American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 12
Architecture and the reinterpretation of the past in the
American renaissance

Richard Guy Wilson

In 1894 Bernard Berenson prefaced his book The Venetian Painters with the observation, “Every generation has an innate sympathy with some epoch of the past wherein it seems to find itself foreshadowed…. We ourselves, because of our faith in science and the power of work, are instinctively in sympathy with the Renaissance … our tasks are more difficult because our vision is wider, but the spirit which animates us was anticipated by the spirit of the Renaissance, and more than anticipated. That spirit seems like the small rough model after which ours is being fashioned.” Berenson’s identification of the importance of the Italian Renaissance for Americans reflects not only his own academic interests but also an acute observation of recent events in Boston and Chicago. Across the landscape in expositions, monuments, public and private buildings, and City Beautiful campaigns American architects, landscape architects, painters, sculptors, and craftsmen joined together to create an iconography that would represent their nation as the rightful heir to the great themes of civilization.1

The belief that the United States had a special relationship with the Renaissance was a product of a rediscovery and reinterpretation of the past. Expressions of this relationship can be found beginning in the 1870s and continuing until well past the turn of the century. They range from the 1879 observation of architect A. J. Bloor, “our merchant princes, our large manufacturers, our money coining miners … are more disposed to emulate the expenditures of the Medici … than to conform to the habits of their thrifty forefathers,” to the statement of Henry Adams, “there is always an odor of spice and brown sugar about the Medicis. They patronized art as Mr. Rockefeller or Mr. Havemeyer does.” To others the relationship did not simply rely on an analogy of wealth; rather, the Renaissance spirit was reborn. The remark made by Augustus Saint-Gaudens to Daniel Burnham in 1891 at a planning session for the World’s Columbian Exposition is typical: “Look here old fellow, do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century!” Artist Will Low reported that many of his comrades “persuaded themselves for a year or so that the days of the Italian Renaissance were revived on Manhattan Island.” Some critics felt, as Berenson implied, that the present civilization of the United States was really a continuation of the Italian Renaissance. Harry Desmond and Herbert Croly, writing about the work of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, asked: “Can we not claim with the Renaissance an intimate intellectual kinship?” They identified the term Renaissance as a group of “political, social, and educational ideas” based on a “renewed faith in mankind,” a humanism rooted in classical antiquity.

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