April, 2015 – We made our way from Pensacola Beach to Sarasota, Florida, with two big missions on our minds: first, to overhaul the electrical system on our RV and second, for me to zip off to New England for a family reunion. But during our stay in the pretty beach town of Sarasota we squeezed in a little sightseeing and discovered some wonderful gems.
Who knew that Sarasota’s roots are intertwined with the circus?? Back at the turn of the twentieth century, Sarasota became home to John Ringling, the sixth of seven Ringling Brothers, five of whom founded the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1884. Drawn to the small fishing village of Sarasota in 1911, John began using his immense circus fortune to buy up real estate. At one time he and his brother Charles owned 25% of Sarasota.
John was the advance man for the circus, handling bookings and promotion, but he was a savvy invester as well. His holdings were very diverse and included things like railroads and Madison Square Garden. A lover of European art, he also invested heavily in artwork from the middle ages through the 19th century.
When he died in 1936, despite having seen his fortune crumble in the face of the Great Depression, his massive ornate waterfront estate and his sumptuous art collection were both still intact, and he bequeathed the whole lot to the State of Florida.
Today, the mansion and art museum and beautifully landscaped grounds make for a fabulous tour. Upon entering the Ringling Museum of Art, we were blown away to see a room full of massive paintings by the Flemish Baroque master of the 16th and 17th centuries, Peter Paul Rubens.
Astonishingly, that is just s smattering of the immense collection of Ringling artwork which spans all of European artistic development from the middle ages through the 1800’s. What’s best is that the art museum is open to the public for free on Mondays.
The grounds of the entire Ringling estate are beautifully kept, and the courtyard behind the Museum of Art is sensational. An enormous, pillared courtyard surrounds a formal garden that is filled with statues.
Above the rows of arches lining the courtyard, there are legions of statues on the rooftop cornices as well.
At one end a bronze replica of Michaelangelo’s statue of David presides over the gardens, surrounded by palm trees.
Up on top of the helmeted head of one of the statues, a little songbird sang his heart out for us, filling the air with his melodious warbles.
Awestruck by the immense scale of this personal collection of art, and trying to imagine what life was like as a circus tycoon a century ago, we were delighted to find a more down-to-earth treasure hidden between the wide banyon trees of the estate. A huge mulberry bush was covered from head to toe in delicious, ripe mulberries. This bush — or tree — was so huge that we could climb inside under its thick branches. There were enough berries in there to feed an army, and we feasted on them for quite some time!!
The huge John and Mable Ringling Mansion is now a museum as well. A very long line of people was waiting outside to get tickets to see the interior rooms of the mansion, but we contented ourselves with wandering around the grounds. The mansion is called Cà D’Zan, which is said to be a Venetian dialect for “House of John.” It is also thought to mean “House of Zany,” and since “Zany” means “clownish,” it is also fitting. John Ringling’s first role with the circus was as a clown.
The vast marble patio stretches on three sides of the house towards the water, and there is a huge boat dock right out front.
There are several other museums on the Ringling estate, including a Circus Museum, and it is possible to get a discounted three day pass to see all the museums at leisure. We decided to save that in depth look at The Ringling for another visit, but we were enchanted when we met a longtime Sarasota resident who gave this unusual Sarasota circus connection a personal touch.
She remembered when the circus train would arrive in Sarasota for their winter break in the early 1950’s and depart again in the spring. Everyone from town would run down to wave at the performers who lived on the 100 car train during the touring season. She also remembered when a group of midgets lived in a nearby neighborhood of miniature homes. Many of the midgets had been cast as Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz in 1939.
How cool is that?!
Added later: Thanks to a heads up from reader Richard Daugherty, here is a YouTube video of child prodigy singer Jackie Evancho performing at the Ringling Museum of Art when she was 11. Check this out!!
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More about The Ringling in Sarasota:
- Ringling – John and Mable Ringling’s official website: the estate, museums, biographies and circus history
- Cà D’Zan – John and Mable Ringling’s Mansion
- The Ringling Museum of Art – Wikipedia Page
- John Ringling Bio – Wikipedia Page
- Ringling Brothers Circus – Wikipedia Page
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- More Blog Posts from Florida