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 and incorporates their personal collection of artworks in what is now Florida’s state art museum. Nearby, Ringling’s Circus Museum documents his theatrical successes, while their lavish Venetian Gothic home, Cà d’Zan, reveals the impresario’s extravagant tastes. Don’t miss the PBS-produced film on Ringling’s life, which is screened in the Circus Museum.
John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art
The Ringlings aspired to become serious art connoisseurs, and they amassed an impressive collection of 14th- to 18th-century European tapestries and paintings. Housed in a grand Mediterranean-style palazzo, the museum covers 21 galleries showcasing many Spanish and baroque works, and includes a world-renowned collection of Rubens canvases, including the Triumph of the Eucharist cycle. One wing presents some rotating exhibits and one permanent collection of contemporary art, and the Searing Wing offers Joseph's Coat, a stunning 3000-sq-ft James Turrell–designed 'Sky Space.' Opened in 2016, the newest wing contains historical and contemporary Asian art. Free on Mondays.
Ringling's winter home, Cà d'Zan (House of John; 1924–26), displays an unmistakable theatrical flair evocative of his two favorite Venetian hotels, the Danieli and the Bauer Grunwald. Ceilings are painted masterpieces, especially Willy Pogany's Dancers of Nations in the ballroom, and even the patio's zigzag marble fronting Sarasota Bay dazzles. Self-guided tours ($10) include the 1st floor's kitchens, taproom and opulent public spaces, while guided tours ($20) add the 2nd floor's stupendous bedrooms and bathrooms.
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 and artifacts from Ringling Bros' original traveling show. Other exhibits 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 re-creation at 1/12th scale of the entire Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus in action. This intricately detailed work occupies its own building, and exists thanks to the 60-year labor of love of one man, Howard Tibbels.