Postcards from Italy

Liberty: Italy’s Art Nouveau

Italy may be best known for its Renaissance and Baroque architecture, but the country’s creative vein didn’t end in the 1700s. During the decades straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, a new artistic movement swept through Europe and the US, which influenced everything from fashion and advertising to the decorative arts. Most significantly, the movement left its mark on the architecture of the time, and still today we can find its organic, botanical lines in facades and interiors across Italy.

Quartiere Coppedè

(Photo by Sarah Nichols via Flickr)

In France, this movement was known as “Art Nouveau”, but in Italy it was originally called “Floreale”—soon changed to “Liberty” after the landmark Liberty & Co. shop in London. Breaking from the rigid geometry of the past, the Liberty style was informed by the more fluid lines found in nature (and helped along by new techniques to shape iron, glass, and cement) and became the hallmark of a new generation of upper and middle classes who were looking to build residences and commercial buildings that reflected their distance from the Continent’s historic aristocracy.

Quartiere Coppedè

(Photo by Sarah Nichols via Flickr)

Liberty reached its heyday after the 1902 Turin Exhibition, and the major centers of Liberty architecture in Italy are spread across Italy, but roughly coincide with areas where the economy was booming at the end of the 19th century and newly wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs were commissioning houses, offices, and factories. Cities like Milan, Turin, and Rome are home to a number of important Liberty-style buildings, as are Florence, Lucca, and Viareggio. Even Palermo holds a surprising Liberty masterpiece.

Quartiere Coppedè

(Photo by Sarah Nichols via Flickr)

Unfortunately, the Liberty movement was short-lived in Italy. With the rise of Fascism came a new aesthetic, Rationalism, which rejected the undulating, natural motifs of Liberty for the angular and simplified Neoclassicism that recalled an idealized architecture of ancient Rome. While wandering the streets of Italy’s bustling cities and elegant towns, however, keep your eyes peeled for the rare and wonderful Liberty gems that pop up here and there. Here are a few to seek out:

Rome: Quartiere Coppedè

Set in the northern residential neighborhoods of Rome, the Quartiere Coppedè is home to an eclectic group of villas and residential buildings designed by Florentine architect Gino Coppedè at the beginning of the 20th century. The imposing and elaborately decorated Arcone archway connects Via Tagliamento to the district’s main Piazza Mincio; the center of the square is marked by a delightful fountain decorated with stone frogs and the space is surrounded by dozens of Coppodè‘s elaborate and whimsical creations.

Quartiere Coppedè

(Photo by Sarah Nichols via Flickr)

Though the neighborhood is considered one of Rome’s most unique architectural treasures today, it caused an outpouring of criticism in 1915 when it was built. Coppodé, who had been working in Milan where the Liberty style was extremely in vogue, is said to have been crushed by his reception in the capital city. Highlights include the Villino delle Fate, the Palazzo del Ragno, and the Palazzo degli Ambasciatori.

Florence: Casa-Galleria Vichi

Most examples of Liberty architecture in Florence are scattered in the residential areas ringing the historic center, with one spectacular (if pocket-sized) exception: Casa-Galleria Vichi. This sumptuous building in the Ognissanti neighborhood just steps from the Arno River was built by Giovanni Michelozzi, one of the most important Liberty-style architects in Tuscany, who briefly lived and worked in the building after its completion in 1911. The tall, narrow facade is striking both for its ornate decorative elements and steel-and-glass windows and for its faux travertine marble, created with cement.

Galleria Vichi dettaglio 1.JPG

(Photo by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons)

When Liberty went out of fashion, the building fell into disrepair but was completely renovated in 2009 and today the facade has been returned to its former glory; the ground floor is occupied by a tony antiques and interior design studio.

Milan: Palazzo Castiglione

At the beginning of the 1900s, Milanese entrepreneur Ermengildo Castiglioni commissioned this stunning Liberty palazzo in the Porta Venezia district as an imposing status symbol, hiring the preeminent Liberty architect at the time, Giuseppe Sommaruga, to create a building that would cause a stir in conservative Milan. The completed palace did that and more: the city was so scandalized by the nude caryatid statues framing the entrance that the residence was nicknamed “Ca’ di Ciapp”, or The House of Derrieres. To avoid further scandal, the statues were eventually removed and affixed to Villa Romeo Faccanoni, Sommaruga’s second masterpiece in Milan.

20161207 Palazzo Castiglioni.jpg

(Photo by Melancholia~itwiki via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the palazzo is home to the Trade and Tourism Union and can only be visited upon request, but the glorious facade with stonework inspired by 18th-century stuccoes can be admired from outside.

Turin: Casa Florio Nizza

The First International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts was held in Turin in 1902, and with it came the peak of the popularity of the Liberty movement in art, design, and architecture. The northern city was booming at the beginning of the 20th century, and bold new Liberty-influenced buildings were being constructed across the city. One of the most striking was Casa Florio Nizza (1901), designed by Giuseppe Velati Bellini and built as part of an urban renewal project on the corner of Via Bertola and Via San Francesco d’Assisi in the heart of the city’s historic district.

More than a century on, this building is still a head-turner, with an immense bow window overlooking the busy intersection and elaborately decorated facade.

Palermo: Villa Igeia

The fin de siècle was a golden age in Palermo, when wealthy and well-connected local families vied to outdo each other with increasingly prestigious palazzi and villas to host Europe’s elite. The architect most associated with the Liberty Style in Palermo is Ernesto Basile, who, along with his father Giovan Battista, designed Palermo’s magnificent Teatro Massimo opera house. Many consider his masterpiece to be the glorious Villa Igeia, a Liberty-style redesign of an existing building commissioned by the influential Florio family overlooking the Acquasanta harbor.


(Photo by Sicilarch via Wikimedia Commons)

The residence went through a series of iterations over the past century, but the latest is perhaps the most excited: it will open in summer of 2020 as the Rocco Forte hotel group’s newest luxury property.

Travel Specialists

Maria Landers

Brian Dore