Florida baroque: Ringling meets Rubens

When Anthony F. Janson's revision of ``History of Art,'' by his father, H. W. Janson, came out this year, we asked him about his own art scene. He is chief curator of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. AS a curator, I had been lured to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., by its great collection of baroque pictures, which I had first seen more than 20 years earlier while on vacation. Yet nothing quite prepared me for my first day on the job. Perhaps it was the shock of the 95-degree change in temperature from the Midwest in the dead of winter, but the effect of the place was intoxicating.

The entire complex embodies the epic fantasies of the fabulous couple who built it. One would hardly expect less from the Circus King. The experience begins as soon as the visitor enters the museum. The art galleries, designed by the prominent New York architect John H. Phillips and constructed between 1927 and 1929, are a free adaptation of Italian Renaissance palaces. They are like a less gaudy, less pink version of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, which reproduces an ancient Roman villa.

The focal point is the courtyard filled with reproductions of antique and Renaissance statues and fountains, most of them bought in Naples during the mid-1920s. The view is dominated by a huge cast of Michelangelo's David, silhouetted against the sky and flanked by tall palm trees.

The exotic milieu continues at the Ca'd'Zan, which means ``House of John'' in Venetian dialect. Based loosely on the Doge's Palace in Venice with a tower added for good measure, it departs from the Spanish neo-colonial style found at Vizcaya and the other great Florida mansions. The building was completed just in time for Christmas 1926 at a cost of $1.5 million. It, too, is the work of Phillips. It was designed to Mable Ring-ling's eclectic taste and exact specifications. For her, the residence became a consuming passion. It was Mable who laid out the rose garden and parklike grounds, which are a stroller's delight.

As heady as these surroundings are, the Ringling is above all an art museum -- in fact, the state art museum of Florida. The museum's 40th anniversary under state stewardship is being celebrated with a summer-long exhibition of 32 pictures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The museum and residence are remarkably consistent with the paintings Ringling bought -- and with good rea-son, for his aspirations as a collector were as grandiose as the baroque style. What motivated him in the first place?

The fact that many of his paintings came from the royal collections of England suggests that he harbored hopes of achieving a nobler immortality as an art collector than his fame as the owner of ``The Greatest Show on Earth'' by itself allowed. Moreover, the romance of Italy, which formed his taste, as it did that of so many other wealthy Americans of the era, must have exercised a particular fascination for this son of German immigrants to the Midwest.

Between 1926 and 1931, Ringling went on a buying binge. He bought major works by leading representatives of both earlier and later schools, but he concentrated on the baroque. To him, as to many scholars of the day, that meant art between 1550 and 1775, though today it is customary to confine the baroque to the 17th century.

What attracted him to it? Certainly one reason was that the baroque was less fashionable than the Renaissance and constituted a relatively good buy at the time. But though he kept a sharp eye out for good buys, Ringling proved a knowledgeable and discerning collector who was willing to pay top prices for the masterpieces that formed the cornerstones of his collection. Furthermore, no one collects on such a vast scale without having a genuine love of art.

The key to understanding Ringling's passion for the baroque lies in his character. In the baroque he found an outlook and temperament that were very much in keeping with his own. They had in common a rich complexity that mirrored many of the same inner contradictions and tensions. Ringling was a large man in every respect. He had an imposing physique and vigorous personality to match. The lavish banquets for which the Ringlings were renowned testify to this gusto and prodigious appetite.

The acquisition that best exemplifies what Ringling found in the baroque is the four Rubens tapestry cartoons for ``The Triumph of the Eucharist,'' which he bought in 1926 from the Westminster collection because there would be nothing like them in the United States.

This sense of showmanship lies at the heart of the man himself -- and of Rubens's art, for although the cartoons were executed mainly by his large shop, they epitomize his flamboyant approach. Rubens, like the sculptor Bernini, designed decorations for numerous pageants that are the direct forerunners of circus parades in their splendor. In fact, the Eucharist series includes several triumphal processions of this sort.

Rubens has treated the cartoons as tapestries within tapestries, each surrounded by an illusionistic architectural framework. This device elides the distinction between the worldly and the divine, the present and the past, in order to provide a suitable setting for the allegory. In its own way the circus relies on translating fantasy into a convincing illusion of transcendent reality. In ``Abraham and Melchizedek,'' which is the finest of the suite of cartoons, the figures are endowed with a superhuman vitality characteristic of the Flemish baroque's ideal of life -- a life that Ringling himself led.

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