Baby Boomers, South Florida — By Susan McKee on November 30, 2010 at 3:12 pm
Filed under: Art, circus, gardens, museum, top-feature

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Ringling! The name means “circus” to millions of Americans who grew up watching acrobats, clowns and performing animals under the big top. John Ringling — the leading force in this band of brothers behind the behemoth known as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus left quite an astonishing legacy that’s one of the biggest attractions in southwest Florida today.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on the north side of Sarasota, Florida, is a 66-acre complex along the Gulf of Mexico with a fabulous museum filled with paintings, sculpture and architectural details, plus a fragrant rose garden, a jewel box of a community theater, an imposing Venetian-style palazzo and the best miniature circus in all the world.

John and Mable Ringling traveled the globe with the circus and, during the course of their journeys, they sent home souvenirs — ancient columns, statues, paintings and more.

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In 1925, Ringling hired architect John H. Phillips to design a palace for these treasures that would be his version of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Construction began in 1927, and was finished in October 1931.

Today the museum’s 21 galleries feature internationally-renowned European, American and Asian art with masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque periods in addition to traveling exhibitions. A special treat are the Peter Paul Rubens cartoons — the five enormous paintings that served as patterns for his “Triumph of the Eucharist” tapestries. They are the only large painting cycle by Rubens (1577-1640) outside of Europe.

For years, the “circus” part of Ringling was overshadowed by this art collection. It wasn’t until a decade or so after John’s death in 1936 that a Circus Museum was added to the complex (which had been donated by the Ringlings to the state of Florida).

A new addition in 2006 transformed this part of the collection — a miniature circus.   For fifty years, a man from rural Tennessee, Howard Tibbals, had been working on a scale model of the circus. He’d wanted to name it after Ringling, but was refused permission. (He’s joked since that the decision saved him hours and hours of work. Instead of painting “Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus” on all the circus wagons and signs, he’s only had to brush on the much shorter “Howard Brothers”.)

Tibbals said he fell in love with the circus as a small boy when his grandfather took him to the top of a hill to watch the Ringling Brothers Circus unload from the train rail cars. Fascinated by the Golden Era of the American tented circus (about 1919-1938), he chose that time period for his replica.

Working on a scale of ¾ inch:1 foot, Tibbals used materials including steel, brass, wood, plastic, cloth and string to create an entire circus that would cover almost 20 acres if life-size. On its 3,800 square feet of exhibit space, the massive model has eight tents, 130 wagons, 55 rail cars, a 12,000-seat “Big Top” and more than 200 animals and 1,500 performers, including recognizable legendary circus stars.

The model provides detailed views of the American circus, its workers, performers and its audience, as well as all of the circus equipment. For example, there are 7,000 miniature folding chairs in the Big Top. When folded, these chairs fit into five of the miniature wagons, just as they would in the real show. More than 3,000 miniature circus visitors, performers and workers are positioned in the model, which went on permanent display in 2006. This part of the Ringling museum is so popular that an expansion is underway, set to open in 2012.

There is, of course, the rest of the Circus Museum with costumes, posters, train cars and other circus paraphernalia, but that collection is overshadowed by the meticulously crafted miniature circus.

There are three more major attractions on the grounds of the Ringling complex, officially known as a state museum of Florida and administered by Florida State University: Mable’s Rose Garden, the Ringlings’ Venetian palazzo of a house and the Asolo Theater.

The 27,225 square foot rose garden, completed in 1913, is patterned after a traditional Italian circular garden design. The 1,200 flowering plants are of the same varieties planted by Mrs. Ringling, and the garden is accredited by All-American Rose Selections.

The Asolo Theater, a palace playhouse, was built in 1798 in Asolo, Italy. In the late 1940s, the theater was dismantled and brought across the ocean to the Ringling estate in Sarasota. It was added to the complex in the early 1950s. In 2006, after years of restoration, the 18th-century theater was reset in the Visitors Pavilion just inside the Cà d’Zan Gatehouse on the grounds. It functions as a performing arts venue, presenting a diverse roster of theater, music, dance, film, and lectures.

Renovated in 2002, the Ringlings’ palace of a house — Cà d’Zan — is a wonder both inside and out. Most definitely a “Gilded Age” mansion, its 56 rooms on five floors are filled with art and original furnishings. Designed in a Venetian Gothic style, it was completed in 1925 at a cost of $1.5 million. Instead of the Grand Canal of Venice alongside their marble terrace, the couple looked over Sarasota Bay. (The name means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect of Italian.)

There’s so much to see and do at the Ringling, that it’s easiest to plan to make a day of it. There’s a free tram to scoot around the 66-acre complex if your feet get tired. Two restaurants offer refreshment and a place to relax. The family-friendly self-serve Banyan Café with plenty of outdoor seating is near the Circus Museum and Mable’s Rose Garden. The more formal Treviso Restaurant in the Visitor Center is open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch — it’s named for the Italian province in which Asolo is located.

The Ringling brothers were seven siblings, five of whom worked together in the late 19th century to transform a small touring company of performers into one of America’s largest circuses by the early 20th century. Charles and John, two of the boys, were still at the helm when Ringling Brothers combined with the Barnum & Bailey Circus to create “The Greatest Show on Earth”.  Although Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus still travels the country, bringing “chills and thrills” to “ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages”, it’s now part of Feld Entertainment (which purchased the franchise from nephew John Ringling North — son of the only Ringling sister — in 1967).

Location:  The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art complex is located at the end of University Parkway at 5401 Bay Shore Road, Florida (map).

Hours:  It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Thursdays, the Museum of Art and Circus Museum are open until 8 p.m.

Admission:  Admission is $25 for adults and $10 for children, with children 6 and under admitted free. Docent-led tours of the Cà d’Zan are an additional $5 per person.

(All photos by Susan McKee)

Tags: Art, circus, gardens, museum, top-feature

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