The following is one more post resurrected from the cast offs of last February, another look around Florida’s west coast.
Origins of the circus go back as far as 2000 BC, though it was America’s first showman James W. Bancker who used the word ‘circus’ to describe a dazzling show of spectacles. The word is Latin from the Greek kirkos meaning a circle or ring, referring to a large building either oblong or oval used for public entertainments such as horse and chariot races. When the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus—a true spectacle—debuted at Madison Square Garden on March 29, 1919, posters announced “The Ringling Brothers World’s Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions!”
John Ringling, the fifth of seven brothers took over management of their circus empire after the death of his bothers Alfred and Charles. Charles had previously moved the circus to winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida for the first time in 1927. They bought property from the city government and were soon putting on shows during the winter there. John and his wife Mable bought bay front property and built a spacious mansion in the Venetian Gothic style calling it Ca’ d’Zan (‘The House of John’ in Venetian dialect), inspired by the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The house was designed by architect Dwight James Baum and finished in 1925. Later, Ringling built a museum for his growing art collection, establishing an enviable collection of Baroque art and acquiring over the years a large collection of work by Peter Paul Rubens.
John Ringling died in 1936. Once among the world’s wealthiest men, he died with only $311 in the bank. According to his will the Sarasota mansion and museum, including the complete art collection were left to the state of Florida.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art stands overlooking Sarasota Bay on Florida’s west coast. On my visit to the museum I didn’t know what to expect other than a place rich in circus history, and unsurprisingly it was a fascinating day of poring over the history, the artifacts, posters and art of the huge Ringling empire. First was the vast Howard Tibbals display of miniature carvings illustrating the complete circus experience. Beginning work in 1956, Tibbals spent fifty years carving, painting and dressing his diminutive world of the circus, leaving out nothing. From large to small every detail and aspect of circus life is recreated in Tibbals massive circus diorama. Hard to imagine the extent of work this sprawling exhibit represents. Eye-popping for adults, it is a magical wonderland for children.
Another favorite was the comprehensive collection of circus posters, one after another of examples reflecting an art lost in the past. A book called The Amazing American Circus Poster was available in the gift shop and I didn’t pause even a moment in buying a copy. One example from the book is shown below.
Before walking over to the Ringling mansion I spent some time examining the collection of costumes and elephant blankets. One of these blankets alone required seventy-five yards of fabric and 200 pounds of rhinestones and spangles. In such lavish dress is it any wonder that the Ringling Brothers elephants pranced the big top in proud enormity? A short distance away a ‘pretend’ tightrope was laid out on the floor inviting visitors to give it a try. I tried three times and failed.
I took a turn through the palatial Ringling mansion with its interesting Venetian name Ca’ d’Zan, marveling over the huge collection of china and silverware and the colored glass of windows and doors. It includes forty-one rooms and fifteen bathrooms encompassing 36,000 square feet. The back of the mansion opens onto an expansive bayfront terrace of domestic and imported marble looking across the bay to the city of Sarasota. It was here that Ringling docked his private yacht of 125 feet, the Zalophus.
The art museum would require long hours to look at everything in more than passing fashion. I have never seen anywhere a larger collection of the work of Peter Paul Rubens, many of the canvases huge and covering nearly an entire wall. It’s all a bit overpowering. Though not a Rubens work, the one that impressed me most was a painting by Francesco Salviati called Portrait of an Aristocratic Youth, painted in 1543-44.
The museum includes a large central courtyard garden with fountains, huge urns of flowering trees, statues lining the rooftops and a bronze cast of the original marble David by Michelangelo Buonarotti. It is a restful setting for visitors a little dizzy from the numerous galleries inside.
John Ringling, 1866-1936, the man who brought thrills and chills to millions left Florida one of its finest museums.