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13 chapters | 131 lessons
Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of these trends can be found in Renaissance Revival architecture across Europe, so how do we define this style and what it meant to the United States? The American Renaissance Revival may best be understood by the mood it imparted. From the 1890s through the 1820s, the USA was growing quickly in size, wealth, and prestige. This was an era of optimism, and American Renaissance Revivalism captured that.
American Renaissance Revival architecture tends to be very large in size and scale, reflecting the growth and expansive power of the USA. It was also very lavish and ornate, reflecting American wealth. Perhaps most importantly, however, it was featured frequently on an emerging form of American architecture: the skyscraper. This was a perfect pairing in many regards. The Renaissance saw an explosion in wealth and power, and Italian city-states celebrated by commissioning larger and more advanced architecture than ever before. By incorporating the motifs of the Italian Renaissance into the boom of the early 20th century, the USA was sending a clear and confident message. This wasn't just a revival of the Italian Renaissance in terms of aesthetics. This was the American Renaissance.
The Renaissance Revival was an architectural movement from roughly 1890 through the 1930s that celebrated the forms and attitudes of the 16th-century Italian Renaissance. Renaissance Revival architecture was large in size and scale, far more decorative than Neoclassical styles, and made heavy use of Renaissance motifs like colonnades, loggias, and low-pitched or flat roofs. In the USA, this style took on special meaning as Americans were going through their own Renaissance in arts, wealth, and global power. In this context, the American Renaissance Revival emulated the Italian Renaissance for the same reason that the founding figures emulated the Roman Republic: America was just picking up where these Italian civilizations left off.
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Back To CourseTypes of Architecture Study Guide
13 chapters | 131 lessons
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