on March 2, 2010
Along the shores of Biscayne Bay in the Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove lies an intriguing destination few people are likely associate with the high glamour of Miami. It’s the Villa Vizcaya, a small piece of Europe transported and made American by a wealthy Chicago industrialist back in 1916. James Deering, much enamored of his own Grand Tour through Europe, and in particular, the villas of Italy, decided to create his own villa as a winter retreat in Florida.At the time Deering began Vizcaya, the population of Miami was little more than 10,000 people, hardly the busy metropolis it has grown to be. Seeking to create his own version of an Italianate villa with working farm and gardens on an estate of more than 180 acres (of which only 28 acres remain as the Vizcaya of today), Deering brought in Italian craftsman by the hundreds to work alongside Bahamians to create a unique house and set of gardens that employed nearly 1,000 people in its construction over a period of five years.Particularly notable was the addition of landscape designer Diego Suarez, a Colombian-born landscape architect who was trained in Florence and transported the concept of formal Italian gardens to Vizcaya. Like much of Miami today, the gardens were designed to be part of outdoor living, an environment to host parties as well as provide quiet moments for reading. Today, the gardens remain the most awe-inspiring part of Vizcaya, with lush local plantings, hidden grottoes, open air pavilions for tea parties, as well as a boat launch along the bay lined with statues that evokes a scene straight out of a Venetian opera.This is not to underplay the dazzle of the 70-room house itself. Today, visitors can enjoy examining about half of the villa’s rooms, as well as wandering freely outdoors. The Villa Vizcaya was an advanced house for its time, despite the echoes of Renaissance Italy. It had one of the first elevators in the United States and was designed to have an open courtyard in the center of the house to facilitate the breezes off the bay. The opulent décor of Vizcaya incorporates luxurious European decorative arts, as well as antique ceilings, paneling, fireplaces, and doors all purchased in Europe and transported to Miami for use at Vizcaya.The villa’s collection of art would rival any museum. Visitors today can see Deering’s impressive connoisseurship in his collection of Roman sculpture, Chinese ceramics, Renaissance-era tapestries, and Rococo furniture, all dispersed much as they were at the time Deering wintered there. The art collection extends out to the gardens, where one can see endless sculptures of mythological gods and goddesses amidst the plants; huge vases hundreds of years old, filled with stunning flowers and ferns; ceramic urns of dazzling color lining walkways; fountains and pools and small grottoes with frescoed ceilings or those with ceilings of embedded shells, the work of endless hours by talented craftsmen.Vizcaya truly defies description. It’s a romantic spot, so much so that it has become a favorite place for engagements and wedding photos. It’s also a popular location for fashion photo shoots. Even with all this activity, wandering Vizcaya’s huge garden area, it is possible to feel like the only person there, enjoying the rich bounty of Florida’s lush landscape and the dream of one man who sought to create a small piece of Italy for himself stateside.
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