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Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Keeping the Partridge Table

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    Approaching Vizcaya

    A look at the entrances to Vizcaya and the origins of the estate’s name

    Presented by Nathaniel Sandler, Writer
    with Gina Wouters, Curator

    Like any great story carved in stone, it starts with a chisel.

    Located on opposite sides of the Piazza at Vizcaya’s current main entrance, framing one’s view of the Main House, are two slightly larger than life-size marble statues of Spanish explorers. Said to be the work of Giovanni Marchiori, the eighteenth-century sculptures were not voyagers when initially created, but instead portrayed Italian architectural master Andrea Palladio and sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. With their 1919 installation at Vizcaya, the statues were modified to fit the mold of Vizcaya owner James Deering’s evolving fable.

    Deering and his artistic director Paul Chalfin decided to alter the identities of the statues to Juan Ponce de León, Florida’s European founder, and Sebastián Vizcaíno, Vizcaya’s namesake. The figures now display the inscriptions “PONCE D LEON” and “BEL VIZCAYA.” All reference to the Italian architects is lost but for the records. Bernini morphed into Ponce de León (a bust at his feet was replaced with a globe incised with the Florida peninsula to cement his new identity), and Palladio became Bel Vizcaya.

    “BEL VIZCAYA” is no one. He is but a fairytale creation of a Spanish explorer. And “Vizcaya” is somewhat of a misnomer.

    While brainstorming an appropriate name for his estate, Deering had been told by local young adult writer Kirk Munroe that Vizcaíno had explored the waters off Miami. Munroe, it turns out, was better at writing adventure fiction than knowing historical facts. Vizcaíno’s travels brought him to the California coast, but never to Florida. Apparently there was another Vizcaíno, a navigator on de Leon’s crew, but it’s unclear if he ever saw Florida, and he was not famous by any account. Deering continued to consider the name even after research revealed the error. He wrote, in a 1915 letter to Chalfin, “I have finally yielded historic accuracy to my sense of beauty.” The next day, in a telegram to Chalfin, Deering wrote, “WILL KEEP PARTRIDGE TABLE AND ACCEPT NAME VIZIAYA [sic].” It’s perfectly Vizcaya. In the naming, Deering chose beauty over accuracy, striving for a concept rather than the truth.

    Like many objects at Vizcaya, the two “swashbuckling statues,” as Deering called them, were manipulated to serve a perceived need, transformed to fit a myth. Vizcaya is a story within stories—Deering and Chalfin’s fabrication within the larger fictions of Miami, and of Florida—all creating a past that never quite existed. These eighteenth-century sculptures of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists were reworked for placement in a nascent swampy city founded four years before the twentieth century.

    Deering clearly wanted awareness of these two men, Ponce de León and Vizcaíno, foremost in the minds of visitors. Originally, he discussed naming two nearby islands after the Spanish voyagers, as the other primary entrance to Vizcaya was by boat and the one Deering preferred his guests utilize. The decision in favor of the statues, leaving the islands nameless, proved prescient, as those islands have since submerged into the depths of Biscayne Bay.

    To enter by watercraft, one passed the majestic Barge, a massive, 158-foot-long aquatic sculpture that functions as a breakwater, calming the waters immediately offshore. The Barge was likely inspired by English follies of the eighteenth century, romantic and generally nonfunctional structures. Carved from a mix of local stone, the Barge has become an iconic image of Vizcaya.

    Chalfin conceived the Barge as a “confused mass,” as he described in a 1915 letter. The eclectic abundance was in keeping with the typical Vizcayan approach of evoking symbolism from disparate elements. He wanted “baskets of sea fruits and trophies of sea treasures,” along with mermaids and tritons and Egyptian obelisks, with an overlay of sixteenth-century Venetian style. Alexander Stirling Calder, a classically trained sculptor with a flair for modernity, was hired to help realize Chalfin’s vision. In one rather interesting letter between Calder and Chalfin, we find the artist proposing a mixture of classical sculptures and “saucy bitches,” very much like the mermaids and sea nymphs Chalfin envisioned. Later in the design process there was some concern from Deering that the breasts on the mermaids were too generous. The artist John Singer Sargent, a guest at Vizcaya, suggested the less-endowed compromise seen today. Since 1917 the Barge has been a fixture in Biscayne Bay, adorned with obelisks and caryatids, with a gazebo (lost in the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926) and a bevy of trees; it was a refuge away from the Main House, a short boat ride to a mini-paradise.

    The fabricators of Vizcaya built a world within a world, a fantastical creation within a harsh pioneer landscape. South Florida was a significantly different place in the first part of the twentieth century. Miami’s early settlers faced mosquito swarms, land crabs, debilitating heat and the occasionally devastating storms of the subtropics. Yet, the ethos around which Vizcaya was constructed was—and remains—imbued with myth and legend. Whether purposefully chiseling new names on statues of old world architects or placing mermaids near a gazebo, each portal to the place was meant to evoke the notion of a paradise on Biscayne Bay.

    Welcome to Vizcaya.

    —August 2014

    For more information on the series “Keeping the Partridge Table,” contact