The quest for a style suitable for shaping the identity of American tycoons and high society at the turn of the nineteenth century was associated with the widespread aspiration — shared both by public authorities, private clients and intellectuals — to establish an image of the United States capable of representing its trust in progress and new economic forces. As the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1979 as well as a handful of subsequent scholars have demonstrated, architects sought this effect not only in luxurious residences but also in urban buildings (office buildings in Palazzo-style, skyscrapers in Campanile-style). The most popular model of the new aristocracy of money in this challenge was the Italian Renaissance. But why the Italian Renaissance? What differentiated the return of the ‘arti belle’ in the Gilded Age, as it was defined by Mark Twain, from similar Renaissance revivals that were spreading everywhere in Europe? Why, in the so-called season of eclecticism, American patrons commissioned their architects to build in the Italian Renaissance style and not in other ones? And above all, which Renaissance? That of the fifteenth century from Tuscany or that of the sixteenth century from Rome, Veneto or Lombardy? Why was the founding fathers’ imposing idea of ‘classic’, predominant until then in North America, overtaken by the more ‘modest’ Renaissance ideal? And yet, was the Palazzo-style so different from the architectural language of the previous U.S. state capitol buildings inspired by the Basilica of San Pietro in Rome? The essay aims to answer these questions, exploring the phenomenon of the ‘American Renaissance’, through new archival acquisitions, the works of American architects and the clients’ role between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, it will explain how, and with which impact the Italian sources and references had influenced the identity choices of the upper-class culture, and therefore the projects in the ‘Renaissance style’. Only in this way it will be possible to consider how and with what instruments cultured architects supported the finance magnates and the industrialists, who expressed specific design requests.
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