Friday, January 27, 2012

The Italian Connection: Part I

Go ahead. Google “Italy agritourism.” I dare you. Scrolling through the thousands of hits will take you more time than you probably have today, or any day. I don’t know whether the Italians actually invented agriturismo—I’m still trying to piece together a more reliable sense of the genesis of farm and food tourism, which I don’t think anyone has really tackled yet in a solid historical way—but I do seem to keep finding Italian connections as I look at the topic. Farm-stay and food tourism in Italy—and all around the European coast of the Mediterranean—clearly evokes a particularly appealing version of la dolce vita for many people, and I thought I’d spend this post and the next one talking about one nineteenth century and one contemporary example of Italian images and ideas in the American landscape of farm tourism and preservation.

Martin Van Buren's Lindenwald, Kinderhook, NY
The nineteenth century example is sort of subtle, and it didn’t really strike me until well after I’d finished my research on Martin Van Buren’s farm.  When Van Buren lost his Presidential reelection bid in 1839, he returned to his home in Kinderhook, New York, and bought a substantial farm.  The property boasted a fine Federal-style house at that point, and Van Buren seems to have been quite satisfied with that.  But he also wanted to see subsequent generations of his family settle on and cultivate the farmland.  To that end, he gave his youngest son, Smith Thompson Van Buren, free rein to renovate the old Federal farmhouse, as a way of giving him a greater stake and sense of ownership of the estate.

The strategy didn’t work;  Van Buren’s sons sold the property within a couple of years of his death in 1862.  But the 1849 renovation, by fashionable architect Richard Upjohn, is revealing about some of the visions of country living and farming that were circulating at the time.  Upjohn was particularly known for his work in the Italianate style, which had emerged among elite landowners in England a few decades earlier and which reflected the widespread Anglo-American association of Italy with gracious, patrician, cultivated (yet passionate and earthy) living. 

Johns Hopkins' Clifton Park, now within a city golf course
So when Upjohn reconfigured the old Kinderhook farmhouse as an Italianate mansion with a bell tower, he was presumably invoking that association, which continues to make itself felt in agritourism on the Mediterranean model today (farm-stay vacation in Tuscany, anyone?).  And the Van Burens were by no means the only gentleman farmers to assert this idea in the architecture of their country estate.  What sparked this connection for me was reading about how Johns Hopkins, a contemporary of Van Buren, had his home at Clifton Park in Baltimore renovated in the Italianate style at almost exactly the same time.  Blandwood, in Greensboro, North Carolina is an early example of the style;  built as farmhouse in 1790s, it was later rebuilt in Federal style, then reinvented as a Tuscan villa in 1844.  Within the Nashville Zoo, the historic home at the heart of the Historic Farm area, Grassmere, underwent a similar transformation from its 1810 beginnings to an Italianate makeover in the 1870s.  (Its current incarnation as a nature and environmental education center makes an interesting link with the "getting back to the land" theme of Italian-inflected country living, and a recent collection of historical recipes from middle Tennessee seems to further the connection.)

The barn at Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vermont
Other styles—Tudor, Gothic, Elizabethan—superceded Italianate architecture in the U.S. not long after the Civil War.  Many of the farm estates of the later 19th century (for example, Vermont's Shelburne Farms, at left) reflect the neo-medievalism that also prompted the Arts and Crafts movement and other efforts to invoke smaller-scale living and hand-crafted production.  Each of them, of course, invokes an imagined and often romanticized past, but a more northern than southern European one.  Those anomalous Italian towers dotting the American historic farm landscape hint at the role that Italy played in the imaginations of those—like Martin Van Buren and his family—who used their antebellum farms to express a vision of what cultivated country living could and should be.

Next week:  A more recent Italian-American patron of agriculture remakes a Vermont dairy farm for the postindustrial economy.


  1. Spannocchia Foundation
    PO Box 10531, Portland, ME 04104
    207.730.1154 [tel] . 207.588.6159 [fax] .
    Check this out. Our own John O'Keefe of Orange, recently retired from Harvard Forest, is connected to Spannocchia, and some day I hope to go its organic farm in Tuscany, where there are excellent opportunties for agroturismo.

  2. Aha! You just solved a mystery for me, Allen. I'd heard about this place, and also know a couple of people who are involved with it, but I didn't know enough about it to find it when I went looking for info. Thanks for making the connection! I'll add it to my list of links.