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Sarasota’s Treasure: The Ringling Museum of Art

Florida’s official state art museum rests on an estate overlooking shimmering Sarasota Bay. The magnificent Ringling Museum of Art is just one of the museums on the 66-acre retreat. A visit may surprise many Floridains who likely have no idea of the vast richness of this cultural treasure.

Statue of David in the Ringling Museum Courtyard
Statue of David in the Ringling Museum Courtyard

John Ringling, the grandiose circus entrepreneur, and his wife, Mabel, were fanatical collectors of European art. But, John didn’t just purchase paintings; he occasionally bought entire buildings or rooms where the artworks were housed. He shipped them to Sarasota and built his Museum of Art with specialized designs to incorporate these objects. The structure’s style resembles the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy including the columns, architectural details and courtyard complete with a 16-foot bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David.

Sadly, John Ringling lost most of his fortune shortly before his death in 1936, largely due to the collapse of Florida’s land boom and Wall Street’s crash. But, Ringling desperately wanted to leave behind a legacy and generous bequeathed his “jewel” to the people of the State of Florida. He actually borrowed money to do so. Today the Museum features 21-galleries packed with European, American and Asian art including masterpieces by Rubens, can Dyck, Titian, Velazquez, El Greco, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

Ca d'Zan: Home of John & Mable Ringling
Ca d’Zan: Home of John & Mable Ringling

The 1924 former winter-home and gardens of John and Mable Ringling, named Ca d’Zan meaning “House of John”, abuts the waterway and is well worth a tour. The immense Venetian Gothic style mansion measures 200-feet in length and encompasses 36,000 square feet with 56 rooms. Notice the decorative tiles, original furniture, an 82-foot tower, domed ceilings and masterful woodwork.

Interior of Ca d'Zan
Interior of Ca d’Zan

Tourists also enjoy the property’s Circus Museum which includes historic items like posters and  handbills, costumes, John and Mable’s private railroad car and the “largest miniature tented circus in the world,” a 3/4 inch-to-the-foot scale which spans 3,800 square feet. An interactive exhibit lets kids try to squeeze into a model of a 2-by3-foot clown-car and walk a high wire.

Finally, tourists can see the historic and beautifully delicate Asolo Theater. This venue was originally built in 1798 in a castle from the Italian town of Asolo, near Venice. It was moved to Sarasota and is used for live performances.

Asolo Theater, Sarasota, FL
Asolo Theater, Sarasota, FL

In all honesty, The Ringling Museums, like a three ring circus, offer too much to see at once. I suggest choosing one or two of the buildings. Kids will naturally favor the circus themed areas. Enjoy.

The Ringling Museum of Art
5401 Bay Shore Road,
Sarasota, FL

Photo of David in the courtyard by Debi Lander

All other photos courtesy of Ringling Museum of Art.