by Maria Carla Robaina
“Architecture should speak for its time and place, but yearn for timelessness”Frank Gehry
It is said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and if that truly is the case, the Italians could burst with pride at any moment. Over the years, there have been many ideas and movements that have originated in Europe (specifically in Italy) which Americans have shamelessly adopted as their own. A very palpable one is Italian architecture, which has been imitated all over America since the very beginning of our nation as we know it, in an attempt to become a little more like the Romans. There is no surprise here, seeing as the United States always aimed to be the most powerful nation, and the Roman Empire was, and continues to be even after its fall, the greatest, longest lasting world power to ever exist. So why not copy their architecture? After all, architecture is, in my humble opinion, the perfect, most functional combination of science, and art. It is history, culture, past, present, and future intersecting into one; always recycling concepts, and reinventing itself: an everlasting reflection of the people.
While America’s motives are clear, it takes a curious eye to see exactly how America has embedded Italian architecture into its own. When we look at long-standing governmental structures, churches, and even suburban houses designed by American architects, we might be inclined to think that they invented it. In reality, they made a few alterations to an already existing model that was born in Italy. In some ways, we see that even today! All you need to do is buy a plane ticket to New York City, go down to Battery Park at the tip of the island of Manhattan, and recharge your closet with fake Gucci, and Fendi products.
When it comes to architecture, different religious, political, and artistic movements play a big role in dictating what the next building is going to look like. So, the best way to explore Italy’s influence on American architecture is to take a tour of Italian architecture and history.
Beware though, that this is a trip back in time, and with chronological stops along the way. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it, and you’ll find Italy around you, every single day!
Stop I: Ancient Rome
Roma was founded by Romulus in the year 753 BCE, and it became a republic in 509 BCE with the rise of the Senate . Much like America has done, the Romans also borrowed ideas from other cultures. In the 2ndcentury BCE, the Romans borrowed architectural ideas from the Greek, and created their own style. This ancient Roman style consisted of an external Greek façade with many contributions to suit Roman needs.
The ancient Greeks developed the idea of an amphitheater to stage plays, and entertain the masses. These structures were built on hills, which allowed everyone, no matter how far away from the stage, to see everything. One main feature of these amphitheaters is that they are completely open spaces with a stage on one extreme, and a semicircular seating arrangement in front of it .
The Romans took this concept, and improved it in the construction of the Colosseum in 80 CE. They added more seating space by having a centralized stage with seats creating an elliptical 527 meter circumference with a 48 meter height divided into four floors. With 45000 seating places, 5000 standing places, and 80 entrances, this provided a solution to Rome’s increasing population. Another feature that stands out is the presence of a backstage area, and a network of underground tunnels, which allowed for the preparation of the performances. This was especially true of gladiator shows, where the gladiators, and their wild animal counterparts were kept hidden from the audience in these tunnels. A partial roof, and above-ground seats were also features that the Romans added to the Greek design, which is similar to the stadiums, and arenas that we have today .
So, while the concept of an amphitheater was created by the Greek, our present-day implementation more closely resembles the Roman version of it. The clearest example is found in a football stadium, not only in the overall shape, and design of the building, but in the kinds of performances that it houses. Many football players share a similar background of low socioeconomic status, and football provides a possible exit from the life that they grew up having. Much like the gladiators back in ancient Rome, football players endure immense physical stress with the hope, but never assurance of a brighter future. While they do this by personal choice, it is inevitable to notice the similarities between the two groups, and how history repeats itself, even if on the other side of the Atlantic. What’s more enlightening, these upgraded gladiators are AMERICAN football players, which says a lot about the United States as a nation. We have been so fixated on the success of the Romans, and the desire to reach it, that we have copied one too many aspects of their identity, ignoring the people at the bottom who are affected by this.
Arches and Vaults:
With the rise of Rome came wealth, and an increase in immigration. High population densities demanded architectural solutions, which included the use of arches, and vaults in constructions for public use. Arches originated in ancient Egypt and Greece but the Romans were the first to use semicircular arches in bridges, and large scale architecture like we see today .
One of the structures that used arches is the Arch of Constantine. This arch was built in 315 CE in honor of Emperor Constantine’s victory. It has three arches, and it is a symbol of wealth, power, and authority . Not surprisingly, an American interpretation is found in New Orleans Mint (1838), which really made me think about the intentions behind this. New Orleans Mint is overpopulated with an excessive number of arches (See link below). But what better way to bless a country with good fortune than to include symbols of wealth in its money-making facility? Whether intentional or not, there’s no denying that in the 1830’s there was a lot of Italian influence on American architecture.
The use of oversized arches is also seen in The Presbytere, a museum in New Orleans that was built in 1813. In its picture, we can even compare the size of the arches to that of the people standing below them, and we can appreciate how these arches served a decorative purpose, and were not just entrance points, an idea that is entirely Roman in nature since Greek and Egyptian arches were built large enough to allow people to go through them.
Another Roman innovation were groin vaults, which were used in the Baths of Caracalla. Built in the year 212-216/217 CE, these public baths had a 24 meter long tepidarium (warm bathroom) . These vaults were meant to fortify structures, and they were also used in the construction of New Orleans Mint (See link below for pictures).
The Roman Pantheon was originally finished in 25 BCE, however, in 80 CE it was demolished, and the one we see today is the reconstruction under Emperor Hadrian in 118 CE. He had vast knowledge of culture, and respected all religions, so he intended to create an inclusive space for people of all faiths to gather. Churches provided gathering grounds for people since religion was a social act.Aside from the personal beliefs that led to this decision, it also acted as a political strategy since during this time, a large portion of Rome’s habitants did not worship Roman gods, so making them feel accepted was of utmost importance for the government .
The Pantheon is considered a perfect space because it has the same length, and height. It has 8 Corinthian columns in the front under a triangular roof. An enormous dome (the largest surviving dome from antiquity) stands on the back of the building . This structure is very similar to the United States Supreme Court building, which was finished on 1935. The two structures do have some marked differences because the Pantheon has a large dome, which the Supreme Court lacks, and the Supreme Court is elevated off ground-level, and there are stairs leading up to its entrance. However, just like the Pantheon, the Supreme Court building has a triangular roof, and exactly 8 Corinthian columns in the front . The number 8 bears a lot of weight in religion, especially those religions based on the bible such as Catholicism. The 8 is the symbol of resurrection, and regeneration, so it represents a new beginning, something that was definitely fitting for the Pantheon since it was RE-constructed. After learning a lot about the Romans in these past few months, I can’t help but think that this is not a coincidence. I believe that even though the Pantheon was meant to be an inclusive ground, its design included the number 8 as an inconspicuous representation of Roman Catholicism. The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court is modeled after this makes me believe that there are only two reasons why it happened: 1. Copying Italian architecture in governmental structures became so important that they did it thoughtlessly (unlikely since it’s not an exact replica), or 2. Christianity, and therefore biblical references, play a large role in America’s history as “One nation, under God (…)”. I am aware that the presence of the number 8 might just be about a liking for symmetry. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think that perhaps there is more to it that we have yet to uncover.
While the U.S. Supreme Court is definitely a copy of the Pantheon, a subtler application of this classic Roman architectural style is found in George Washington’s Virginia home: Mount Vernon. Not surprisingly, the number 8 makes an appearance again in the form of columns. In this case, the classic Corinthian columns are americanized and modernized since they are squared columns with little to no embellishment at the top (where the column meets the roof).
Stop II: Byzantine-Roman Architecture
The Byzantine era began around 330 CE, when the Roman capital was moved to Byzantium, in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. In its beginnings, Byzantine architecture was indistinguishable from Roman architecture since it emphasized the same classical Roman elements. A distinction, however, was in the improvement of walls, and domes in churches. With the rise of Christianity, a lot of emphasis was placed on churches, and their fortification . During this time, the interior of buildings was more important than their exterior. Basically, the exterior was meant to be functional, with the thick walls, and larger domes, while the interior could be more adorned, with intricate, and colorful mosaics.
An example of Byzantine-Roman architecture is the Basilica diSant’ Apollinare Nuovo (505 CE) in Ravenna, Italy, which has a very rich mosaic on its ceiling. Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court (1789) has a mosaic design on its ceiling.
While there are marked differences, it surprised me to find out about the many influences of Italian architecture in the design of the United States’ Supreme Court building, especially because the latter houses different styles from different eras.
Stop III: The Renaissance
The renaissance movement was born in Florence in the 1300s CE, and lasted until the 1600s CE. This period is one of my personal favorites because it was characterized by realism, and naturalism. This era was marked by advances in the arts, sciences, and architecture, all of which went hand in hand .
A well known edifice of this era is the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in the Vatican City or Saint Peter’s Basilica. Its construction was completed in 1626, and included a large dome, which was common in the Renaissance .
Another prime example of renaissance architecture is the dome in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (1436). This dome is one of the most impressive achievements of the Renaissance because never before had anyone constructed such a large dome. On top of the cathedral’s height, a pedestal for the dome was built that put the dome’s base at the staggering height of 170 feet, with a shape known as quinto acuto or “pointed fifth”. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the dome’s construction ended in 1436 CE, and it is until this day, one of the most significant architectural feats to ever exist .
Here in America there are plenty examples of buildings with large domes that mimic the style of that in Santa Maria del Fiore. Perhaps the easiest that comes to everyone’s mind is that of the U.S. Capitol. The reason for their similarity is that Thomas Jefferson wanted Congress housed in a replica of an ancient Roman temple, specifically, a “spherical” temple. The U.S. Capitol’s designs evoke the ideals that guided our founding fathers when they created the new republic; ideals which also came in part from ancient Rome. In the 1850s, architect Thomas U. Walter added a cast iron dome to the design, and it is inevitable to see the similarity to the one in Florence .
Palladian Architecture: The Palladian Window
Palladian architecture refers not to a new era in scientific, artistic, political, or religious movement, but to a specific 16thcentury Venetian architect named Andrea Palladio . He changed the landscape of his hometown, and extended his influence with a rippling effect throughout the world, breaking down geographic, and time barriers to persist even in the modern day. Palladian windows are incredibly large,three-section windows where the center section is arched and larger than the two. Many constructions in the late renaissance included these kinds of windows to give a feeling of formality . It is remarkable that this style has stood the test of time, and continues to be used in suburban neighborhoods in America with great prominence. Not only do they evoke elegance, but they also allow sunlight to come in, which balances out the sophisticated renaissance style with the incorporation of nature in indoor spaces . Furthermore, these windows are one of my favorite icons of the renaissance because by letting in the sunlight, they help reduce the use of electricity when unnecessary, something that really helps the planet, and that I am passionate about.
The end of this tour of some of the major Italian architectural movements has arrived, at least for the time being. Who knows the many ways in which Italy is yet to manifest itself in America? One thing I know is that there is an undeniable influence that Italy has had, and continues to have on our lives. When it comes to architecture, I love that we have concrete examples (no pun intended) as evidence of the remarkable impact that such a small country can have. Italian architecture is everywhere around us, so in going to Italy, I have the complete reassurance that I’ll still feel, on some level, at home. From modern day stadiums, to the use of arches and vaults in our very own university campus (See picture below), to majestic governmental structures, and even something as overlooked as a window, Italian architecture is ubiquitous. So the next time I go to a concert, I’ll have Rome in my mind. All of this, the little things, are part of our culture, our history, our identity. So, in a way, aren’t we all Italy?
Google Slides Presentation:
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- Cartwright, M. (2019, April 11). Greek Theatre Architecture. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/895/greek-theatre-architecture/
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- Britannica, T. E. (2008, November 17). Arch. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/technology/arch-architecture
- Cartwright, M. (2019, April 11). The Arch of Constantine, Rome. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/497/the-arch-of-constantine-rome/
- Vault (architecture). (2018, December 09). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vault_(architecture)#Groin_vaults
- Cline, A. (2018, February 16). The History and Architecture Behind Rome’s Pantheon. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pantheon-in-rome-history-and-architecture-249498
- Supreme Court Building. (2018, October 19). Retrieved from https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/supreme-court-building
- Cartwright, M. (2019, April 11). Byzantine Architecture. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Byzantine_Architecture/
- Editors, H. (2018, April 04). Renaissance. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/renaissance/renaissance
- Saint Peter’s Basilica (Rome) (1506-1626). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/saint-peters-basilica.htm
- King, R. (2013). Brunelleschis dome: How a renaissance genius reinvented architecture. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
- Capitol Hill Neoclassical Architecture. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/architecture-styles/neoclassical-architecture-capitol-hill
- Craven, J. (2018, February 23). Architecture in Italy – From Ancient to Modern. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/architecture-in-italy-for-casual-traveler-177683
- Craven, J. (2017, November 26). Introduction to the Palladian Window. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-palladian-window-177518