What Is Italianate Architecture?

Villa Finale, San Antonio, TX

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Italianate architecture is a popular 19th-century style of building that was inspired by 16th-century Italian Renaissance architecture combined with Picturesque influences from the farmhouses of the Tuscan countryside.

This Victorian-era style that began in Britain and spread around the world favored the use of architectural elements from a romanticized past to create buildings that offered an alternative to the prevailing formality of classical architecture. This meant an embrace of less rigid building forms and floor plans as well as an emphasis on natural landscaping when space permitted.

Cronkhill in Shropshire
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History of Italianate Architecture

British architect John Nash is thought to have built the first Italianate villa in England, Cronkhill in Shropshire in 1802, but Italianate architecture had its heyday between 1840-1885. This Victorian-era style was a British interpretation of the architectural and natural splendors of Florence and the Italian countryside that captured the imagination of visiting architects and landscape designers. Architects and landscape designers enchanted by 16th-century Italian Renaissance palazzos in Florence and the Italian farmhouses of Tuscany sought to reproduce some Italian charm at home, creating living three-dimensional postcards of their European tours. 

Whereas Greek Revival architecture had been inspired by the classicism of ancient Greece and Rome, Italianate architecture took its cues from Romanticism, the Renaissance, Italian villas, and gardens. It combined the humble Tuscan country farmhouse with its simple lines and signature elements like prominent square towers that could give an irregular shape to an otherwise symmetrical building and offered fresh possibilities for people searching for modern design options that eschewed what came to be seen by some as the stuffiness of classical style and offered more flexible floor plans and lifestyle options. 

Italianate aesthetics were adapted to a range of building types and adapted for a range of income levels, including spacious homes on sprawling properties for the wealthy, and city brownstones and row houses on smaller lots. The rise of mass-production meant that fashionable Italianate architectural details could be easily and affordably produced and applied to buildings to create a nod to the style, albeit in a simplified version. 

The ideal Italianate home is built on enough land to highlight its connection to the outdoors in homage to the landscaping of the Tuscan countryside, with Picturesque details including follies, grottos, and landscaping that looked natural, lush, and spontaneous, and aspired to be as pretty as an oil painting.

Italianate style spread from England throughout Northern Europe, the British Empire, and to the United States where it became the most popular style in America in the 1860s after the Civil War. The style spread across the U.S. in large part thanks to popular pattern books that were written by champions of Italianate style such as The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) by New York landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing. In the United States, you can find shining examples of Italianate architecture in places like the Brooklyn Heights area of NYC; the 600 block of East Capitol Street NE in Washington, D.C.; the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati, and throughout the country in places like San Francisco or New Orleans.

Osbourne House, Isle of Wight
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Key Characteristics of Italianate Architecture

  • Typically built from brick or wood clapboard
  • Between two and four stories 
  • Tall in appearance
  • Subtly sloping hipped roofs
  • Deep overhanging eaves with prominent decorative brackets and wide cornices
  • Corbels
  • Entrances with decorative details such as columns, brackets, as well as raised one-story porches, and single or double doors 
  • Belvederes, cupolas, or towers 
  • Tall narrow rectangular or arched windows
  • Decorative window trim, pediments
  • Bay windows
  • Porches with decorative woodwork
  • Flexible interior spaces that were a departure from the formal floor plans of classical architecture and often included better access to outdoor space
  • Focus on the role of landscaping with fanciful picturesque elements like grottos and follies where space permitted
  • Mass-produced cast iron or pressed metal decorative elements on balconies, porches, and fences
Italianate townhouses
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Interesting Facts About Italianate Architecture

Italianate architecture is a category of Victorian architecture, which is not a particular style but an era—the reign of Queen Victoria over the United Kingdom of Great Britain from 1837 to 1901. 

In addition to Italianate, more than 60 years of Victorian era architecture produced styles that include early Gothic Revival, Exotic, Folk Victorian, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Stick, Romanesque Revival, Shingle, Colonial Revival, and the popular Queen Anne style.