In discussing the styles and shapes of that in which we live, and especially those examples that survive from the past, the common link has thus far been the word "revival." Americans, following the lead of their European idols, had for one hundred years turned in their lifestyle fantasies to past eras as they sought to create a domestic backdrop before which they might act out the morals and mannerisms of their daily lives. Even before the Civil War, and for the next twenty or so years afterwards, as their Gothic fantasies faded, Americans with the kind of money needed to build new homes in that era ($10,000 or so) turned their imaginations not toward an earlier ideal era, but toward one of their present, albeit one they continued to import from Europe. We have come to recognise this new style as Italianate. Notice the absence of the word "revival."
If we must think of the Italianate in revival terms, it could, strictly speaking I guess, be called Renaissance Revival. But having been filtered through hundred of years of European adaptations before it even came to these shores, such a reference would seem somewhat forced. A more common calling might be the "High Victorian" style, though this refers more to a historic era and its associated lifestyle than to architectural elements. But, it does underline the fact that while the Italianate did, in fact mirror certain romantic Italian affectations, it was also burdened by English ones as well. In fact, if you wanted classic, textbook examples of the Italianate style, one would best be advised to search them out in London rather than in Rome. Actually, the style arrived in this country from England so relatively intact through various Victorian plan books, it would hardly be necessary to leave home provided you live north of the Mason-Dixon line. Growing cities of that period clear across the Midwest, also Denver and San Francisco, are full of excellent examples of this style. I might also add that it's seldom found in the South, given the turmoil and economic distress brought on by the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the nation-wide economic upheavals of the 1870s, which in fact spelled its end.
So, what does an Italianate home look like? Construction was most commonly of masonry, brick usually, but often augmented by stone, and in larger homes, wholly of stone. Wood construction was only common in less costly attempts at the style. In basic shape, they're nearly all two-story cubes or L-shaped. However in cities, it was also a favourite style for three-storied row or townhouse fašades. And in more economical versions, it can be found in very basic, rectangular, front-gabled configurations. In its more elaborate incarnations, there is sometimes a central cupola (called a widow's walk) or more often, a trademark three-storied tower capped by a mansard style or low hipped roof. Porches can vary from little more than covered stoops to those that front the entire structure or even wrap halfway around it. Almost always, Italianate porches are one-storied. Roofs are most often hipped (sloping in all directions) or mansard style. However roof variations also exist of traditional medium-pitched gabled and nearly flat roofs as in Italianate urban townhouses.
But the real flavour of the Italianate style does not come from the shape of the structure or its roofline. These were used long before and long after Italianate rose to popularity after the Civil War. The Italianate style can best be seen in its decorations--window, door, and eaves treatments. In fact, there are those who might say the style was all decoration and no substance. It's an apt comment; one might even say characteristic of the whole Victorian era as well. But if you were to describe Italianate design characteristics in today's vernacular, the generic term, "fancy," comes to mind. Windows were usually rectangular and two or four-paned, but arched and even Gothic pointed variations can be found. Window pediment designs were often held over from the Classic Revival though there seemed to be a favouring of arches over points with decorative elements flowing down the sides. Inverted "horseshoe" shaped decorations topped arched windows. Bay windows were a favourite focal point, and entry portals were extremely ornamented. In short, excess was the order of the day, perfectly attuned to the "more is better" attitude of the era. Columns and eaves followed the same aesthetic. Woodwork was lavish and exquisitely crafted. Stained glass was a hallmark of the style, echoing money and taste. Chimneys, in the days before central heat, were tall, quite numerous, and highly ornamented.
In general, the line between tasteful and "too-much," both in the Italianate style and its Victorian decoration, was exceedingly thin. Owners and architects both were regularly guilty of crossing it. And as always, wealth and tasteful restraint seldom went hand in hand. But it must also be remembered, aesthetic judgements today are predicated on Modernism's turn-of-the-century revulsion to just such stylistic excesses. So in all cases, whether one calls it Italianate or Victorian, it's often best to give those who designed, built, and lived in these ornate, fantasy villas the benefit of the doubt in matters of taste.