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Shell House Showcase: Shell Garden Features at Vizcaya Mansion, Miami Florida

This Little Venice includes an Italianate house and garden and took eight years to construct, 1914-22. The shell as an architectural symbol is used throughout the garden which compliments the use of real shells to decorate bridges, grotto interiors and the Venetian Pool.

The garden is a monument celebrating Italian formality and is an early 20th century estate formerly owned by James Deering ( Harvester Fortune) who lived here 1914-25. The extensive Italian-Renaissance style gardens with baroque elements contains statuary in faux-classical style – we recognised at least two Venus figures and also Neptune, Juno, Ceres, Proserpine, Bacchus and others.

The villa façade was influenced by Villa Rezzonico in the Veneto area, northern Italy. The landscape Designer was Diago Suarez, who worked for Sir Harold Acton at the Gardens of the Villa La Pietra, Florence.

Shells from the Florida area and Caribbean generally decorate many features in the gardens. The salt content of the air has affected the choice of flowers and shrubbery - and much of the southern and eastern area is under threat of mangrove infestation.

The Grotto Shell Room

This shell room at the Venetian Pool is attached to the main house and has a rare mural by Robert Winthrop Chanler which was restored in 1917. The mural has clay reliefs such as fish, coral and seashells. The shells include urchins and exotics that frame the mural in waves. We were unable to enter the main area due to extensive damage from recent flooding but managed to get some external shots.

The Courtyard or Secret Garden

This would have been the first area one could visit after walking in from the main landing stage in front of the house. Secret because it is walled on all sides with steps to an upper level which leads to two belvederes.

On the opposite wall of a secret garden, which overlooks the Florida sea, is a tufa fountain in the style of a Romanesque garden nymphaeum found in Pompeii. It has a large single scallop shell sculpture over the walled fountain basin. Tufa rock stalactites are also used and complement work in the opposite grotto. Subtropical plants and native forest connect the secret garden with the Florida sea and lagoon.

The Tea House

This is a Classical Temple/ Casino with a main loggia and two rooms for entertainment on either side. The tea house is located on the top terrace where visitors would have disembarked from the lagoon in gondolas – or entered from the formal garden. The landing stage still has the painted poles but the water is now impenetrable, silted with huge roots from mangrove trees. Under the Tea House is a Grotto with three wall fountains and masks.

A wonderful wide terrace leads towards the Mound – one could only dream of those who were entertained here over 100 years ago and be saddened at the missed opportunity to use this whole area for afternoon tea once again in the 21st century. Views from the front of the Tea House look down over the terraces and parterres towards the Mound. A central stepped cascade (water not working) divides sets of steps on either side at the end of which is a further parterre.

Grottoes in the Mound

Built into the Mound at either side are two Italian style grottoes – deep niches, complementary to each other with shell decoration on the cupola ceilings. The outside of each grotto has grotesque statuary that seem to hold up the main arched entrance. This is a very common architectural addition to Baroque interiors and along exterior loggias and Garden Rooms in Renaissance Europe.

On the ceiling above the entrance is a shell mosaic of symmetrical proportions where seven fan-shaped sections project from an elongated central arch. Each is filled with a coral stone and outlined with bands of local shells. Close study has revealed a variety of Florida and Caribbean shells.

Bands of Speckled Tellins, Semele Clams, Forked Venus Clams, Lister’s Keyhole Limpet, Dwarf Olive and Tabled Neptune shells are used to outline each fan shape. The design does not cover the whole ceiling and is quite amateurish compared with English and Italian shell work.

East Terrace with rows of Classical Statuary

This Terrace was really a place to promenade and view, even identify the classical statuary displayed in cut-out niches among the hedge topiary. Two could be identified as representing Venus and one in particular had unusual embellishments. Venus holds a carved scallop shell in her right hand and a model of the stone landing ship/ pier in her left hand. Around her waist is a stone rope of fish images.

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