consideration.


  1. This is very interesting because I have many architectural photos and am not an expert in architectural styles. I may have mis-classified a few, and so I'm going to go back through my photos and see if this helps classify them. Thanks.

    Paige (statPaige on Flickr)

  2. Glad I can be of help, and thank you for taking a look! I'm really not that big of an expert, but I've read as much as I can about this style. It is slippery. The 19th century tends to blend rather than delineate. Part of the reason I started this in the first place was to try and piece out what actually Italianate can be applied to as a term because it varies so much around the country and in different settings. Although this blog is in its nascence, I hope that by examples I put up people will learn how this whole mess works!

  3. This is a superb blog, and very informative. I've also enjoyed the laughs ('Daddy, is this Hell? No, son, this is New Haven.'

    Much traveling to do, in order to see some of these places in more detail. Also some Jersey sites that would be potential candidates for inclusion, as well as a Fargo home or two.