George Washington was a demi-god, a landscape was the picture of Eden, a sunset was God’s poem, and everyman’s home was his castle. From this long distance, difficult for us to see who we were in the decades that bracket The War to End Slavery (the civil war between the states), difficult for a people who stare through screens to see through nature God and universal meaning. Even so, I hope in these brief paragraphs to show you the Italianate home as it was meant to be seen, a semi-divine creation in the realm of Beauty … circa 1860, that time when we knew the Bible, and our place in it.
Daniel C. Huntington, a friend and teacher, described this expansive, Italianate period:
Our ancestor was ever ready to perceive the manifestation of the holy. Anything that met his glance might strike his moral fancy … ever conscious of deity and concerned with destiny, our ancestor lived in an aura of expectancy / His eyes were ceaselessly on the watch for the glimmer or the glow of God’s signature…
And we, well, it seems that we are ever ready to receive the new gadget, the latest modern fashion, the newest distraction so that we might forget God, ignore the soul, neglect responsibility to neighbors. We cannot know the Italianate, or anything worth knowing of picturesque architecture by seeing with a modern eye. To see the Italianate, best to look upon the world through a moral window, beautifully framed and well composed. Best to transcend the ephemera of gadgets, to see as did our ancestor in that high realm of the beautiful Divine and the terrible* Sublime.
Several works-of-art should illustrate.
THE GLADNESS OF NATURE
Is this a time to be cloudy and sad,
When our mother Nature laughs around,
When even the deep blue heavens look glad,
And gladness breathes from the blossoming ground?
There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren,
And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;
The ground-squirrel gaily chirps by his den,
And the wilding bee hums merrily by.
The clouds are at play in the azure space
And their shadows at play on the bright-green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.
There’s a dance of leaves in that aspen bower,
There’s a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There’s a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.
And look at the broad-faced sun, how he smiles
On the dewy earth that smiles in his ray,
On the leaping waters and gay young isles;
Ay, look, and he’ll smile thy gloom away.
William Cullen Bryant
Yes, “Thanatopsis”, that dreary verse of death droned by matron professors is the more quoted, because sublime, yet “The Gladness of Nature” is rather more true to the hopeful view of the nation, its men and women, citizen poets, artists and architects. Notice how we are invited into the song and dance of nature, notice that all is alive in joyful personality, that fruit and flower smile, that brooks laugh, that gladness breathes from the blossoming ground. Notice the poet’s summons to be in harmony with Nature, to be one with the picture. Look again at the Italianate house (above) and hear its forms in the language of human emotion.
Frederick Church’s “Olana” is both the least and the most Italianate; the least typical, the most beautiful. Of the typical: notice the romance of towers, the crossed windows paired, the clearstory, the projections and shadowed porches, the medieval qualities that remember classic precedent. Of the beautiful: the painter’s boldly delicate touch, a richness of tincture; the draughtsman’s assertive lines, certain and sure; the artist’s brilliant inventions, seriously playful. Notice joy, almost innocent. As in the humble “The Gladness of Nature”, as in the grand Italianate house, Olana.
IL PENSEROSO & L’ALLEGRO
Thomas Cole’s diptych, well, companion-pieces, “Il Penserorso”** & “L’Allegro”, illustrate Milton rather less (though they do illustrate Milton), illustrate ideals of divinity and sublimity rather more. The “L’Allegro” is set in a sun-warmed Greek landscape among ruins that recall Olympian gods, even the light-footed Greek peasant remembers the pose of the Dancing Faun, that lusty joy of ancient statuary. Is that Olympus in the distance; are these Arcadians; certainly, nature imbues all things that are with youth, innocence, the euphoric spirit … see life insisting even upon decay.
High hill walls encircle the low lake of “Il Penseroso”, light and sky are barred from the picture, from the brooding slopes cool and darkening. To your left, a shrine in the grove of Diana is draped in offering, to your right, a shrine to the Virgin is pictured upon the heavy wall of a broken fortification. Notice the pious figure in supplication, grief, I would think. Notice that in each picture all of Nature is of one piece, either beautiful, joyful, open and bright, as in the “L’Allegro”, or sublime, terrible, closed and shadowing, as in the “Il Penseroso”.
From this distance it is easy to understand how Hegel logically, foolishly, disastrously imagined a zeitgeist, that spirited Ghost of a Time which excused the degeneracies of his day and excuses the current degeneracies of progressive modern art, architecture, and literature, man in the machine. We can observe the generalities beyond the picture, politics, aesthetics, opinion, and we can dilate upon the specifics within the picture, those lakeside Italianate villas, for instance …. pretty and picturesque as might be found in the landscapes of A. J. Downing, or in the castle houses of A. J. Davis.
There is more to what we see than what we see … ask any old priest, and he will tell you. Artists too, both poets and painters see divinity in a blade of grass, because divinity is in the blade … hum … both of grass and cutlass, as those who have experienced war’s sublimity will admit. Sometimes, an architect will create potentialities of the divine or the sublime, if the architect is an artist, and not merely a school-taught modernistic sloven. You can see the difference between the artist divinely guided and the professional, ideologically trained. The inventors and designers of the Italianate were artists, hos epi to plou. This artistry you will notice in a stroll through Old Town Alexandria, or any Italianate town: the Italianate core is artistically beautiful and can in pleasure be felt; the later-built professional, modernistic Italianate is dull, numb and intellectual, merely a licensed-architect design, a thing more theory than feeling, more CAD than hand.
And this I mention because, in truth, we live through the realm of Beauty, we are souls that partake of the sublime and the divine. The Italianate style was a creation of the common, civil practice of communal divinity, something different from the commercially singular productions of soulless, mechanically Modern styles. You see all around the soulless architecture of Modernism, atoms and the void. When speaking of the unlicensed artist-architect, Frederick Church, Daniel Huntington said that “Church experienced himself as a new Adam”. True enough: Frederick Church was a transcendentalist who discovered mysteries in the mustard seed, who translated the revelations of heavenly sky, who seemed to see each thing as if it was the first time seen.
ITALIANATE HOME STYLE
Architectural style is more than identifiable particulars, elements of wall, door and window, more than a fashion bracketed within start dates and end dates. Architecture, “an Italianate home” let us say, is the idea of an artist come to life, both on earth and in your mind. I hope that you can learn to see beyond the brackets of a house, as you see beyond the eyebrows of a person. There is more to a house and to a human than meets the eye, and the Italianate is a good place to learn to see.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalist poet, essayist, and philosopher (of the Italianate Period), in Poetry and Imagination, describes the act of seeing in the manner of Bryant, Church, Cole, Downing, Davis, and the Reverend John Chapman, our Johnny Appleseed:
While the student ponders this immense unity, he observes that all things in Nature, the mountain, the river, the seasons, wood, iron, stone, vapor, have a mysterious relation to his thoughts and his life; their growth, decays, quality and use so curiously resemble himself, in parts and in wholes, that he is compelled to speak by means of them.
To conclude: this advice from Aeschylus, “be what you want to seem”, that is, “the certain way to appear virtuous is to be so” implies that a soul is a part of a true whole and something more, the potentiality of that which you might be … “become what you want to see”, I say. All the world is through your eyes a picture, through your ears a song that is composed, after your nature. Look again at the picturesque designs of the Italianate house, castle-like, set in Eden’s landscape, a nation where George Washington is a demi-god, where this morning’s sunrise was the poetry of God, a gift to you.
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* As Burke would explain: sublime art is meant to disturb the viewer, to instill fear, to remind of fragile mortality; experience of terrible sublimity attends death. Attuned to God’s voice you might recognize in the soft breeze a beautiful whisper, in the ocean crash a sublime roar.
** “Il Penserorso” translates, “The Thinker”.
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Featured image: Litchfield Villa, Alexander Jackson Davis, des.
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