The Ringling Circus Museum, Villa and Art Gallery
If anyone tried to convince two (unnamed) life-long clown haters that they would love the The Ringling Circus Museum, Villa and Art Gallery those two (unnamed) sisters wouldn’t have believed it.
Wrong again – although “they” didn’t really change their opinions of clowns very much (although the video of one doing his make-up was sort of charming) they now have a major appreciation for the Ringling Brothers and what they contributed to Americana 101.
The Ringling Circus Museum
We reluctantly forced ourselves to leave the gift shop in the Visitors’ Center and go to the first of several attractions at The Ringling (as they call it).
We thought this would be the least interesting thing we would be seeing but it was not only quite interesting but fun and educational.
The Circus Museum has a room full of interactive exhibits where you can try things such as walking on a tightrope (which is on the floor so don’t get scared) and which looks ridiculously easy and is ridiculously difficult. You can pretend to ride a horse’s back, stick your hand in a many-toothed tiger’s mouth and do all sorts of things to entertain yourself, your family and innocent bystanders who may wonder if you will ever grow up.
After an embarrassing amount of time spent embarrassing ourselves we went to see the 3,800 square foot Howard Bros. Circus Model, a 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus combined shows from 1919-1938. Clearly the team who created this masterpiece did not have shaky hands and did have an astounding level of attention to detail and patience. Clearly we were not members of the team.
The Clown Museum also has the “King of the Circus”, the Wisconsin, the railroad car in which John and Mable Ringling traveled across the country looking for new performers. If you saw the movie or read the book Like Water for Elephants this train will bring that back to your memory.
There are also wagons from the circus and even the thing used to shoot human cannons. As we saw all of the things performers did in the circus we realized that Blonde is exactly the type of person who would have run away to join the circus. You got lots of attention, traveled and had a built-in group of friends; what’s not to like?
Just as we were getting ready to leave/being threatened with eviction from the Clown Museum we noticed a small group of men and women in a workshop in the far corner of the room. They were volunteer woodcarvers who work on Thursdays at the museum. The woodcarvers repair circus artifacts and create new exhibits. (Isn’t it amazing how you find volunteers with 10 times the interest in and enthusiasm for their work than you can find at almost any for-profit business?)
Ca’ d’Zan: The villa owned by John and Mable Ringling
Apparently the glitz and glamour (whether real or imagined) of circus life inspired John and Mable Ringling to build this Venetian Gothic style home reminiscent of ones along the canals of Venice.
The Ringlings had traveled extensively in Europe for over 25 years and grew to love Italy, especially the opulence that was so popular during the Roaring Twenties. They named their 36,000 square foot, 5-story home Ca’ d’Zan, “House of John”, in a Venetian dialect. But Mable was the one who oversaw every tiny detail and the New York architect, Dwight James Baum, and the Sarasota builder Owen Burns in a burst of feminism (OK, maybe not for that reason) referred to it as “The Residence of Mrs. John Ringling.”
We thought the interior was a bit “too” and looked as if the Donald Trump of the 1920s would have loved it but then we are not wealthy circus owners so to each his and her own.
Construction on the mansion began in 1924 and was completed just before Christmas in 1926. Sadly Mable died from Addison’s disease and diabetes only 3 years after they moved in to Ca’ d’Zan. After John died the place was tied up in legal wrangling and suffered a lot of damage for 10 years before an agreement was reached which turned it over to the state of Florida. After another 10 years passed it was opened to the public.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Yes, that’s a replica of David keeping an eye on the place. This one is 16 feet tall, was made in Naples, Italy, is made of bronze and when they clean it they do so with crushed walnut shells. (And we thought we had come up with some good reasons for saying cleaning is too much work.)
The construction of the Museum of Art was begun in 1925 and the architect was John H. Phillips. Phillips designed a U-shaped pink palace with 21 galleries to house Ringling’s treasure trove of paintings and art objects which over time grew to include a collection of masters such as Velazquez, El Greco, Van Dyke, Veronese, Tiepolo, Gainsborough and Rubens.
To our dismay many of the galleries we would have liked to have seen (the ones with all the famous names above in them) are temporarily closed for painting. Over the next couple years two new wings are going to be added to the museum (or is it one?) and the entire collection will be rehung.
We took a free (included with admission may be more accurate) docent tour of some of the galleries that were open. Our docent said the painting above was the sort done to show off the wealth of the person who commissioned or acquired the painting. The sign beside it says it may have “related to the theme of vanitas, the worthlessness of earthly pleasures and the intransigence of life. Somewhat conflicting accounts but still a good painting!
We leaned from the docent that a sort of oil painting called a “cartoon” is something that is painted with the intention of it being rendered later as a tapestry. The painting above is a cartoon although it isn’t particularly chuckle-inducing. Here’s an article from the New York Times n 2010 about the art collection and this painting.
Basic information if you want to attend The Ringling
The Ringling has a good website which provides everything you need to know to plan a visit. The basic info is that hours are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (except on Thursdays when they are open until 8:00 p.m.) The only days they are closed are Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. There are also 2 professional and well-regarded stage theaters and an array of appealing special events so choose a day to visit accordingly.
The admission fees as of this writing are:
- Adult: $25 (or free if you have a press pass and ask nicely)
- Senior 65+: $23
- College Student 18+ w/ID: $5 (Current Students at FSU, USF, SCF, NCF, and RCAD are Free w/ID)
- Child 6-17: $5
- Child 5 and under: Free
- US Active Military and Florida Teacher with ID: $10
- Members: Free
We spent 5 hours on our visit and could have easily spent another hour if the museum had all of its galleries open and we didn’t have a drive of a couple hours ahead of us.
Even if you don’t have time or money stop by and walk the grounds for free or even bring a picnic lunch (Brunette did this with her kids when they were kids). You will at least get some sense of the beauty and scope of what the Ringlings built. With 66 acres of gardens you can find a shady spot and picnic tables are provided. If you litter you will be fed to a live (and hungry) tiger.
Perhaps you two will leave with a new or renewed appreciation of the role of circuses in bringing entertainment to places that would never otherwise experience it on such a scale.
Or maybe you’ll just have fun shopping in the gift shop but we wouldn’t know anything about that……
Disclosure of why our judgement and all commentary are hopelessly corrupted: we were given free passes to The Ringling.