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Index by Medium

Italian Renaissance Style

One of the difficulties, as we continue studying the relatively minor foreign influences in American domestic architecture, is that by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, earlier styles sometimes returned to "haunt" the hapless student of architecture. The most obvious example is what came to be known as the Italian Renaissance style of the 1880s through the 1920s. As you might recall, after the Civil War, there came the Italianate style. And almost before it faded, there came Italian Renaissance. Okay, how was one to tell the difference? Actually it's easy. The Italianate was based upon fantasy--how American architects thought Italian homes ought to look. Italian Renaissance homes, on the other hand, often were based upon firsthand visits by architects and/or their clients to Italy itself. Sometimes called Mediterranean style, they were simply more authentic than the Italianate...sometimes surprisingly so.

Coming so closely on its heels, it might be tempting to say that the Italian Renaissance was simply an evolutional development of the Italianate; but this simply is not the case. If the Italianate evolved, it was toward English stylings, becoming more and more prettified and Victorian. The Italian Renaissance was not even a return to the roots of the Italianate because if there were such roots, they were only shallowly planted in fanciful, mid-century plan books. Instead, the Italian Renaissance style came from deep, authentic, Italian urban architectural roots, some dating back five hundred years--literally to the Renaissance. The only thing lost was the fortress quality many of these palazzos found necessary. And even at that, the ground floor of many Italian Renaissance structures continued to boast the rusticated stone of their fortress-like Italian ancestors.

In describing the style, the large, two-story cube predominates, usually symmetrical, usually with a low-hipped roof, or a balustraded flat roof. Mediterranean red-tile roofs are most common as are decorative brackets supporting the eaves. The Italian love of the arch, dating back to its Roman inventors, is everywhere evident, especially in entries and ground floor windows. Classical columns are limited to recessed entries and the rare instances of protruding one-story porches. Window pediments are common on the second or "main" level while window treatments become simpler as the eye moves up and the window sizes become smaller. And while the style is not without certain masonry adornments, it is by far more elegant and sedate than any Italianate flimflammery.

Seldom does one see a small Italian Renaissance house. At minimum they have eight to ten rooms, and even those are somewhat rare. The more common is the twenty-plus-room stone mansion, often rising to three or more floors with smaller, symmetrical wings. Northern versions tend toward Palladian elements while those in sunnier climates seem longer, lower, flatter, and less decorated. In any case, architects and their clients often went out of their way to be true to Italian models. Vizcaya, the Italian Renaissance estate of James Deering on Biscayne Bay in Miami, actually had a three-story open-air courtyard that, even for Florida, might be considered a bit too authentically Italian. It's since been covered with a glass and steel roof that, while undoubtedly preserving the structure in the face of hurricanes such as Hugo, managed to turn the entire courtyard into a giant solarium which, in the absence of modern air-conditioning, would be virtually unbearable.

contributed by Lane, Jim


22 October 2000

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