Ringling Museum Complex
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Lonely Planet review
The 66-acre winter estate of railroad, real-estate and circus baron John Ringling and his wife, Mable, is one of the Gulf Coast's premier attractions. Indeed, this excellent museum complex has a lot to see, and several ways to see it. For the complete experience, plan a full day or several shorter visits. For instance, the landscaped grounds and rose gardens are free to the public during open hours. The art museum (alone) is free Monday, while 5pm till 8pm Thursday both the art and circus museums are discounted (adult/child $10/5). Saturday from 1pm till 4pm is 'family day,' with activity carts and family-oriented guides. There are also two cafes and a good gift shop.
In addition to the sights below, the historic Asolo Theater shows a highly recommended, 30-minute PBS-produced film on Ringling's life (included with admission). The theater is itself an attraction – its ornate Italian interior dating to 1798 – and at night hosts a Hollywood film series and special events.
John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art
The Ringlings aspired to become serious art connoisseurs, and they amassed a vast, impressive collection of 14th- to 18th-century European tapestries and paintings. Like Rubens' tremendous Triumph of the Eucharist cycle, many are imposing works of passionate religious and mythological subjects from the late-medieval, baroque and Renaissance eras. One wing, though, presents rotating exhibits of contemporary art, and the sculpture garden is filled with replicas of Greek and Roman statuary. In 2012, the Searing Wing plans to open a new atrium, a stunning James Turrell–designed 'Sky Space.'
Ringling was a showman, and his winter home Cà d'Zan (1924–26), or 'House of John,' displays an unmistakable theatrical flair. Even the patio's zigzag marble fronting Sarasota Bay dazzles. The home itself favors the Venetian Gothic style, but borrows Renaissance and baroque touches freely to overwhelming effect. Ceilings are painted masterpieces, especially Willy Pogany's Dancers of Nations in the ballroom. Self-guided tours include the 1st floor's kitchens, tap room and opulent public spaces, while guided tours ($5) add the 2nd floor's stupendous bedrooms and bathrooms. A pianist fills the halls with music Monday and Friday, 10am to 1pm, playfully evoking the home's Roaring Twenties heyday.
This is actually several museums in one, and they are as delightful as the circus itself. One building preserves the hand-carved animal wagons, calliopes, silver cannons and artifacts from Ringling Bros' original traveling show. One highlight here is the Wisconsin, Ringling's personal railcar, restored to plush glory. Other exhibits present vintage circus posters and trace the evolution of the circus from sideshow to Cirque du Soleil. Yet in the center ring, so to speak, is the miniature Howard Bros Circus: a truly epic recreation at 1/12th scale of the entire Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus in action, from the big tent's high wire to the stables, dressing areas and railway cars. This colossal, intricately detailed work occupies its own building, and is mostly the 50-year labor of love of one man, Howard Tibbels.