December 03, 2011

Of Gilded Age and Italy: Or, Why Pierpont Morgan Used Someone Else's Family Crest


Carved quarter-sawn white oak wainscoting (full putti head detail, among other Renaissance motifs) in the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion Dining Room. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

The Nickerson Mansion has nearly 20 rooms on its three floors and design-wise, each room is pretty much doing its own thing. Walk into the drawing room, and bam. All the noble delicacy of Louis XIV France. The east-facing guest bedroom is folk Japanesque sprinkled with Anglo styles. The Library: Sturdy English Renaissance.

But one motif persists through nearly all of them like a repeating note under one melody: Italian Renaissance.

There is the pristine Italianate scene above the Reception Room mantelpiece, where micromosaic tiles depict arched colonnades framing a view of a fountain and courtyard. In the Main Hall, Italian Verde di Prato and Rosso di Verona marbles are prominently displayed. Renaissance Italy also covers the Master Bedroom, where gilded scrollwork adorns the carved wainscoting and columns with Ionic capitals lend the window frames classical elegance.

It is lost on none of us that this thoroughly Italian bedroom belonged to Mr. Nickerson. (And who can blame him? Ah, Italy. It gave us, after all, the religion of Rome, the wines of Chianti, the art of Florence and, thanks to Sicily, all the fodder one could hope for for films like The Godfather and Goodfellas.)

But why was Italy his locale of choice—what with themes from the more exotic Morocco across the hall and Japan just upstairs?

Italianate mantelpiece micromosaic in the Nickerson Mansion Reception Room. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Cupid and Psyche, late 19th century. From the studio of Orazio Andreoni in Rome. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

The great cultural strides Italy made during the 15th and 16th centuries were aided by rich businessmen of nobility—these are the merchant princes. They helped the Renaissance thrive when they poured their money into the makers of art, education and philosophy. Think of how names like Titian, Botticelli, Michelangelo and da Vinci have lasted (and those were only the era’s painters). These artists plus numerous writers, philosophers, scientists and politicians created a body of literature, art, thought and science that still influence us today.

Then the wealthy businessmen of the Gilded Age came along, hundreds of years later and in America. They saw themselves as ushers for a similar cultural moment in this country. With their millions they became art collectors, sending representatives (or traveling themselves) abroad to buy up paintings by the Great Masters. They displayed this art, yes, as a form of conspicuous consumption, but also in hopes to improve society’s tastes. They also gave generous gifts and donations to cultural and educational institutions. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps more famous for his public libraries than the steel fortune that enabled him to fund them. Rockefeller invested in public health and gave financial support to universities. They became, in short, philanthropists. A modern twist on patron.

The seeds of similarity between our entrepreneurs and Italy’s merchant princes thus planted, now comes the matter of décor. 

Wealthy Americans of the late 19th century began to build palatial residences in which to convey their social rank. Unlike the merchant princes, however, they were without noble heritage—beyond that of shopkeepers, farmers and other such heretofore humble American enterprises. These nouveaux riches needed an established visual language and style to match this new identity of grandeur, and quaint American Colonial just wasn’t going to do it. 

European traditions of all kinds therefore abound in the Gilded Age mansions, but if you were going to put on a historic style like a new suit, Renaissance Italy was the most perfect fit.

Detail of a carved lion on the marble staircase in the Main Hall. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Mr. Nickerson wasn’t the only one who had this idea. He was merely part of a wider theme in Gilded Age architecture.

Pierpont Morgan, for example, housed his library in an Italianesque structure designed by Charles McKim. Adjoining his Madison Avenue home in New York City, the building was completed in 1906 and still stands as part of the Morgan Library & Museum today. For the study’s ceiling, McKim imported a 16th-century coffered wooden ceiling from Florence and assigned an artist the task of faux-aging the wood so it looked like an antiquated Italian villa. On the walls, a red silk damask—wonderfully replicated by the textile company Scalamandré, the same company that created our wall fabrics here at the Driehaus Museum—bears the family crest of Italian Renaissance banker and arts patron Agostino Chigi.

Pierpont Morgan’s restored Renaissance-influenced study. Photo by Graham S. Haber, courtesy the Morgan Library and Museum.

There are many other examples, I’m sure. The fireplaces in the John Ballantine House in New Jersey (now the Newark Museum) have Renaissance motifs. I’ve heard of the summer “cottage” out in Newport they just call The Breakers, which was the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. There are 70 rooms in this massive palace, which was—surprise, surprise—inspired by the grand residences of Renaissance Genoa and Turin.

—Lindsey Howald Patton

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