In the 16th century, Bess of Hardwick laid upon her descendants a heavy blessing -- or was it a curse? Her descendents inherited an overwhelming compulsion to build vast houses, to collect extravagantly and to marry strong-willed women. Oh yes, she also left them the money to do it all with.

Bess' benediction has resulted in the Duke of Devonshire's Derbyshire treasureland: a magnificent palace covered with murals, bedecked with jewels, filled with furniture, lavishly ornamented with paintings, sculptures and objects d'art -- and a competent and dedicated staff to dust, preserve and curate.

The house with its classical front sits 200 miles north of London in the midst of an idyllic countryside: a romantic stream, a classical bridge, a tumbling cascade, tall trees, Mary Queen of Scot's Bower and, in the distance, a tower, not quite a ruin.

The Devonshire fortune has survived questions of legitimacy, gambling, bad management, debts, death and taxes. The family fame has been bolstered by wise marriages, service to country and crown, and perhaps most of all, by the inherited notion that it's wise to put your money in art and architecture (not to mention having the intelligence and taste to actually do it).

The fortunate 11th duke; his duchess, the former Deborah Freeman-Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters; his son the Marquess of Hartington, and his wife, the former Amanda Heywood-Lonsdale; and the grandson, William Lord Burlington, still enjoy the pleasures and treasures of Chatsworth, except when they are visiting their Lismore Castle in Waterford, Ireland, shooting grouse at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, or are up at their London houses for their various boards and charities.

(The present duke succeeded to the title after the death during World War II of his elder brother, then Marquess of Hartington. The eldest son always carries that title as his son is always Lord Burlington. The brother was married to Kathleen Kennedy, sister of the late President John Kennedy. She was killed in an airplane crash in 1948.)

In the summers, 250,000 to 300,000 people visit Chatsworth.

When we visited Chatsworth this summer, Peter Day, the keeper of the collection, and his assistant, Michael Pearman, were packing up objects for the "Treasures of Chatsworth" show opening Tuesday at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond.

Peter Day took us around to see the collection. As he put it, "When we've packed up the 250 paintings and objects for Richmond, we'll still have so much, no one will notice what's gone." Bess and Her Dreams

The estate of Chatsworth was bought by Sir William Cavendish in 1549 at the request of his second wife, Bess of Hardwick. Sir William was Thomas Cromwell's overseer for the desolution of the monasteries. They began to build a great house on the site of the present one, but it wasn't complete when he died. He left all his money to Bess, over the protests of his children by his first wife.

Bess continued to build the house with two more husbands, Sir William St. Loe, captain of the Queen's Guard and Grand Butler of England, and the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, Queen Elizabeth's councilor. The house Bess completed was a great Elizabethan palace built in a square with a courtyard inside, square turrets at the corners, octagonal turrets at the entrances.

For years Bess and Shrewsbury were the jailers to Mary Queen of Scots, at Chatsworth and nearby at Wingfield, a magnificent castle now in romantic ruins. There is a saying that none of the many castles where the unhappy and willful queen was imprisoned still remain. Chatsworth was totally rebuilt though some of the walls of the original are incorporated into the present building. All that remains now of Mary Queen of Scots is Mary's Bower, a mound that becomes an island when the River Derwent is permitted to flood once a year. A romantic hunting tower, built by Bess, also still stands.

Bess' son William Cavendish, who became the first earl of Devonshire, was the ancestor of all the later earls and dukes of Devonshire. He lived with great pleasure in Bess' Chatsworth.

The fourth earl of Devonshire was made a duke for his part in the plot that led to the "Glorious Revolution" in 1688, bringing William III to the English throne. A Little Rebuilding

First, the duke hired William Talman to rebuilt the south facade, then the east front had to be redone to match Talman's Anglicized Baroque. By that time the duke had fought with Talman so he hired Thomas Archer, known for his London churches, to do the north front. By the time the duke did the west front, he'd used up all his architects so he had to design it himself. By 1707, his rebuilding had engulfed the whole of Bess' house.

Because each wing was built at a different time, there are odd jogs and strange stairways and balconies. The duke lavished craftsmen on the English Baroque interior -- murals by Louis Laguerre of France, Antonio Verrio of Italy and John Thornhill of England.

In the magnificent chapel, still true to its 1694 origin, are the marble carvings by Caius Gabriel Cibber. The lime on cedar wood carvings and wainscotting give the room its pungent odor. (Next to the chapel is the oak room, originally in a German monastery, bought on impulse by the sixth duke at an auction.)

The first duke, mindful of his position, built a state apartment on the top floor. Such royal apartments were really intended to show that you expected the king to visit, but they were so pompous nobody but the king and queen could stand them. Still they were there if needed, and in the meantime, visitors could ooh and ah over the Devonshire wealth that built them.

The Sabine room, a vestibule to the state rooms, is considered by many to be the greatest Baroque room in England. James Thornhill painted the walls and the trompe l'oeil sculptures and pavilions. In a nearby corridor are the paintings of the dukes and duchesses, alternating with tulip vases.

Chances are that William III gave the first duke the splendid silver Dutch chandelier that hangs in the State Dressing Room. (Such rooms, were not really dressing rooms, but actually "cabinets," or private rooms for holding audience with one's intimates -- thus the president's cabinet officers.) The lower cherubs on the chandelier have earls' cornets, but the top cherub holds a duke's coronet. The dressing room has its own anteroom, the china closet.

Next, coming in pomp and circumstance, are the great state rooms. In the bedroom, the great bed and its embroidered hangings belonged to George II. Since the fourth duke was Lord Chamberlain at the time of the king's death (1760), as was the custom, the duke was given the bed. The ceiling, with great mastery of shadow, is by Laguerre.

In the music room, pen, brushes and palette are carved so cleverly into the doorcase that they were said to have deceived the painter Verrio into thinking they were real. In revenge, Verrio painted a trompe l'oeil violin on the inner door to deceive the carver, Grinling Gibbons. But the story, though a good one, is untrue. The violin was painted by Vandervaart for Devonshire House. And Gibbons never worked at Chatsworth.

The Siberian malachite table tops and vases as well as other malachite objects in the house were given by Czar Nicholas I. Stately Furnishings

The State Drawing Room is hung with tapestries from the Royal Factory at Moretlake, from cartoons by Raphael. The cabinets are made of coromandel lacquer, which once was the wainscotting in the dressing room. The desk is by David Roentgen of France. The first duke's portrait is set into the elaborately carved overmantel on the fireplace.

The State Dining Room is the largest of the suite, and still retains its 17th-century grandeur with a ceiling by Verrio. It is said that the Fury Atropos cutting the cord of life in the mural is modeled after the housekeeper of the time, whom Verrio hated. A mirror at the end of the room reflects the length of the suite, to give the illusion of a matching wing. The woodwork was carved by Lobb, Young and Davis. The large central table and the side tables were made by Kent in 1735.

Now down the Great Stairs (with the fanciful baby carriages parked there -- one with carved snakes made by Kent for the third duke's children, the other for the Duchess Georgiana's daughter.)

Up the staircase are the Queen of Scots and Leicester Apartments, furnished in the Regency style, as planned by Wyatville for the sixth duke around 1830. The name comes from the legend that Mary of Scotland's rooms in the original house were at this site.

The grandest room in this wing is the marvelous library with its 17,500 books. The library was built in 1694 as the gallery, and its ceilings date from this period.

In the catalogue to the Richmond show, Sir Antony Blunt speaks of the sixth duke's "dangerous passion for building." Dangerous in the sense of costing much money and the difficulties knowing where to stop. In 1811 the duke added a new dining room, a sculpture gallery, a service block, an orangery and a theater. He made a forecourt, and entrance screens to complicate matters, and redid the east and north fronts and three of the court facades, designed by Jeffry Wyatt, the architest who worked in the neo-classical Regency manner. Later Wyatt, now called Wyatville, remodeled Windsor Castle. More Magnificence

The new wing, built by the sixth duke, begins with the dining room with its fine Van Dyck portraits. The vestibule was used by the duke's private orchestra. The ceiling is coved and richly plastered with gilt ornaments. On a table is a glittering collection of silver including an incense burner and pieces by Paul Storr.

The wing goes on to more magnificence -- the sculpture gallery with works by Canova and Brussells tapestries. The orangery is now quite a nice shop. And the theater, beyond it, with its elaborate paintings, designed for the sixth duke, costs an extra 20 pence to see.

The complicated interior of Chatsworth is almost like a Klein bottle, that mythical mathematic projection that turns itself inside out while twisting.

The entrance (built by the sixth duke in 1820-27) is rather humdrum, having once been the kitchen. The old stoves are said to still be behind the present fireplaces.

The north sub-corridor, originally an open colonnade, was enclosed by the sixth duke. He embellished it with colored marble pavements fabricated in Rome to distract the eye from the door, which isn't on center. The painted hall's ceiling was decorated by Laguerre in 1692-94, during the first duke's tenure. But the lower part was redone when windows were added in the 19th century.

The current staircase is the third try, replacing two earlier ones. Behind it is the Grotto, where the great stairs ended. Its principal embellishment is the Diana fountain, embellished with marble carvings by Samuel Watson, who worked for 26 years at Chatsworth.

In the nearby corridor is the Turkish Barge given to the sixth duke by the sultan. Nearby is one of the more famous 19th-century frauds, a huge stone foot. At the time, the foot was said to be either a petrified giant or a fragment of a classical statute. Then someone pointed out it could be neither-- the foot obviously was modeled after a man who'd worn modern shoes. The Private Rooms

The 11th, and present, duke collects contemporary paintings by modern English masters, including a splendid, if unflattering, pair of portraits of himself and his duchess by Lucien Freud. These usually hang in the duke's private drawing room at Chatsworth, against the pale silk walls.

The family's private quarters -- the yellow and blue drawing rooms and the private dining room -- are the most charming rooms in the house. They have their own collection of continental paintings in the drawing rooms, along with the dog's basket. In the elegant private dining room, a toaster and jar of marmalade stand as testimony to the distance from the kitchen.

The gardens at Chatsworth were built by the first duke in a classical formal style, with the great cascade, birdhouses, a bowling green and the Sea Horse Fountain. Only the cascade and the fountain still stand. The first duke also terraced the land, making the cascades and a domed central cascade house.

The fourth duke built the Baroque stables, and hired Lancelot (Capability) Brown to replant the garden in the naturalistic style, tearing down part of the village of Edensor because it could be seen from the Ducal window.

The fourth duke with the help or hinderance of Capability Brown redid the grounds in the naturalistic style with forest trees, lawns and rugged rockwork. The Bowling House became Flora's temple.

The sixth duke had better taste. He discovered Joseph Paxton, who later designed the Crystal Palace for the great exhibition in London. He first practiced by building the Great Conservatory, sadly demolished in 1920, after its flowers were lost during the war. Its foundation walls remain.

They added the Emperor Fountain in the Canal Pond with water pressure from the lake they built on the hill. The fountain hits 260 feet. The ninth duke's duchess improved the garden. And the present tenants have planted pleached limes on the South Front lawn and restored Paxton's Conservative Wall, a mass of greenhouses with a central Camellia Case. They also planted pleached limes on the South front lawn. A Great Scandal

Except during the American tour, the portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds of the Devonshire's most scandalous ancestors usually hang in the private quarters. According to "The Two Duchesses" by Arthur Calder-Marshall (Harper and Row), Georgiana, first wife of the fifth duke (1748-1811), brought her best friend Lady Elizabeth Foster (deserted by her own husband) to Chatsworth to be the duke's mistress. Both Georgiana and the duke got along much better with Elizabeth than they did with each other.

Of course, it was all a great scandal, with rumors hotly disputed and roundly discounted that the heir who became the sixth duke was really Elizabeth's son instead of Georgiana's.

In any case, the two women considerably complicated the family trees. Lady Elizabeth had had two sons by her first husband. Then she had an illegitimate son and daughter by the duke. Georgiana married the duke when she was 16 but had no children by him until they set up their menage a trois. Georgiana presumably had two daughters and a son by the duke, and a daughter for good measure by Charles Earl Grey. After Georgiana died, Lady Elizabeth married the duke. The sixth duke didn't marry at all.

None of this seems to disturb the current duke. He goes so far as to sell the Calder-Marshall book in the Chatsworth shop. And why not -- it's one more great story at a house that'be been full of them for hundreds of years.