'Who is this Renaissance? Where did he come from?': Englishness and the Search for an American National Style, 1850-1900

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Architectural History

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The identification of the American elite with the Renaissance in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as seen in the extended Capitol Building and National Mall in Washington DC, can be traced back to architectural, historiographical and cultural trends taking place in Britain. The writings of John Ruskin, Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds framed the debate in the United States. At first Ruskin's antipathy towards the Renaissance was exacerbated by the Nativist Party's opposition to Catholic immigration, but then the writings of Pater and, particularly, Symonds achieved what Wallace K. Ferguson described as 'the thorough naturalization of Renaissancism in the English-speaking world'. Symonds's Hegelian interpretation of the historical era as a 'spirit of self-conscious freedom' enabled Americans from the 1870s onwards to post-rationalise the Renaissance as a national style. Symonds dethroned the Ruskinian cult of the Gothic and celebrated Renaissance classicism and secular individualism. His image of Italian despots as 'self-made men of commerce' and an 'aristocracy of genius and character' appealed to US capitalists, while his admiration for the sumptuous palaces built by these Renaissance 'men of power' reinforced the evolutionary theories of the British sociologist Herbert Spencer, whose principle of 'the survival of the fittest' became the creed of American plutocrats as they built their own palatial houses. Finally, his frequent references to the discovery of America by Columbus came to legitimise the image of the US as the heir of Renaissance culture, as proclaimed at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.



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