By the start of the twentieth century, Edith Wharton had earned a place for herself in the fields of architecture and interior décor with the release of the design treatise The Decoration of Houses (1897) and, shortly thereafter, two books on Italy: Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and Italian Backgrounds (1905). Reflecting, in A Backward Glance, on “the unexpected popularity” of her first book, Wharton humbly notes, “I was only beginning to be known as a novelist, but on Italian seventeenth and eighteenth century architecture, about which so little had been written, I was thought to be fairly competent.” “Fairly competent” would prove quite the understatement. Contemplating what moved her to write about architecture and design, Wharton offers, “I knew that, at least in English, there was no serious work on Italian villa and garden architecture, and I meant, as far as I was able, to fill the want.” This essay argues that Wharton's command of and great reverence for Italy—a site that inspires “rapt contemplation,” begets communion with “a mighty current,” and amounts to “one long vision of beauty”—not only made possible her two studies of Italy but also substantially informs the aesthetic of her early career, as is most evident in The Decoration of Houses. Italy, whose “very air is full of architecture,” is for Wharton “the very beginning of things.”

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