What Makes a Home “Italianate”? Here’s How to Tell

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Bidwell Mansion in Chico, California

From awe-inspiring countryside mansions to urban row homes, the Italianate style of architecture left an ornate mark on much of Europe and North America. But what makes a home “Italianate”? The answer is a bit more complicated than the word’s Italian origins would lead you to believe.

The first Italianate home was designed in 1802 by the British architectural luminary John Nash. Nash designed London’s most picturesque structures, like the Marble Arch, the Royal Pavilion, and the expansion of Buckingham Palace. But, outside the bustling city of London, he developed the first Italianate villa not in Italy, but at Cronkhill in Shropshire. According to architectural scholar Michael Mansbridge, Nash took inspiration from a Claude Lorrain painting of the Roman countryside. The villa features a white stucco exterior with arched windows and two towers — a circular, three-story tower, and a smaller square one. With a wraparound balcony and precisely manicured landscaping, Nash’s Cronkhill Villa set the tone for the wave of Italianate homes that would sweep across the Atlantic.

What does Italianate mean?

Though the Italianate style originated in Great Britain, the style gets its name from its references to Italian renaissance designs. During the Industrial Revolution, British architects mass-produced cast-iron ornamentation to pay homage to the quaint, opulent homes of the Italian countryside. Italianate homes are considered a form of Victorian architecture, as the style became popular during Queen Victoria’s reign, from 1837 through 1901.

Blandwood Mansion in Greensboro, North Carolina

What does an Italianate house look like?

Italianate homes usually take a rectangular or L-shape, standing two or three stories tall. Their exteriors are ornate and unique, featuring intricate, decorative details like window trim, brackets, arched windows, and corbels. With flat or slightly sloped roofs and sturdy brick construction, Italianate homes are durable, standing the test of time.

While country dwellers enjoyed their opulent, Italianate estates, the style also lent itself to the construction of row homes in cities. This floor plan bolstered the style’s appeal — the simplicity made it an affordable choice for the construction of row houses in high-density urban areas. 

Credit: Felix Lipov/Shutterstock.com
Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine

Where can you find Italianate houses? 

In the 1840s, the architect Andrew Jackson Davis popularized the style as a contrast to the growing Southern Gothic style in the United States. He constructed the Blandwood Mansion in Greensboro, North Carolina, for Governor John Motley Morhead, as well as the Litchfield Villa in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Other historic representations of Italianate architecture include the Bidwell Mansion in Chico, California, completed in 1868, and Victorian Mansion in Portland, Maine, built in 1860.

You can find Italianate row homes in New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco, where the famous “Painted Ladies” display a more angular variation on the Victorian style. But Cincinnati is home to perhaps the highest density neighborhood for Italianate architecture. The Ohio town boomed in the mid-1840s, precisely when Italianate architecture peaked in popularity. 

What are the key features of an Italianate house? 

The rise of the Italianate style coincided with the Industrial Revolution. For architects, this meant that it was easier than ever to mass-produce the cast-iron, decorative elements that define Italianate exteriors. Given the historical context, it makes sense why many Victorian styles display a fanciful flair. 

The most recognizable feature of an Italianate home is its belvederes, cupolas, or towers. These structures extend above the roof of the home, offering a scenic view of the surrounding grounds. And where were these square towers most popular? You guessed it — Italy.