Visiting Vizcaya

On Christmas Day 1916, one hundred and one years ago, Industrialist James Deering (1859-1925) of the Deering Harvester Co. and his guests arrived by yacht to Biscayne Bay, Miami, Florida and to Vizcaya, his newly completed estate, inspired by Renaissance villas of Spain and Italy. Each year, to celebrate that event and mark the holiday season, Vizcaya decorates the Main House as it might have looked at that time.

Deering assembled a broad conglomeration of original works, as well as skillfully crafted reproductions. Today, this unique estate on the National Historic Register offers visitors a sculpture-filled garden and a Main House with 34 decorated rooms showcasing over 2,500 art objects and furnishings. Many of the rooms, designed under the guidance of Paul Chalfin, showcase the décor of distinctly different periods.

The largest room (25×50 feet) is the formal living room, or Renaissance Hall, which includes objects dating from the 1300s to the 1600s. On one wall hangs The Admiral’s Carpet, named for the grandfather of King Ferdinand of Spain (an admiral in the Castile Navy). The design of this earth-toned 15th Century carpet, though not overly ornate, is most interesting, as it shows both Muslim and Christian iconography, reflecting a more tolerant time before the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain by the Admiral’s grandson, Ferdinand. Donated to and purchased from the Convent of Santa Clara in Palencia, the burial place of the admirals of Castile, the carpet is bordered in Kufic-style Arabic script.

On another wall, atop a more modern organ, is a painting of the Holy Family from the 1600s, which has been cut in half and reconfigured to make doors that provide access to (and conceal) the organ pipes behind it.

Made of plaster that looks like wood beams, the room’s 16th century ceiling rises 25 feet high specifically to accommodate the large Renaissance fireplace mantel, one of the most expensive items in the home. It was taken from a French castle, Chateau de Chenonceaux, begun but left unfinished by Catherine de Medici.

In the center of the room, flanked by two 18th century chairs, sits a lovely Pietra Dura table thought to date from the 1580s. (The process of intricate inlay, known as Pietra Dura, originated in 16th century Florence, Italy.) With polished stones set in marble, the square table is decorated with a geometric pattern.

The Banquet Hall features large tapestries, including a pair of 16th century Flemish works, each approximately 16.5 x 6 feet that once hung in Casa Guidi, the home of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence.

While most of the artistic elements at Vizcaya fall into the architectural or decorative arts categories, paintings and sculptures can also be found throughout the estate. Most paintings were acquired before 1920 under Deering’s patronage. However, in the 1980s, 34 works were donated. Since the provenances of these works, which were purchased in the 1950s, are uncertain, they are currently part of Vizcaya’s Nazi-era Provenance Research Project, which aims to return art works acquired or looted between 1932 and 1945 to their rightful owners. Images of these works can be found on the Vizcaya website. 

Among the garden statues, busts and urns is a huge fountain designed in 1722 by Filippo Barigioni (1680-1753) who created the fountain in front of the Pantheon in Rome. Perhaps the most striking of these is the Barge by American sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945). Actually a breakwater shaped like a boat, it is decorated with mythical Caribbean creatures.

Vizcaya is unique in that it combined antiquities with contemporary works. Visit the website to view a virtual tour of the entire estate


The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin