Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Italianate Bracket

The bracket is perhaps the quintessential feature of Italianate architecture, so much so, that the style was sometimes referred to in 19th century publications as the 'bracketed style'. Even though many Italianate buildings do not include brackets, the majority of them are profusely bracketed. Brackets served the function of keeping the wide eaves level and prevent bowing in the cornice. Brackets could be made of metal but were most commonly made of wood. They also served a decorative function, giving rhythm and vertical thrust to a house. While the facades of many Italianates are subdued, the brackets often provide a relieving ornament and whimsy that differentiates the exuberance of Italianate from the sobriety of Greek Revival.

There is no set rhyme or reason for bracket design. Earlier on, the brackets were primarily constructed at the site of a house by carpenters who were inspired by published house plans and details. As time went on brackets could be ordered in bunches from catalogs in a variety of shapes based on carpenter precedents. Because they were so unique to each house, brackets have literally limitless scope for variation and design. Sometimes similarities in brackets in one region can inform us of the vernacular. Nonetheless, despite these variations, there are common traits to Italianate brackets that allow us to grasp a bit of what the design process was behind them.

The basis for the most common Italianate bracket is two types of curves, the s- and c- curves. These give the bracket its general tapering shape below the molding that forms the bracket cap.

The general shape is often enlivened with extra pieces of ornament:

Finials: These turned pieces are probably the most common form of ornament on a bracket. They can be added to a block at the end of the upper part of the bracket, below the foot of the bracket, or from a block attached at the center. The finials give an icicle like effect to a bracket.

Medallions: Medallions or bull's eyes are circular pieces of molding. They are often put at points in the design where the curve spirals. They similarly adorn a lot of contemporary furniture and interior woodwork.

Strapwork: The strapwork is a set of thin boards cut with a jigsaw in a decorative pattern and glued or nailed onto a surface to give it a shallowly projecting design. In brackets, strapwork usually outlines the shape of the bracket and forms spirals.

Incised Carving: Incised carving was made affordable by the invention of the router. It consists of shallow relief cuttings into the wood in a decorative pattern. Mostly associated with Eastlake design and furniture, incised carving adds relatively inexpensive ornament to a surface.

Acanthus Leaves: Acanthus leaves are an expensive feature for a bracket. They usually are not placed on the sides but on the front, projecting slightly and adding an extra touch of fanciness.

Other design elements consist of carved garlands, fluting (cutting parallel grooves in the front of a bracket), beading, and elaborate caubuchons (jewel shaped pieces of wood).

Bracket Shapes:

As I said, the c- and s-curve form the basis of the bracket shape. The drawing below shows a bracket that uses one of these curves.

The number of curves can be doubled or tripled by adding more s- or c-curves. Sometimes this involves rotating one of the curves horizontally or varying their size. As the 19th century moved on brackets became more and more complex in how they used curves. The Bidwell house gives us an example.

Both types of curves can be combined to form composite s- and c-scroll brackets as shown below. Of course, this combination can be done in a lot of ways.

Special brackets:

There are two types of bracket I think deserve special mention because they tend to occur in specific contexts. The rafter bracket, beam bracket, or block bracket is a very simple rectangular block of wood attached to the eave. This occurs primarily in Italianate homes of the 1830s to the 1850s, and is a mark of an early Italianate. They were designed to resemble the exposed rafters peeking out from the eave in their Italian models. The Starr house and the Apthorp house have these types of brackets.

The Rotated or horizontal s-curve bracket is a type which, though it can occur anywhere, is particularly associated with Anglo-Italianate architecture because its shape conforms closely with Renaissance and Classical precedents. It is usually tarted up with acanthus leaves, scrolls, and palmettes, and was based on publications that showed ancient entablatures. The Lippitt house and the Graham house are examples.

The angular bracket is an uncommon type. It employs no curves, and instead has angles that define it. These can be stepped or even just consist of a simple diagonal piece of wood supporting the roof. The Hall house has angular brackets.

Finally there is an interesting bit of ornament that can sometimes be found on brackets, piercing. This consists of open space or holes piercing the wood of the bracket, creating a lighter effect. The Fisher house has pierced brackets.


The painting of brackets is a complex business given the profusion of decoration. The book Victorian Exterior Decoration suggests these historically appropriate possibilities. The brackets are usually painted the color of the house's trim. If they are relatively simple with few decorative details, they should probably just be painted solidly with the trim color without picking out details in the body color. Brackets with strapwork usually have the strapwork frame painted the trim color and the space inside the frame painted the body color. Incised designs are usually picked out in the trim color or perhaps a third accent color to emphasize their presence. If the house trim color is simulating stone, they should never have details picked out and be painted to appear like stonework.

Brackets are a fun feature of Italianate and one of the elements that draws people to these houses. Although my discussion is certainly not comprehensive, it tries to give a bit of vocabulary to this fascinatingly elusive element of design.


  1. Thank you so much for this post! My Italianate has pierced S-curve brackets with finials. Nothing cool like an Acanthus leaf, though. Do you have any recommendations for books on Midwestern (MI) Italianates? It seems most of the references available are obsessed with the Queen Anne.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. The literature on Italianate architecture in general is rather slim. There is the Field Guide to American Houses that is generally popular. As for Michigan specifically, it depends on what you would like to know. One way to learn about it is driving around and looking at buildings in your area. There are also some good guide books, I believe the one on Marshall, MI has some information about Italianates. I often peruse the "Images of America" series. They vary in quality but some contain more pictures of buildings. If you live in one of many of Michigan's historic towns, it's likely you'll find information in some guide. Grand Rapids has a good set of PDFs that look at neighborhoods house by house. I'll do some more digging. Thanks for reading!

  2. In Ct we have Ct history online. Site administered by state Library. A trove of old photos. Searchable by town. See if your state has such an archive.

    1. I used to live in CT and am very aware. It's a great site for sure. Who knew, for instance, route 10 in Southington once had a good collection of colonial, high style farm houses.