AN Italian Renaissance palazzo encircled by formal gardens rises serenely above calm blue waters. Less than five miles from downtown Miami, Vizcaya seems of another time and another place. Only the view of Biscayne Bay, instead of Lake Garda or Como, gives it away. When James Deering, a retired industrialist, docked his yacht Nepenthe at the foot of the just-completed majestic estate on Christmas Day, 1916, he saw his dream come true.
An avid art connoisseur who never married, Deering (co-founder of International Harvester) spent years, sparing no energy or money, traveling in Europe and collecting the finest of Renaissance treasures. He filled warehouses with priceless art relics, rare period furniture, textiles, and paintings, as well as architectural structures that included mammoth gateways, carved wall panels, and huge ceilings. Architects and designers were hired to put the pieces together and make Deering's vision of a Renaissance estate a reality.
Thousands of artisans - among them Italian painters, sculptors, carpenters, and stone masons - labored five years to create the 70-room stucco-and-stone palace. Not a copy of any existing Renaissance structure, Vizcaya, named after the Spanish explorers who once landed on these shores, is nevertheless true to the period in every detail.
Today, Vizcaya is a museum of European decorative artifacts, with 34 rooms open to the public.
Visitors enter the stately Renaissance Hall through a low, narrow doorway - characteristic of the fortress palaces that needed to be ready for instant defense. A massive 20-foot-tall chimney that once graced the palace of Catherine de Medici dominates the room where President Reagan and Pope John Paul II met in September 1987. Heraldic lions stand on a 17th-century Florentine walnut trestle-table supported by winged unicorns, symbols of the Farnese family of Pope Paul III; tapestries depicting the labors of Hercules were woven for the Duke Ercole II of Ferrara in 1550.
Stern-faced portraits of Sir Edward and Lady Dering, said to be ancestors of James Deering, painted in 1695, hang in the formal Banquet Hall. A huge dark panel-backed, 15th-century sacristy cupboard and a fireplace of Tuscan pietra santa are among other early Florentine Renaissance pieces.
In a contrasting vein, the 18th-century Rococo Reception Salon is lighthearted, shining with gold leaf and illuminated by a delicately sculpted wood and rock crystal chandelier. The spectacular 1750 plaster ceiling, carved with arabesques and shells, came from the famous Venetian Palazzo Rossi. Silk-upholstered Louis XV armchairs surround gilded consoles.
There is no shortage of modern amenities in this palace. It is equipped with a sophisticated humidifying system and its own telephone exchange. A small golden door opens to a mirror-and-boiserie covered telephone booth with a velvet-cushioned chair and an 18th-century desk.
In a central courtyard with a Florentine fountain and stone urns holding flowers, comfortable garden chairs invite you to sit down and enjoy the ambiance of a museum that makes you feel you are a visitor in a private home.
Marble stairs lead to 10 lavish bedroom suites. In Deering's formal bedroom, bronze reliefs depicting a Roman wedding procession edge the French Empire mahogany bed. The Cathay guest suite is decorated in whimsical chinoiserie.
The 10-acre formal gardens, described by the London Observer as the best in America, include a complex canal system, a lake, and a teahouse. Seven years in the making, the gardens were designed in the Renaissance tradition as an extension of the palace, an enormous outdoor drawing room and salons, with clipped jasmine hedges for walls. Romantic paths form symmetrical patterns, curving among orderly topiary and flower beds. Steps rise to delicate bridges that span reflecting pools. Fountains are everywhere, delighting eye and ear.
The monumental 16th-century travertine fountain in the rose garden came from the central piazza of Bassano di Sutri, a small town near Rome, where Deering built a modern water supply system in exchange for the priceless sculpture.
A curving path leads to the eastern side of the palace and the bay. Evocative of Hadrian's island on the Tiber, a mammoth stone breakwater, shaped like a barge and topped with ornate obelisks, guards the entrance to the private harbor.
Want to spend the night nearby? The Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel, built in 1925, is an official National Landmark. Minutes down the road from Vizcaya, an Moorish Mediterranean filgreed belfry rises 300 feet above elaborate seven-storied wings that house 270 charming rooms and suites. Enormous lobbies with coffered ceilings and marble floors are furnished with Spanish antiques. The largest swimming pool in the country measures 150 by 130 feet. Here Eleanor Holmes starred in spectacular aqua shows. Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame taught swimming.
Don't miss the Sunday brunch in the hotel's Italian Pavillion. Tables set with silver and crystal spill from the elegant dining room to a vast colonnaded inner courtyard, with a sparkling fountain encircled by masses of tropical blooms. This is where I like to eat, under a pretty umbrella.
But be sure to reserve a table ahead of time - Sunday brunch at the Biltmore is a local tradition. If you go
For more information, contact Vizcaya Museum, 3251 South Miami Ave., Miami, FL 33129, or call (305) 579-2813; for museum reservations, call (305) 579-2808. To book a room at the Biltmore Hotel, call 800-445-2586.