The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

17. The Italian Garden in America: 1890s-1920s

MARGHERITA AZZI VISENTINI, Politecnico of Milano

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century a new chapter in the story of North American villa garden design begins. In reaction to the long-lasting picturesque tradition that had been flourishing for almost a hundred years since its introduction in the United States by Thomas Jefferson, 1 through the work of Andrew Jackson Downing, 2 to the achievements of Frederick Law Olmsted and his circle, 3 the taste for formality, for a clearer, more integrated relationship of indoor and outdoor space, house and garden, began to emerge.

The new movement coincided with the so-called Country Place Era, the result of the demand by an increased number of extremely rich patrons for bigger and more pretentious country estates, regarded as tangible symbols of their economic power. This period of American landscape architecture lasted for almost forty years, and came to an end with the Great Depression of the 1920s, the crash of 1929, and the new legislation of 1933. 4

The first very pretentious mansions, still related to the widespread eclecticism that characterized American domestic architecture and gardening of the middle nineteenth century, 5 looked back, for a model for both house and garden, to royal residences of Renaissance and Baroque Western Europe. A typical transitional example is Biltmore, the magnificent 125,000-acre country place of George Washington Vanderbilt, situated on a great plateau of mountainous western North Carolina, 2,300 feet above sea level, between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, overlooking the French Broad River. 6 Begun in 1888 and completed by 1895, Biltmore was the result of the collaboration of two of the leading artists of the day, the architect Richard Morris Hunt and the above-mentioned Frederick Law Olmsted. The imposing house was directly inspired by the early Renaissance French châteaux of the Loire Valley, with even a spiral staircase reminiscent of that of Francis I at Blois, while the outdoor areas just around it, shaped in geometric terraces, were partly related to Le Nôtre's Vaux-le Vicomte gardens. Olmsted also planned the landscaping of the extensive surrounding property, which was transformed into a picturesque forest of native and imported trees that extended all the way to the horizon.

At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Olmsted, together with his associate Harry Codman was largely responsible for the rational, clear spacial geometry of the impressive Court of Honor, unprecedented in its monumental scale. The fairgrounds and classicizing buildings were created by a unique interprofessional collaboration of architects and represent the first serious attempt at rejecting the American eclectic tradition in favor of an academic classicism of decidedly Beaux-Arts influence. 7

But Biltmore and the World's Fair Court of Honor were innovative moves at that moment away from the traditional picturesque landscape gardening and architectural eclecticism that were still dominating American domestic architecture. The real turning point in the story we are briefly delineating was Charles Adams Platt's rediscovery of the Italian Renaissance villa garden in its entirety and his attempt to adapt its scheme to the American soil. Platt, born into a comfortable and cultured New York City family, was trained as an etcher and painter in New York and later in Paris, where he spent five years studying landscape painting. He traveled for the first time to Italy from France in 1886 and was strongly impressed by the Italian countryside. Back in the States, he started a successful career exhibiting in New York. In 1889 Platt visited the artists' summer colony of

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