Examples of the Italianate can bee seen across the country. It was the most popular building style in the United States during the mid-19th century and persisted in the West until the 1890s. Despite being so common, however, its origins aren’t often discussed and many have a poor understanding of the artistic and social factors that led to its appearance. That is until now. So, keep reading and learn about the Italianate, its origins and its distinguishing characteristics.
During the first half of the 19th century, Neo-Classical building styles predominated. Homes and public buildings were built in the Federal and Greek Revival which were based on Greco-Roman precedents. These buildings were designed from the outside in, meaning external symmetry, order, proportions and rational design were the most important design features. There was much less emphasis given to interior function or utility. Although designers were not oblivious to the arrangement of rooms and to the use and function of the building, interiors were often arranged to reflect the Classical ideals of symmetry and order .
However, by the 1830s and 1840s, there was a contrasting mood in the arts and culture that opposed the Classical ideals of rationality, symmetry, order and proportions. We call this movement Romanticism and it was expressed in architecture through the ideal of the Picturesque. Romanticism emphasized disorder and unpredictability, nature and naturalism, the organic, and natural beauty. Rather than holding the ordered Classical temple of Rome as the ideal in design, the Romantic and Picturesque favored the medieval castle, Gothic cathedral or abbey as its models. These buildings were (or, at least they thought they were) organic, in that they were built and designed as part of a natural environment with a real function. These buildings were not necessarily symmetrical and their designs were certainly not governed by Classical ideals of order and proportion.
The Italianate was a product of this new artistic and cultural mood. Italianate architecture came from a particular source: the rambling, asymmetrical, brick medieval farmhouses found in northern Italy. An article describing the new Italian Villa style in the January, 1850 edition of The Farmer & Mechanic Magazine claimed “This style is founded upon the Roman, and was perfected during the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.” The magazine further suggested:
“Houses in the Italian style are more appropriately placed up the side or on top of a hill, and should be flanked with one or more terraces. These may be adorned with vases, statues and fountains. The trees around should be of a loftier character than those which surround any other orders of architecture, save, perhaps, that of the pointed or castellated Gothic.”
The designer of the Italianate house also took the home’s utility and function into consideration. A writer for Peterson’s Magazine in 1853 said of a proposed villa:
The villa, represented in our engraving, is designed to be a comfortable residence for a family
of moderate means and size.
The Picturesque Italianate was popularized most famously by Andrew Jackson Downing in his design books Cottage Residences, which was published in 1842, and The Architecture of Country Houses, which was published in 1850. His books sold thousands of copies and cast a long shadow in architecture and design through the end of the 19th century. Although his design books and those of others introduced and popularized the Italianate, the style itself changed and evolved during the following decades. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, Italianate -style ornament, including brackets and cornices, were applied to common, vernacular farmhouses, cottages and urban homes.
The Italianate is characterized by overhanging eaves with brackets and narrow windows with segmented arch tops and window hoods. High-style examples often have belvideres or towers. Roofs usually have a low pitch and the buildings are typically two or three stories. Porches are elaborate with brackets, spandrels and square porch posts with chamfered corners. There are several building types, including the hipped cube. the center gable, the asymmetrical gable-and-wing, and the villa or towered Italianate.