Venice festival embraces city's Italian namesake

Feb 23, 2013 675

VENICE - Many American municipalities have assumed the name of a European city — Rome, Ga., Paris, Ill., Reading, Pa.

Few, however, have embraced their namesake like Venice.

This weekend's 25th Annual Venice Feast and Carnival is expected to draw 20,000 visitors, one of the city's biggest events of the year. The festival is sponsored by the thriving Italian-American Club, which has several hundred members and, with its weekly dinners and sold-out social programs, is the envy of many service clubs.

The festival epitomizes a city that has turned its name into a brand, abandoning its Old Florida roots for Old World Italian.

"It's all part of the character of this city," Mayor John Holic said. "It's all part of what makes Venice Venice."

Start downtown. There is Italian-inspired statuary in a park, more than a half dozen Italian restaurants (including a one called "Made in Italy") and even three stores that specialize in olive oil.

While the city lacks canals, it does have an Intracoastal Waterway passable to the island by three drawbridges. (Venice, Italy, has four bridges over its Grand Canal.)

Across the Island of Venice, streets are named after Italian locales or landmarks: Turin, Milan, Rialto, Palmero, Salerno, Sorrento, Firenza and Venezia.

And if you want to open or remodel a business, you are strongly encouraged to conform to the city's strict Mediterrean Revival architecture and colors. Even the venerable Venice Hospital a few years ago gave its massive brick facade a Northern Italian-style facelift.

Or, as Michael Lamberto, owner of the Venice Olive Oil Company, put it: "People are definitely aware of it. We joke that you can't go 150 feet in this town without stumbling on an Italian restaurant."

Just how did that happen?

Bertha Palmer, the wealthy widow from Chicago who came to the Sarasota area in 1910 and bought about a quarter of the land comprising current Sarasota County, deserves the credit.

She started the Sarasota-Venice Co., which she hoped would develop the southern part of her vast tract as a resort city she chose to call Venice. During her world travels, she may well have visited and been charmed by Venice, Italy.

The influential Palmer also drew the post office to the sparsely populated area named Venice, and got the railroad to make Venice one of its stops.

Then came World War I, which interrupted the Sarasota-Venice Co.'s town planning.

Eventually, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers acquired the Venice tract from physician Fred Albee and developed it as a city designed by renowned town planner John Nolan.

The Brotherhood hired Howard Patterson, resident architect of the New York firm Walker & Gillette. Patterson's approval was required on all building plans, which had to meet Northern Italian design criteria.

"At that time, 188 homes and 144 apartments were built as Northern Italian," said James Hagler, the city's director of historical resources. "Venice was really influenced by the style the Brotherhood chose."

"I think Venice's forefathers were very astute," Holic said.

The architectural design, better known today as Mediterranean Revival, still dominates on the local streetscapes: Indeed, banks, office buildings, Venice Theatre and even City Hall have the archways, bell towers and tiled roofs that give the city its Venetian appeal.

If any group has ensured that Venice's cultural life stays with that Italian theme, it is the Italian-American Club, sponsor of this weekend's festival.

The club initially met in the kitchen of one of its founders, but grew from there. Now its membership is approaching 400.

"We're a very dynamic club that's on the move," said club president Bruce Bastian.

The clubhouse on Ringling Drive is a hub of activities: Italian classes, arias performed by the Sarasota Opera, mandolin and other concerts, wine tastings — and an abundance of food and dancing.

The club's next project is, as one might expect, ambitious. It is the restoration of a gondola that led the flotilla celebrating the 1967 opening of the Intracoastal Waterway, which created the Island of Venice.

"I don't know if it will be seaworthy," Bastian said. "If not, we'll have it for parades."

By Dale White / Herald Tribune

You may be interested