The Italianate Style

How Art Shapes Our Life

Sal MaccaroneMay 17, 2012 

Throughout history many civilizations have been able to impress future generations with distinctive architectural style. The best parts of one popular style will often influence another. Concepts will continue to evolve until the world consensus decides to go in an all together different direction. But great styles always endure and eventually will re-emerge in some fashion or another. For it is the Architectural Revival that makes use of the important visual elements from a previous era.

Italianate, a Renaissance revival style, draws from a wide range of mainly 16th century Italian architectural models. This fresh approach which borrowed from the look of classical buildings began to appear in England right at the turn of the 19th century. It was not long before the movement spread through Europe and by the early 1830s it arrived in America.

Some prominent features of the style as it developed here at home include: Low roof lines which seem to be supported by corbels; classical columns which are used to bolster balconies and other overhangs; centered and terraced domes and towers; arched windows; and of course, the extensive use of balusters, balustrades, finials and cornices.

Many early California houses were wooden renditions of the European Italianate style. For instance, the historic John Muir family mansion in Martinez, a National Historic Site, clearly demonstrates the influence of the movement.

Some of the buildings of early San Francisco were also of this style. Unfortunately, like so many of these early Victorian era structures that were made of wood, their numbers are ever diminishing.

For a more enduring example of the style, let us consider the Merced County Courthouse which was erected in 1874. Also on the National Register of Historic Places, this functional yet beautiful government building was designed by Albert Bennett (1825-1890) who eventually became California's state architect.

It was the second of five very similar San Joaquin Valley courthouses that Mr. Bennett built between 1872 and 1876. It is also the last that remains. These three story courthouses were Italianate in style, but as is the case with most revival architecture there are many other influences at play.

Certain elements of his design borrowed from what was current in Europe at the time. Also, the statues which grace the building's rooftops descend directly from Roman mythology. Sculptures of Justica (Justice) on the lower eyebrow shaped roofs are closely watched by Minerva (wisdom) which is perched high atop the central dome.

The initial use of the Merced Courthouse was many fold. The ground level was headquarters to the sheriff and his county jail. The second level, which is accessed by a grand stairway, had rooms that were devoted to county offices, the district attorney, court judges and a law library. Proceeding from the second level, there is a wonderful interior stairway with heavy curved handrails that leads to the courtroom which was located at the top.

I was personally impressed with the interior woodwork. It is done in old-growth west coast Redwood which was painted and grained to resemble east coast Oak in order to be more impressive. The irony now is that Redwood is much more valuable than Oak.

This magnificent building is now home to the Merced County Courthouse Museum, Located at 21st and N streets, it is really worth a visit. The interior is devoted to sharing a wonderful collection of photographs, artifacts and many other pieces of historical memorabilia. The Merced Historical Society is also host to many special events during the year. Currently there is an exhibit on view titled, "Celebrating Woman in Merced County History."

The museum is open 1-4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday but you can visit the grounds and view the building anytime.

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