Where else can you spend the morning revelling in the beauty of works by Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Hals and Botticelli and the afternoon lolling on a powdery white sand beach? That's the lure of Sarasota, the city perched on the Gulf of Mexico, where John and Mable Ringling, the circus impresario and his wife, set the stage for a vibrant cultural life after buying land there in 1911. Not only did John Ringling create the old-master-filled John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, but he brought the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to winter in Sarasota. His circus elephants even hauled timber for the John Ringling Causeway, which links the mainland to Lido Key. Aside from the Ringling Art Museum, the estate also contains the Ringling's mansion, Ca' d'Zan, Mable Ringling's Rose Garden, the Ringling Museum of the American Circus, and the Asolo Theater.
Ca' d’Zan, John and Mable Ringlings dazzling Venice-inspired palatial mansion
overlooking Sarasota Bay
The Ringlings' dazzling palatial mansion is a tribute to the American Dream and reflects the splendor and romance of Italy. Described as “the last of the Gilded Age mansions” to be built in America, Ca' d’Zan has 56 incredible rooms filled with art and original furnishings. John and Mable Ringling greatly admired the unique architectural style of the Danieli and the Bauer-Grunwald hotels in Venice, as well as the palaces that face the Venetian canals. This architectural style, called 'Venetian Gothic,' and greatly influenced the Ca' d'Zan's design. With its Venetian Gothic architecture, the mansion is a combination of the grandeur of Venice’s Doge’s Palace, combined with the gothic grace of Cà d’Oro, with Sarasota Bay serving as its Grand Canal. In 1924, construction began on Ca' d’Zan, which means 'House of John' — after John Ringling — in Venetian dialect. The house was completed just before Christmas of 1925, at an astounding cost of $1.5 million at the time.
Ca' d’Zan, viewed from the gardens
Ca' d’Zan is 200-foot long encompassing approximately 36,000 square feet with 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. The structure is five stories and has a full basement. The pinnacle of the structure is the 81-foot Belvedere tower with an open-air overlook and a high domed ceiling. Ca' d’Zan is constructed from terra cotta T-blocks, concrete, and brick, covered with stucco and terra cotta, and embellished with glazed tile. The original roof was made from 16th century Spanish tiles imported by the builder Owen Burns. The bayfront terrace is made of domestic and imported marble.
Ca' d’Zan Mansion, as viewed from the marble Gondola pier on Sarasota Bay,
where John and Mable moored their classic Venetian gondola, at the height of their grandeur
A lion statuary at the entrance to the Museum complex
Just north of Cà d’Zan Mansion, is Mable Ringling’s Secret Garden, one of the lovelier places on the Ringling estate. The 27,225 sq. ft. garden was completed in 1913, when Mable created the garden, with plants that were given to her during her winters at Cà d’Zan. Patterned after a traditional Italian circular garden design, none of the original rose bushes planted by Mable survived, but many of today’s over 1,200 rose plants are of the same varities planted by her, such as Tree Roses, Hybrid Teas, Floribundas, Grandifloras, miniature roses, shrubs, and Old Garden Roses — even a rose dedicated to Mable Ringling is featured in the garden. A special oasis, not to be missed.
Mable Ringling's prized Rose Garden
Another structure on the estate is The Ringling Museum of Art, built by John Ringling, and designed to house his personal collection of masterpieces. Today it features paintings and sculptures by the great Old Masters including Rubens, van Dyck, Velázquez, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, El Greco, Gainsborough and more. In 1925, Ringling engaged architect John H. Phillips to design the museum in Renaissance style with graceful colonnades opening onto an verdant Italianate garden. Construction began in 1927, but was slowed almost immediately by the collapse of Florida’s land boom and later, Wall Street’s stock market crash. Financial misfortune and Mable’s death in 1929 might have ended the dream, but John Ringling instead gained a new resolve to complete the museum, borrowing money as needed, knowing that it would perpetuate the memory of his beloved Mable. In 1931, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art was officially opened to the public, and today, the museum exhibits a celebrated collection of European, American and Asian works, as well as modern and contemporary art — not to be missed when in the Sarsota area.
The glorious courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art
The gorgeous courtyard inside the Museum of Art, features casts of original antiquities and renaissance sculptures, including the towering David by Michelangelo. The courtyard also features two fountains: The Fountain of Tortoises, one of three replicas from the Piazza Mattei in Rome, and The Oceanus Fountain, copied from the 16th century original by Giovanni Bologna in Florence’s Boboli Gardens. Framed by a battalion of terracotta urns overflowing with splendid bougainvillea, the verdant courtyard is a must on the tour.
One of the many galleries of paintings at The Ringling Museum of Art
Fabulous terracotta urns of bougainvillea line the courtyard
Another enigmatic component to the Ringling Estate, is The Circus Museum, established in 1948, is the first museum of its kind to document the history of the circus. The museum has a collection of handbills, posters and art prints, circus paper, business records, wardrobe, performing props, circus equipment, and parade wagons. The adjacent Tibbals Learning Center contains the Howard Bros. Circus model. Built by Howard Tibbals, this 3/4-inch-to-the-foot scale enchanting replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919–1938, is the "world's largest miniature circus"
Howard Tibbals stands in front of the miniature circus he has spent much of his life creating.
If it were life-size, it would span 11 acres. But it's not finished, Tibbals says,
which he helped finance with $10.5 million of his own money
The original Ringling Bros. Calliope Wagon that would play music along Main Streets
in small towns across America, enticing locals to come to the circus
An original Bandwagon, on top of which a live band sat and
played music to awestruck audiences
An original circus poster
Inside the Circus Museum
Great displays tell the colourful story of the Ringling Circus
After strolling through the John and Mable Ringling Museum grounds, it's time to visit Treviso, for some delicious modern American takes on Italian classic cuisine. Treviso redefines the idea of museum dining, with a unique and fresh approach for lunch and dinner, featuring a blend of traditional Italian and American favourites. Named for the Italian province close to John and Mable's hearts, the restaurant is named where Asolo is located. The Ringling Museum has a special connection with Asolo, as the fully restored and beloved 18th-century Historic Asolo Theater came to Sarasota from this hillside town more than half a century ago.
Treviso Restaurant at the Ringling Museum, with a background mural of the town of Asolo
Treviso Restaurant, located in the John McKay Visitors Pavilion at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, is a clean, minimalist, modern dining room, with sleek and comfortable chairs, banquette seating and a stunning spiral staircase leading to the restaurants second floor dining room, a favourite spot for winemaker dinners, private parties, and business meetings.
Bright and beautiful flower arrangements grace each table
Treviso came to life as part of the Ringling Museum renovations that commenced almost a decade ago, and was named for the province in Italy where the medieval city of Asolo is located. Here’s the connection: A palace playhouse was created in Asolo in 1798 to honor the 15th-century exiled Queen Catherine Cornaro of Cyprus. In the late 1940s, the theater was dismantled and brought to the Ringling Estate in Sarasota. For many years it was one of the centres of culture in Sarasota, but fell into disrepair. After years of restoration, the 18th-century European theater was reset in the Visitors Pavilion next door to the restaurant. It consists of a high-ceilinged room and large glass windows that allow diners a view of the grounds. There is also a patio area for those wanting to enjoy the outdoors.
Chef Jeff Trefry of Treviso
The chef behind the menu is Jeff Trefry, the chef de cuisine at several fine dining establish- ments in Sarasota — the now defunct Cork and the renowned Café L’Europe, as well as The Ritz-Carlton in Kansas City and Naples. Trefry likes to slant things on the more traditional side of the table. Thus, you won’t find the latest dining innovations on the menu. What you will find, however, are solid items, well executed.
There's even quite a good wine list
We ordered the Caprese Panini with fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and Genoa basil on Panificio's fresh baked focaccia, pressed and served with a bowl of Lentil Soup and a small house salad, Treviso's Roast Chicken Salad with boneless free range roast chicken on arugula and iceberg lettuce, goat cheese, grape tomatos, pickled onions and honey pancetta tuille in a Sanguigne dressing, as well as Sicilian Seared Tuna with Caponata which was medium rare sliced seared tuna, on a salad of caponata, mixed greens and tomato and Cahaba Club micro yellow pea shoots in a lemon coriander dressing.
Lentil Soup with a Caprese Panini and salad
Chicken Pecan Salad
Sicilian Seared Tuna with Caponata with tomato and Cahaba Club
micro yellow pea shoots in a lemon coriander dressing
Venetian Fried Green Tomatoes
Recipe courtesy of Treviso
4 oz fresh mozzarella
2 ripe Roma tomatoes
2 green tomatoes
1 cup seasoned flour
2 eggs beaten
1 cup Panko crumbs
1⁄4 cup grated fresh parmesan cheese
2 cups vegetable oil
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1 roasted shallot
Salt and pepper
2 cloves of roasted garlic
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp lemon juice
1⁄4 cup olive oil
Good Balsamic vinegar
Slice the mozzarella and Roma tomatoes into 1⁄4-inch slices. Cut the green tomatoes into 1⁄4-inch slices and then cut thm out with a round biscuit cutter to the same size as the Roma tomatoes. Dredge them in seasoned flour, then dip in beaten eggs and bread them in Panko crumbs with grated parmesan cheese.
In a blender prepare the basil dressing by combining the basil, shallot, garlic and lemon juice and blend until smooth. Slowly drizzle in olive oil to form an emulsion. Season with salt and pepper.
To finish fry the green tomatoes in 350°F vegetable oil until golden brown. Remove and stack with mozzarella and Roma tomato slices. Drizzle basil dressing under the stack and finish with good balsamic vinegar.