Ringling Museum; Circus impresario created a Xanadu in Sarasota

Say ''Ringling'' and I see striped tents, hear calliopes tooting, and smell peanuts and cotton candy. Here on Sarasota Bay, however, Ringling means more than circus, it means art and history and grandiose architecture, all under one enormous tent called the Ringling Museums.

It is a kind of four-ring circus, this 68-acre estate that includes the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Ringling residence known as Ca'd'Zan, the Museum of the Circus, and the Asolo Theater. They can be seen for a single $3.50 ticket, and if the grounds look a mite weedy in spots and the Ringling mansion needs a little roof work, the imperfections only add to the fascinating and slightly bizarre effect. It's the Piazza San Marco on US 41.

John Ringling (1866-1936) was a powerful and sometimes power-grabbing American showman who started on the long circus trail with his four brothers in Baraboo, Wis., rose to the top of the business in the first quarter of this century by buying out the rival Barnum & Bailey, and established sleepy Sarasota on Florida's west coast, not only as winter circus headquarters, but as his own Xanadu. He left it all to the State of Florida, a burdened but beneficent landlord that offers Mable Ringling's rose garden free of charge for weddings and struggles within its budget to keep up appearances. It seemed to be winning the battle when I ducked in out of a winter rain not long ago.

Of the four Ringling attractions, the big top is the art museum, a rose-pink villa that was completed in 1930 as John Ringling's version of 15th-century Venice. I doubt if the doges ever built on such scale. At the center of the arched galleries is a 350-foot-long garden overlooked by a massive David, one of three bronze replicas of the Michelangelo statue, cast in 1874 in Naples. What was a businessman from Baraboo, Wis., doing with one foot in the 15th century and the other in a tiger cage?

''John Ringling,'' said a museum official, as we entered a room decked with four huge Rubens oils, ''was the youngest of five brothers. He got complete control of the circus and went to Europe to sign up circus acts. That's where this essentially Middle West farm boy ran into art, culture, and fine food; and he became fascinated with baroque art.''

Around us loomed these outsize canvases, perhaps 25 by 25 feet, depicting the Sacrament of the Eucharist. ''These are 'cartoons,' '' I was told, ''meaning they were paintings executed as patterns for a tapestry. If you look closely, you can see that because of this everything is backward. We have a fifth in this series, which the museum got last year and will hang in this room soon, space permitting. The Louvre has two others, and the rest were destroyed ages ago in a fire in Austria.''

Rubens was clearly the object of Ringling's affection, for that tireless Flemish master is also represented in others of the endlessly connecting galleries, and what isn't entirely original is designated ''Rubens and Studio.'' Meanwhile, the Italian Renaissance, Italian Baroque, Spanish, Dutch, and Middle European Baroque have their own galleries.

John Ringling had no use for art more recent than 18th century - a Reynolds and a Gainsborough gaze at each other across the English gallery - but the museum, under its 20th-century curator, Michael Auping, has steadily mounted a contemporary collection. It was startling after a long stroll through the antiquities of art to come blinking into a room with hot stripes and squares.

''Our only problem with this growing contemporary collection,'' said the guide, ''is where to put it.'' The message I got is that Ringling's beloved Baroque purchases are not about to be stored away in the cellar.

Dodging warm droplets, we hurried out the back way, through the Dwarf Garden (comical stone midgets: a sort of antique circus act) and into the Asolo Theater. This little jewel stood from 1798 to 1930 in the Italian hill town of Asolo before it was torn down to make way for a movie house.

''An antique dealer from Venice salvaged the interior and put it in storage, and in the '50s our curator heard about it and got Florida to pick it up,'' the official said. Pretty as a piece of Wedgwood, the theater rises in three tiers around a little stage, holding 300 seats. In December and January the Asolo plays opera, then the Asolo State Theater Company takes over and runs through the summer. And always on Mondays - at 2:30 p.m. and twice at night - art movies or films too arcane for downtown Sarasota are shown at $2 apiece.

As the sky darkened to El Greco tones, we made our way past the Rose Garden and some massive banyans to the very edge of Sarasota Bay, where the Ringling mansion, Ca'd'Zan (Venetian dialect for John's castle), looms up like a Shriners' Temple. It was Mable Ringling who ordained the design, drawing from two of her favorite buildings: the Doges' Palace in Venice and the old Madison Square Garden, scene of many a Ringling circus.

The 60-foot tower faintly resembles the Garden's crown - the architects fought her on that - but the Doge facade is not hard to see, especially from the water side, where a dock - now condemned and awaiting Florida restoration funds - once sheltered the family gondola.

Of the four attractions, the Circus Museum is the least ambitious. It was an afterthought, built in recent years to recognize the true Ringling legacy. There is a circus ''backyard'' to show how the performers lived when they were away from the spotlight. As for the winter circus headquarters, it occupied a 200 -acre tract east of town from 1927 to 1960, then was moved down the coast to Venice, Fla., where it resides today. Just as well, perhaps. John and Mable Ringling's four-ring circus is show enough for one town.

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