Last Updated on August 13, 2023
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
By Jim Ferri
One is the Ringling Museum, the 66-acre estate of John and Mable Ringling in Sarasota, Florida. Ringling was the famous circus impresario of the early 20th century.
The estate is an incredible complex that includes three museums and magnificent gardens.
In brief, when I visited I expected a museum like so many others I’ve visited. Instead, I found one of the finest museums and museum complexes I’ve seen anywhere. And despite the founder’s name, this museum is anything but a circus.
Consider this: Sotheby’s, the world-renowned art appraisers, rates the Ringling Museum of Sarasota’s art collection similar to that of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Amsterdam’s Museum Van Loon, and Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. It’s just that good. In fact, it’s over-the-top.
Upon his death, Ringling bequeathed the museum to the people of Florida. Consequently, it’s now the official State Art Museum. In addition, the entire estate is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ringling, a wealthy man, enjoyed art and travel and made many trips to Europe, especially Italy, with his wife, Mable. Undoubtedly, they were 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 a component of an art school he planned to build on the estate.
The Ringling Museum: An Incredible Estate
The focus point of the estate in Sarasota, so evident when you enter the museum, is the palatial and historic Ringling house, Ca d’Zan. Its name means “House of John” in the old dialect of their beloved Venice. Designed to resemble a Venetian Gothic palace, it looks as if it could have been plucked right out of a Great Gatsby-era movie.
Not surprisingly, it’s a vast house, 36,000 square feet in size and five stories tall. There are 56 rooms, 15 bathrooms, and an 81-foot Belvedere tower. A testament to the Roaring Twenties, it contains everything one could desire to live really well during that epoch.
The opulent house is also filled with beautiful art and tapestries, Venetian furniture, marble floors, and stained-glass ceilings with crystal chandeliers. In fact, the living-room chandelier was bought by Ringling from the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City.
The main room of Ca d’Zan, called “the court,” was the focal point for the Ringling’s entertaining. One can’t help but admire both its size and splendor. In one corner is a beautiful inlaid desk. Across from the grand fireplace is a lovely Aeolian organ, tapestries and paintings of Ringling and Mable.
The Tap Room made me feel like I was in a small bar tucked away somewhere in Venice. Behind the bar are stained glass and painted panels, crowned with, of all things, the horns of a longhorn steer.
Accordingly, like everything else in the house, Ca d’Zan’s beautiful terrace is broad and striking. Overlooking Sarasota Bay, it has stained-glass doors that open onto it from the house.
Gardens of The Ringling Museum
The grounds and gardens of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota are as treasured as the incredible artworks in the museum.
The house and museums are in the Bayfront Gardens, home to thousands of trees and plants gracing a beautiful park-like setting. Moreover, its manicured lawns, with massive oaks trimmed with Spanish moss, provide a sense of luxury you’ll find in very few other places.
It’s all the result of Mable desiring an estate with exotic trees and plants. In fact, she collected plants with the same fervor her husband collected art.
Today there are more than 2350 trees on the grounds of the magnificent estate, representing an array of native, exotic, historical, and culturally significant species.
There are also several significant gardens.
Mable’s 27,225 square foot Rose Garden was first planted in 1913, years before Ca d’Zan was built. It contains more than 400 varieties of roses on more than 1,000 bushes. You’ll find statues tucked away on winding paths throughout the Italian-inspired garden. The best time to see it bloom is approximately six weeks after its annual cutback each February and October.
In the whimsical Dwarf Garden you’ll see amusing stone statues that John Ringling had brought from Italy. It’s reminiscent of romantic 18th- and 19th-century German and Italian gardens.
Mable’s Secret Garden is north of Ca d’Zan, which contains the burial site of she and John, and his sister Ida Ringling North.
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Undoubtedly, the most famous building on the Sarasota property is the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. It’s a beautiful, pink-colored Renaissance-style building, built as a U-shaped palace enclosing a courtyard. Moreover, the statues above the entrance give it a regal look.
Ringling filled it with European art and the paneled rooms from the Gilded Age Astor mansion in New York. He also purchased ancient and medieval objects from distinguished collections worldwide to include in it.
When opened by Ringling in 1930, the museum had only one gallery. Today it has 21, filled with important works by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Diego Velázquez, Titian, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, El Greco, and Thomas Gainsborough.
As a showman, Ringling provided big and bold entertainment. Some surmise that is why he was drawn to Rubens, who painted big and bold Baroque canvases.
In fact, on his European jaunts, Ringling gathered a signature collection of Ruben’s works for his Sarasota museum. it includes five of the seven paintings of the artist’s “Triumph of the Eucharist”series. While the paintings are spectacular, viewing these massive paintings together in the museum can be a bit overwhelming to some.
Accordingly, all the individual museum rooms of the Ringling are painted in different shades to best befit the works they contain. Moreover, several galleries are spectacular 19th-century rooms with ornate woodwork. They provide a stunning venue for all the art treasures collected by Ringling. The entire collection ranges from late medieval European art, through 16th- and 17th-century Italian masterpieces, to 18th-century American works.
Although Ringling mainly acquired European pieces for his Sarasota museum art collection, he purchased Cypriot art at the beginning of his European art forays, and Asian treasures before his death in 1936.
The Ringling Museum Today
The newest addition to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is the 20,000-square-foot Center for Asian Art. It now connects the European galleries with those that are home to Chinese, Japanese, and Indian artworks. The collection includes a 10th-century Buddha and Chinese ceramics from all periods of history. The works range from ancient to avant-garde.
The museum also has a collection of 10,000 photographs, which are put on exhibit on a rotating schedule. The museum also hosts special exhibitions borrowed from such institutions as The Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
What sets the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota apart from many other museums is that it’s not just a place to admire the art but learn about it. In some galleries, there are guide-sheets, from which you’ll get a better understanding of what you’re viewing.
For example, in Gallery 15, The Art of France, 1700 – 1800, I read about rococo painting, which I knew nothing about. Then I was 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.
It’s an intimate place that gives the feeling that you’re wandering through someone’s home admiring their private collection. In fact, it were in Europe, Americans would likely rate it as a “must-see,” and people would line up waiting to get in.
The Beautiful Inner Courtyard
Without doubt, one of the most beautiful parts of Sarasota’s John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is its inner courtyard, filled with Greco-Roman statuary and casts of classical works. The most famous is Michelangelo’s David, a 17-foot tall, 5 ½ ton bronze replica of the famous statue in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia.
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. Brightly colored bougainvillea cascaded out of huge terra-cotta pots, with the breeze bouncing their fallen petals along the walkways.
Afterwards, while wandering about, I encountered the statue of a nymph standing in a little square of juniper bushes. A little Cupid peeked out from a pedestal in the bushes not far beyond. I felt as if I was strolling through the courtyard of a 500-year-old Italian palazzo.
Consequently, it made for a perfect morning in a magnificent little museum, which you’ll likely enjoy visiting if you ever have the opportunity.
The Ringling Circus Museum
The Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota is, in fact, two separate museums. The first contains circus wagons and Ringling’s opulent restored rail car (Ringling’s 79-foot-long car “The Wisconsin,” has 8 rooms, including three bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom with a bathtub – gold plating, and beautiful stained-glass windows.)
There’s also the ticket booth, mechanic’s cart (containing everything to keep the show going), animal cars for the sideshows, and many other memorabilia.
But the museum’s star is the Tibbals Learning Center. It contains an incredible miniature recreation of the “Howard Bros. Circus,” patterned after Ringling’s extravaganza.
Its million pieces are built to exact scale (3/4″ to the foot). For example, there are 7,000 miniature-folding chairs and when folded, fit into the five little wagons, just as in the actual show. Amazingly, one man, Howard Tibbals, created it over 55 years.
It’s fascinating and shows the circus, from when the train pulls into town to when the big show is over. It covers an area of 3,800 square feet and is about 1½ times the length of a football field.
As you wander along, you hear sounds associated with each event you’re passing … elephants bellowing, people cheering, grunts, groans, music. Plaques explain what you’re viewing.
As I read one of the plaques, lights dimmed, and tiny lights twinkled inside the tent, starting the nighttime show. Down to the right, I saw a miniature policeman grabbing boys sneaking in under the side of the tent. It is correct down to the smallest detail and incredibly fascinating.
Also, go up to the second floor. You’ll find an exhibit that details circus history from ancient times. You won’t want to miss this either.
The Historic Asolo Theater
Now part of Sarasota’s Ringling Museum complex, the Historic Asolo Theater is a “jewel box” of a theater.
It was built in 1798 in Asolo, Italy, a town in the Veneto Region of Northern Italy. There it originally occupied the great hall of a Renaissance Palace built for the exiled Queen of Cyprus.
The Ringling acquired it in 1949, brought it to Sarasota, and installed it in a gallery of the Museum of Art. After falling into disrepair in the late 20th century, the theater was conserved and restored and moved to the new Visitors Pavilion. Today, it serves as a performing arts venue featuring drama, dance, music, and film.
If You Go:
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, Florida 34243
Tel: (941) 359-5700
Open: daily 10:00am-5:00pm / closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day
Admission: Since prices vary depending on which part of the estate you are visiting, see the admission policy here.
Dining at the Ringling
The Ringling Grillroom
Mable’s Coffee and Tea
Located upstairs in the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion
Serves Starbucks hot and cold beverages and fresh made salads, sandwiches, and parfaits and baked goods.
Open: 10am – 5pm daily
The Wandering Chef Food Truck
Serves picnic and kid-friendly foods.
Parked near the Banyan Café daily, 10:30am – 3:00pm
Picnic tables located in the Dwarf Garden and the Playspace. Picnic coolers are allowed in designated picnic areas during regular business hours.