The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview
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15. The Italianate Villa and the Search for an American Style, 1840-1860

CHARLES E. BROWNELL, University of Virginia


The purpose of this essay is to show that Italian architecture played a vital part in American architectural developments at the middle of the nineteenth century. Among the Americans of this period who concerned themselves with the idea of a national style in architecture, some important figures believed that a newly imported vogue, the Italianate villa, had swiftly become just such a style. In the long run, the "American-Italian" or "American Style of Italian" met with fortunes very different from what its mid-century admirers had intended. It had, however, lasting consequences for American architecture. In particular, no movement had more to do with establishing the axially asymmetrical façade in stylish architecture. Much about the Italianate villa had, in actuality, little to do with Italy, but genuine Italian precedent contributed profoundly to the asymmetrically composed façades in question. 1

In 1840, except for a handful of members of the avant-garde, when Americans built a stylish building, they followed the principle of axial symmetry for the façade. However regular or irregular a building's plan might be, this plan had to fit behind a main front where the left-hand and right-hand sides exactly mirrored each other (or, ple controlled one of the principal features of a building, the main façade, and decisively influenced an even more important feature of the building, the plan.

This principle represents the influence of the classical tradition. The Italian Renaissance renewed the Graeco-Roman legacy of Western culture, with consequences that remained especially newed the Graeco-Roman legacy of Western culture, with consequences that remained especially strong down into the mid-nineteenth century. This essay, in fact, rests on the belief that one can speak of this phenomenon as a coherent tradition, one that ran through the center of Western architecture for some four centuries, from the Early Renaissance in Florence to the international Neoclassical movement of the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. In what is now the United States, the tradition made itself felt architecturally as early as the seventeenth century. Between 1740 and 1840 the tradition grew immensely powerful in shaping the course of architecture here, with the popularizing of, first, Anglo- Palladianism, and then the several species of Neoclassicism. 2

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, the tradition and, with it, the axially symmetrical façade, lost their central place and became merely one set of possibilities. By 1860, the building with an asymmetrical main front -- the building designed to be seen from the principal vantage points as an irregular cluster of masses -- had become established in American taste. Specifically, the irregularly composed house and the irregularly composed church had become fundamental possibilities for stylish design in the United States. Asymmetry had not put in as great a showing on the fronts of civic buildings and commercial structures, but it had materialized there in important examples.

Such massing, which offers great opportunities for imaginative composition and great advantages for practical planning, has remained a basic possibility in stylish architecture ever since. Various intermingled developments contributed to its success at mid-century: for instance, the Picturesque Movement, the Gothic Revival, and, within the Gothic Revival, the parish church revival. Among these developments, the irregular Italianate villa has received little scholarly attention. 3

What was the Italianate villa? It was one mani


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