Circus

ART: The Ringling Museum: A Spectacular Journey Through Art, History, and High-Flying Circus Fun

Amanda Mirus

Amanda Mirus

Managing Director & Editor

Oct 31, 2023

Recently, I took a trip to visit a friend in Tampa, FL. He mentioned going to the Ringling Museum in Sarasota. Not knowing what to expect, but always love a nice museum day, I was pleasantly surprised! This museum exceeded any expectation I had. Not only was it captivating, but it was also extremely inspiring!

When we think of the Circus, images of dazzling trapeze artists, roaring lions, misfits, and comical clown antics immediately spring to mind. However, in Sarasota, Florida, the concept of the circus — and the extraordinary family behind one of its greatest dynasties — is immortalized not only through memories of the big top, but also within the grandeur of the Ringling Museum, officially known as The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. This striking museum, a testament to the Ringling’s legacy, is a blend of art, history, and the unique American spirit of the circus.

The Circus Legacy

John Ringling, one of the famous five Ringling brothers, was engulfed with circus life in the early 20th century. The Ringling brothers founded their circus in 1884, and it wasn’t long before “The Greatest Show on Earth” was born from their relentless innovation and promotion. They officially became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after acquiring their chief competitor, merging shows, and creating an entertainment powerhouse.

The circus was more than acrobats and animals; it was a complex business venture requiring significant investment, sharp marketing, and an instinct for what thrilled audiences. Beyond the tented world of circus life, John and his wife, Mable, invested in various endeavors, including railroads, oil, and real estate, particularly in Sarasota, where they became instrumental in the city’s development.

The entire property is a massive 66-acre estate, featuring the Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, Tibbals Learning Center, the Dwarf Garden, and Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringling’s immaculate mansion, along with a historic playhouse and Mabel’s Rose Garden.

A Passion for Art

Their financial success fueled another passion: A love for art. During their travels, John and Mable collected art pieces, particularly European Baroque Art. The museum, established in 1927, was developed as a legacy project to provide the state of Florida with their extensive collection, ensuring public access to works by masters such as Rubens, Van Dyck, and Velázquez, to name a few.

Walking through the museum and seeing the way they perfectly crafted the architecture to fit these enormous masterpieces entirely into the molding was mind blowing. As I was there, I had to keep reminding myself that these pieces were from John and Mabel’s private art collection.

The museum’s art collection currently consists of more than 10,000 objects that include a variety of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, photographs, and decorative arts from ancient through contemporary periods and from around the world.

The Circus Museum

The Circus Museum, established in 1948, is a tribute to the golden age of the circus. The museum has a collection of handbills, posters and art prints, circus paper, business records, wardrobe, performing props, circus equipment, and parade wagons.

Including the original John Ringling’s private railroad car. Which he used from 1905 to 1917 to travel with his circus, take vacations, and conduct business trips. John named it after his home state of Wisconsin, which was also where his circus was quartered.

The adjacent Tibbals Learning Center contains the Howard Bros. Circus Model, a 3,800-square-foot replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919–1938. It’s a fascinating, detailed reconstruction that captures the scale and dynamism of the circus at its peak. From 1919 to 1938, and is known as the “world’s largest miniature circus”.

As you enter the Tibbals Learning Center, there is a mini documentary playing interviewing the creator of the Circus Model.

Mable’s Rose Garden

Nestled on the grounds is Mable’s Rose Garden, created by Mable Ringling in 1913. The garden, restored to its original design, features 1,200+ rose bushes and offers a tranquil oasis of floral beauty. Although none of the roses in the garden are original from Mabel’s time, they are all the original breed of roses she had in her garden. It’s the perfect spot to reflect on the day and take photos.

John, Mabel, and John’s sister Ida’s Burial

Not too far from the Rose Garden is another garden, the Secret Garden. This is where John, Mabel, and John’s sister Ida Ringling North are buried. Sadly, although Mabel died in 1929, John died in 1936, and Ida died in 1950, they weren’t laid to rest until 1991 due to family feuds and legal battles.

Ca’ d’Zan: House of John

No visit to the Ringling Museum is complete without a tour of Ca’ d’Zan. Built in 1926, and facing the Sarasota Bay, this 36,000-square-foot Venetian mansion, that looked more like a castle is a sight to behold. The name, meaning “House of John” in Venetian dialect, reflects the couple’s love for Venice, Italy. With its beautifully detailed architectural finishes and excellently restored interior rooms, the mansion is a testament to the opulent Jazz Age and the financial prowess of the Ringlings.

A $15-million restoration and renovation of Ca d’Zan was completed in 2002.

As you are passing through the 66-acres, you’ll see beautiful statues and sculptures of all shapes and sizes. The couple brought them back with them during their years of travel in Europe. You can see a lot of these statues in the Dwarf Garden in the middle on the Art Museum.

Overall, A Must-See Museum!

The Ringling Museum offers an unmatched glimpse into the worlds of art, circus history, and the personal lives of one of America’s most influential couples. Whether you’re marveling at the expansive art galleries, wandering through Mabel’s Rose Garden, exploring the Ca’ d’Zan, seeing circus memorabilia, or enjoying the calm beauty of Sarasota Bay, the museum is more than a collection of artifacts — it’s an immersive experience that resonates with the beauty and wonder of an era gone by.

For anyone visiting Sarasota, the Ringling Museum isn’t just an option; it’s an absolute must-see!!

More information on the museum hours and tickets — https://www.ringling.org/

Amanda Mirus

Amanda Mirus

Managing Director & Editor

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