The Evolution of Mediterranean Design

Venice, Italy

It’s no surprise that when we seek out something sparkling and brand new, we often gravitate to something timeless, classic and more ancient than ourselves. Our attraction to open courtyards, tile roofs and warm colors reflect a style of architecture dating back to ancient civilizations deeply ingrained into our definition of home. The early history of this style, Mediterranean Design, is rooted in the various regions, countries and cultures that surround the Mediterranean Sea. Most notable, of those that eventually conquered various corners of the globe, are Italian and Latin or Spanish.

Spanish Mediterranean Home

Just as the romance language of Spanish has much in common with words and phrases in Italian, so does the architecture. To most of us, there is very little difference in this Mediterranean Style of Design. But when studied a bit closer, little differences can be seen. Today, a mix of these styles can be found mostly in California and Florida, thanks to the progressive vision of such architects as August Geiger and Addison Mizner. Their view in the early 1900s, a classic form designed to accommodate their lifestyle, tastes and climate back then, is just as relevant and in demand today. Homes and buildings grew in height based on square and rectangular plans. Massive front elevations were covered by stucco, holding up flat or low-pitched terra cotta and rolled tile roofs. Arches sprang up everywhere inside and out with tile-capped parapet walls bursting through the tops of structures, and heavy details commonly accentuating door openings. The best-of-the-best blended in balconies and window grilles made of wrought iron or wood. Classical architectural elements, mixed with a little Spanish Renaissance, Spanish Colonial and even some Beaux-Arts and Art Deco features developed in the early 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. These elements, stirred together with lush gardens and cascading fountains, gave us the evolution of what we now call Mediterranean Style.

John Ringling’s former mansion, now the Ringling Museum, is a homage to Italian Renaissance architecture.

To most of us, it’s all beauty. But to the discerning eye there are slight differences between Spanish Mediterranean and Italian Renaissance styles. Spanish is a bit simpler, with cleaner lines and massive structure. Also, the Spanish look has a lower pitch to the roofline that looks thicker and heavier. The Italian style has a more deliberate and less random massive look and feel to it. The Italian fine points are more feminine, with delicate detail and rational, balanced symmetry versus the manly, thick rambling freeform expansion of the Spanish expression.

As neighborhoods grew, tastes changed to reflect what was popular at the time. The movie industry exploded and what was seen of California spread across the country as it was viewed on the big screen. The Mediterranean revival became recharged again and again as the old world styles became more and more fantastic. Florida developers jumped on the bandwagon with marketing and promotion, pushing the fairytale life of the ancient Spanish village to a locale in tropical paradise.
A few tasteful decorative columns became too many posts to count. The symmetrical and rational arched window at key locations became every window in every location. The homes got a steroid injection of whimsy and clay barrel roofs were attached to more clay barrel roofs surrounded by wrought iron and spindly gates everywhere. Courtyards gave birth to bell towers, which made a reason for more archways, awnings, porches, balconies and more carved stonework. And connecting it all was more marble and tile than anyone had ever seen before. Then suddenly, the depression hit our nation and the revival of revivals was forced to slow down a bit.

The passage of time and the resulting new circumstances affected a shift. As real estate exploded in Florida throughout the last half of the 1900s, a bit of the excess settled and became refined; the economies of massive developments dictated design. We all craved the sunshine and the ability to bask outdoors while still being in our own homes. We fell in love with the curves and arches that greeted us as we walked up the steps and through our front doors. The Caribbean colors on the rough cement walls made our brand new homes look ancient. We paused to stare at the hand painted tile, mounted to the risers of elaborately carved staircases. Warm, earthy, rustic red roofs tickled us, especially if surrounding a turret, formerly used to see approaching savages from a distance. Towers, chimneys, tiny arched windows and endless rustic planters resting on countless jutting shelves, suggested that once again, no expense is spared and a complete lack of skimping on detail. Balconies everywhere! And with so much beauty to see and great weather to absorb, the outside must be appreciated from the inside at all times.

Today, the Mediterranean Design and origins of Spanish influence are most recognized by the abundance of ornamental ironwork everywhere. It’s on the light fixtures, staircases and the handrails, the grills, knobs and handles that cover drawers, windows and doors. It undeniably declares that we have successfully brought the old world into the new world. Just as with the Spanish of old, we now share a common mind to relax around the decorative tiled patio, surrounded by open-arched arcades, laughing and talking with friends or quietly reclining and listening to nature, late into the evening.