Monticello: The Italian Inspired Home of Thomas Jefferson

Monticello – The Italian Inspired Home of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the founding fathers of the ideals and principles of the United States, was known as a great thinker, archeologist, author, inventor, horticulturist and statesman. A worldly man who traveled often during his lifetime, Jefferson was a gentleman of great taste in classic design and architecture. Monticello, his home in Virginia for over 50 years, stands testament to Jefferson’s love of Italian style and all things Italian.

Jefferson’s design for Monticello was inspired by the classical style of 16th century Palladian architecture, originated by Andrea Palladio; the style came to characterize many of the villas of northern Italy. Palladio was renowned throughout Europe, but most in the colonies knew little of his work in the Veneto region of Italy from two centuries earlier.

It was through his reading and studies that Jefferson became familiar with the Palladian style. He called his set of four books by the architect “the Bible.” His intent was not to be sacrilegious. I Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura represents one of the most influential treatise on architecture ever written.

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During his lifetime, Jefferson owned seven editions by Palladio. In his first version of Monticello completed around 1772, he based his design on an interpretation of Palladio’s Villa Cornaro. Located in the village of Piombino Dese about 18 miles from Venice, Villa Cornaro is a masterwork of Palladio’s middle period and influenced Western architecture for centuries. The two-tiered porticoes and hipped-roof wings became a recurrent feature in Georgian and Colonial American architecture during the 18th century.

Jefferson was very concerned about the State of Virginia’s domestic architecture. Writing about the State’s wooden dwellings he declared: “It is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable and happily more perishable.” With this first version of Monticello, Jefferson was determined to present a model for the use of the classical orders. To Jefferson’s mind, any respectable work of architecture had to make proper use of the classical architectural vocabulary. Instead it was La Rotonda located outside of Vicenza that Jefferson based Monticello on. To say that he admired the structure is an understatement. Jefferson even anonymously submitted his own version of a Rotonda house in the design competition for the official residence of the United States President.

After planning a two-story home in which he could live and work, Jefferson’s construction of Monticello began in 1768. The word monticello means little mountain in Italian and appropriately, the home is situated on the summit of an 850-foot peak in Virginia’s Southwest Mountains. Monticello is often described as an autobiography of Jefferson, who designed the entire 5,000-acre estate himself. His gardens were nothing less than a botanical laboratory containing ornamental plants, flowers, fruit trees and vegetables from around the world.

Among the plantings on his extensive estate were exotic citrus and mulberry groves, inspired by the fruit trees of the Italian peninsula. Among the flowers originally planted in the garden were Marcus Aurelius and Roman Goddess flowers. Jefferson gave the names to the plants, based on the labels on the seeds he had brought back from Italy. Only later did he realize that they were the names of the seed companies, not the plants. Nevertheless, he still liked the Italian-style names he had given the plantings. Jefferson also grew Italian crops including almonds, pomegranates and wine grapes, which he cultivated with care in Monticello’s expansive vineyards.

The similarity between the west front of Monticello and La Rotondo is striking. Although Jefferson opted for brick construction, it features the characteristic elements of Palladio’s designs including a portico, stately Ionic and Doric columns, floor-to-ceiling windows and an octagonal dome that Jefferson brought back to Virginia from Rome.

Entering Monticello, visitors are immediately stuck by the spacious open area. It served as a reception area for the many important guests who came to pay their respects to the diplomat and later President. The room features recreations of friezes from the Roman Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. On the ceiling is a wind plate that is connected to a weather vane designed by Jefferson. The room is decorated with busts of men Jefferson admired as well as Americana and mounted trophies.

His most personal space was undoubtedly the library. Jefferson chose a Tuscan design for the room and this is where he spent most of his time. His collection, totaling over 6,700 volumes of books was purchased by the U.S. government in 1815 and formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress.

Jefferson’s parlor was an impressive room designed in the Roman Corinthian tradition, evident in the design of the doorway. Featuring a frieze from the Temple of Jupiter and Italian artwork including a portrait of Christopher Columbus, Jefferson used this beautiful room to host family celebrations and small parties.

The estate’s kitchen was located not in the main house but in one of Monticello’s many outbuildings. According to historians, it was the best equipped kitchen in Virginia during Jefferson’s lifetime. The American patriot spent much time here, working with cooking utensils made in Italy and baking bread in the Italian-style brick oven. A pasta recipe hangs on the wall, written by Jefferson, who made his own pasta with a crank-and-press machine that he designed himself.

The former President’s home was passed on to his daughter Martha upon his death in 1826. Financial difficulties eventually forced her to sell this national landmark, which was inhabited by several prominent American families until it was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1923. Since then, Monticello has been operated as a museum and educational institution that is open to the public. In 1987, Jefferson’s home was appointed a World Heritage Site. Monticello was the first and still is the only private home in the United States to earn this designation.

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