Last Updated on February 27, 2021 by Jim Ferri
The people of Sarasota, a beautiful town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, can thank John and Mable Ringling for putting their city on the map. Ringling bequeathed to them his property in Sarasota that is home to three museums, including the beautiful Ringling Museum of Art. Don’t miss it if you’re in Sarasota.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Not long ago when I visited the Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota, Florida – officially the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art – I expected the museum to be much like so many others I’ve visited. Instead I found an extraordinary place, one of the finest small museums I’ve seen anywhere.
Located in the Ringling’s winter estate on the Gulf of Mexico, it’s set in a beautiful park-like place of manicured lawns with massive oaks trimmed with Spanish moss. The building, built in the late 1920s, is beautiful — rose-colored with Cyprus trees in front and statues above the entrance way giving it a regal look.
Ringling, a wealthy man, enjoyed art and travel and made many trips to Europe, especially to Italy, with his wife Mable. They must have been the great tourists of their time as they wandered the Continent purchasing art for their collection. On those trips Ringling also had copies made of classical sculptures, now part of the museum’s collection, which he envisioned as being a component of an art school he planned to build next to his home on the estate. Today the estate is owned and maintained by the state.
The Intimate Ringling Museum
Inside the John and Mable Museum of Art a number of galleries are spectacular 19th-century rooms with ornate woodwork, which provide a stunning venue for the treasures collected by Ringling, that range from late medieval European art, through 16th– and 17th-century Italian masterpieces to 18th-century American works.
It’s an intimate place, one that gives the feeling that you’re wandering through someone’s home admiring his or her private collection. If it were in Europe, Americans would likely rate it as a “must see,” and people would be lined up waiting to get in.
What sets the John and Mable Museum of Art apart from many other museums is that it’s not just a place to admire art, but to learn about it. In many rooms you find guide-sheets hanging in a corner, from which you’ll get a better understanding of what you’re viewing.
In the exhibit The Art of France, 1700 – 1800, for example, I read about rococo before being drawn over to a beautiful 1652 harpsichord that had been hand carved and painted in gilded wood. In another gallery I learned about Capriccio, the paintings of imaginary landscapes containing elaborate architectural structures.
Further on I was catapulted into the present when I entered a fascinating exhibit by a Swiss artist who was using kinetic elements to “see” sound. I walked into a white room where there were a number of wires hanging on the wall and when I passed a hidden motion detector the wires started jiggling on the wall like strings on a gigantic piano making music.
In another room I found large boxes and as soon as I walked in little golf-ball-size balls of cotton start bouncing on the boxes making a sound like a marching drum band. It was all quite unusual and fascinating.
The Beautiful Inner Courtyard
But one of the most beautiful parts of the John and Mable Museum of Art is its inner courtyard, filled with statuary and casts of classical works. I sat down on a bench in the rose-colored colonnade and looked across the lawn at the pools, fountains and statuary lining the roof. All about brightly colored bougainvillea cascaded out of huge terra-cotta pots, with the breeze blowing their fallen petals along the walkways.
I wandered about and encountered a nymph standing in a little square of juniper bushes. Not far beyond a little Cupid peeked out from a pedestal in the bushes. I felt as if I was strolling through the courtyard of a 500-year-old Italian palazzo.
It made for a perfect morning in a magnificent little museum, which you’ll likely enjoy visiting if you ever have the opportunity.
If you go:
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, Florida 34243
Tel: (941) 359-5700
Admission: Adults $25 (65 years+ $20)