American Renaissance Revival: Architecture & Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How did the Italian Renaissance end up in the United States? In this lesson, we're going to check out the Renaissance Revival style and architecture and see what it meant to Americans.

The American Renaissance Revival

Americans have long had a soft spot for all things Italian, and no, we're not just talking about pizza, pasta, and wine. Many of the very first American national aesthetics were based on ancient Roman art and architecture. This was a way to create an ideological parallel between the Roman and American republics, and it's been a salient feature of American design ever since. In fact, Americans have looked to Italy for design inspiration many times.

The result has been several different interpretations of Roman and Italian motifs within American landscapes. How do we even begin to tell them all apart? Most of these are some variation of Neoclassicism, a revival of classical ancient Greek and Roman forms. Neoclassical architecture is serious, symmetrical, and resulted in government buildings that look like Roman temples. However, there is one particular form of American architecture that's just as Italian, but not so Neoclassical. It's the Renaissance Revival, and it's just as American as stuffed-crust pizza.

History of the Renaissance Revival

In the simplest terms, American Renaissance Revival architecture focuses on a celebration of forms and motifs inspired by the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century. So, how'd this style end up in the United States? The 19th century was a time of decorative experimentation in architecture across the Western world, and revival movements thrived. Neoclassical and Greek Revival architecture was supplanted by Neo-Gothic architecture, the Tudor Revival, Egyptian Revival, Rococo Revival, and even the Eclectic style that took inspirations from everywhere and blended them together.

Renaissance Revival building in California modeled on architecture of the Italian Renaissance

In the early-mid 19th century, the USA and England went through their first round of Renaissance-inspired revivals, generally called the Italianate style. The Italianate style drew inspiration from the Renaissance rather than ancient Rome, but there were issues in how well American and English architects could imitate these forms.

By the end of the 19th century, craftspeople in the USA and England had become much more adept at decorative arts and an interest in the Renaissance re-emerged. Thanks to photography and more efficient means of travel, architects could reference actual Renaissance structures for inspiration. The Renaissance Revival ended up being impressively accurate in its devotion to 16th-century Italian designs. Throughout Western nations, the Renaissance Revival movement lasted from roughly the 1890s through 1930s, petering out during the Great Depression.

Characteristics of Renaissance Revival Architecture

So, what does a Renaissance Revival building look like? As with all revival movements, the devil is in the details; it was the design and decorations that matter more than forms of structures. That meant that Renaissance Revival themes could be applied to basically any structure. That being said, there are a few structural requirements for this style. For one, Renaissance Revival buildings are almost always made of masonry or stone. Secondly, they are large and impressive in size and scale, or at the very least are made to appear as if they're large and impressive.

To identify a Renaissance Revival structure, look to the roof and the façade as the most important indicators. Renaissance Revival roofs tend to be low-pitched and hipped, with wide overhanging eaves. This look was inspired by the country palazzos of Renaissance elites. Many Renaissance Revival roofs are also tiled, just to throw in a little extra Mediterranean flair.

Renaissance Revival structure in Washington D.C. Note how the lower floors look different from the upper floors

In the façade, look for symmetrical designs that feature a rational layout. This is true of Neoclassical architecture as well, however, so how do you tell the difference? Neoclassical buildings tend to be relatively austere, focusing on major architectural features that make the building look like a Roman temple. Renaissance Revival architecture, on the other hand, is anything but austere. It is lavish, ornate, and highly decorative. Nearly every window or door is flanked by columns and capped with an arch. Often, multiple windows in row will be used to create the impression of a colonnade or loggia (covered patio), both of which were common in the Renaissance.

Finally, you can expect the first floor of a Renaissance Revival structure to feature different motifs than higher floors. The lowest floor is usually in the Doric Order (the oldest of the Classical styles) or is rusticated, with stones set so that the spaces between them create dramatic shadows. Any floors above that will feature different motifs.

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