March 29, 2012

Ringling: The Big Top! Clowns! Elephants! Cotton Candy and...the Museum of Art?

 
Ringling...the mere mention of the word conjures up images of clowns, the big top, the midway, cotton candy and elephants, always the elephants. Most, with the exception of those who have done some research into the name Ringling, would be surprised to associate the name with fine art as well.

Located in beautiful Sarasota, Florida, The John and Mable Ringling Museum is a remarkable place of grand architecture and landscaped grounds that comprise an odd combination of Renaissance art and circus whimsy. Somehow these two contrasting philosophies are mingled together to form a unique and alluring combination here. But, we all know that eclectic is the legacy of the showman that was John Ringling. He was born in McGregor, Iowa, on May 31, 1866, the sixth of seven surviving sons and daughters born to August and Marie Salomé (Juliar) Ringling. Five of the brothers joined together and started the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1884. The art museum which was his legacy to the public, and his devotion to his wife and her vision of Cà d'Zan, their private residence, created an experience that will have you stepping back in time. From strolling past calliopes long silent, to the bedrooms of the main house, preserved like snapshots of a bygone era, guests and visitors, with this a glimpse into the past are transported to a simpler time. Then taking in the priceless art and architecture of the museum of art, you are whisked on a journey to John and Mable's love of the Italian Renaissance. Very few households could boast their own gondola, but theirs was moored to the Venetian style boat landing built at the rear of Cà d'Zan. Such was Mable's obsession with all things Italian. Sarasota, with its surrounding islands and keys has much to offer visitors and vacationers, from the warm sandy beaches, or St. Armands, a dining and shopping mecca also developed by Ringling and set amidst the tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, to art, culture and old world Florida elegance.

Ringling Museum History

John Ringling, one of the five original circus kings of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was blessed with entrepreneurial genius and through his success with the circus and other investments, became quite wealthy. In 1911, John (1866-1936) and his wife, Mable (1875-1929) purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in Sarasota, Florida. In 1912 the couple began spending winters in Sarasota and later decided to build a home there. Their property included a house built by one of Buffalo Bill’s circus managers, Charles Thompson. The Ringlings dreamed of helping Sarasota develop into a metropolitan boom town and they became involved in the community, bought real estate, and eventually owned approximately 25 percent of Sarasota’s total area.

The couple’s first project in Sarasota was the splendid Venetian Gothic mansion Cà d’Zan, built between 1924 and 1926 for a then staggering sum of $1.5 million. Mable had developed an affection for Venetian buildings on their travels and collected sketches and photos to incorporate into the design of the house which reflects both her and John’s taste and passion for opulence. She supervised the construction of the house with architect Dwight James Baum, designer of several New York mansions.

In the spirit of America's wealthiest Gilded Age industrialists, John Ringling gradually acquired a significant art collection, including paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Velàzquez, Poussin, van Dyck and other Baroque masters, as well as rare antiquities from Cyprus. He built a palace for his treasures in a 21-gallery Museum of Art on his Sarasota property.

The Florentine style building emulates the Uffizi Gallery and was specifically designed to house his collection of European paintings and art objects. The Ringlings had accumulated a treasure trove of objects, the result of many trips to Europe while searching for new circus acts. For years they acquired columns, architectural details and many fine art pieces. The result is a museum with a courtyard filled with bronze replicas of Greek and Roman sculpture, including a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David.

John Ringling bequeathed his art collection, mansion and estate to the people of the State of Florida at the time of his death in 1936.

For nearly ten years after John Ringling’s death, the Ringling Museum was opened irregularly and not professionally maintained. Cà d’Zan was used privately and remained closed to the public, while the State of Florida fought with creditors over the fate of the estate. By 1946, the State prevailed, and title was transferred to the people of Florida.


In 2000, Ringling’s original $1.2 million endowment had hardly grown to $2 million. Governance was transferred from the State of Florida’s Department of State to Florida State University establishing the Ringling estate as one of the largest museum/university complexes in the nation. As part of the University, the Museum has experienced a rebirth. In 2002, when $42.9 million was provided through the State for new buildings, it came with a condition that the Ringling board raise $50 million in endowment within five years. Impossible as the task then seemed, more than $55 million was donated or pledged by 2007. The transformation that culminated in 2007 restored all the existing buildings and expanded the Estate with four new buildings on the Museum’s Master Plan: the Tibbals Learning Center, the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion – housing the Historic Asolo Theater, the Education/Conservation Building and The Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing. The Museum’s financial footing was also secured with the beginnings of a healthy endowment.

Cà d’Zan
The Ringlings' dazzling palatial mansion is a tribute to the American Dream and reflects the splendor and romance of Italy. Described as “the last of the Gilded Age mansions” to be built in America, Cà d’Zan has 56 incredible rooms filled with art and original furnishings. With its Venetian Gothic architecture, the mansion is a combination of the grandeur of Venice’s Doge’s Palace, combined with the Gothic grace of Cà d’Oro, with Sarasota Bay serving as its Grand Canal.

In 1924, construction began on Cà d’Zan, which means “House of John” in Venetian dialect. The house was completed just before Christmas 1925, at a cost of $1.5 million.



John and Mable Ringling greatly admired the unique architectural style of the Danieli and the Bauer-Grunwald hotels in Venice, as well as the palaces that face the Venetian canals. This architectural style, called "Venetian Gothic," greatly influenced the Cà d'Zan's design, which architect Dwight James Baum and builder Owen Burns helped bring to Sarasota for the Ringlings.

Mable Ringling had an oilskin portfolio filled with postcards, sketches, photos and other materials that she gathered on her travels to aid the architect with his design.

Cà d’Zan is 200-foot long encompassing approximately 36,000 square feet with 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. The structure is five stories and has a full basement. The pinnacle of the structure is the 81-foot Belvedere tower with an open-air overlook and a high domed ceiling.

Cà d’Zan is constructed from terracotta “T” blocks, concrete, and brick, covered with stucco and terracotta, and embellished with glazed tile. The original roof was made from 16th century Spanish tiles imported by the builder Owen Burns. The bay front terrace is made of domestic and imported marble. In April 2002, comprehensive restoration and conservation was completed on Cà d'Zan. The six year, $15 million initiative restored the mansion to the era of Mable Ringling.

The Circus Museum
The Circus Museum celebrates the American circus, its history and unique relationship to Sarasota. Established in 1948, the museum was the first in the county to document the rich history of the circus. View colossal parade and baggage wagons, sequined costumes, and a sideshow banner line that document the circus of the past and of today. See memorabilia and artifacts documenting the history of The Ringling family circus, John Ringling as the Circus King, and the greatest circus movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, which was filmed in Sarasota. Enter the Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center and see an exhibition of circus posters. Ranging in size from window to barn sized, these colorful posters were plastered on buildings, walls and fences all across America and broadcasted in no uncertain terms that the circus was coming to town.

About the Ringlings

Mable Ringling
Mable Ringling, wife of the well-known circus man, was born Armilda Burton. Little of a personal nature is known about her and she has been described as a non-flamboyant woman because she did not seek the spotlight in either society or show business, yet one visit to Cà d'Zan, the magnificent house perched at the waters edge, and you might wonder if Mable was perhaps a closet flamboyant. Opulence and ornate don't begin to describe the decor of this unique and historic house. Born in Moons, Ohio on March 4, 1875, she had four sisters and one brother. She had strong ties with her family, who visited Sarasota often or moved to the area. Although Mable had a less direct hand in the formation of the Art Museum than she did with Cà d'Zan, she was listed on the Art Museum's charter as a Director and the Vice President of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Corporation in 1927. Mable died on June 8, 1929, at the age of fifty-four. Her marriage to John was one of strong affection and loyalty. They shared a love of things Italian, and Sarasota is fortunate they chose to build here two monuments to their fascination and interests: the Cà d'Zan ("House of John") and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

John Ringling
Although John began his career at 16 performing as a song and dance man, he moved to overseeing the circus route. After he persuaded his brothers to convert the show from wagons to rail in 1890, The New York Times observed, "he became a human encyclopedia on road and local conditions." It was a driving ambition that propelled the Ringling Bros. Circus into a world-class show crossing the country in nearly 100 rail-cars each season. In the 1920s, Ringling joined the Florida land boom, buying and developing land on the Sarasota Keys. He attempted to make Sarasota a fashionable metro-resort to rival those on Florida's popular East Coast.

With his wife, Mable, Ringling began accumulating a collection of Old Master paintings that they displayed in their homes in New York City; Alpine, New Jersey; and Sarasota. In New York's crowded auction rooms, they found a rich source of furnishings, tapestries, and paintings from the homes of wealthy and prominent families. In the 1920s, the Ringlings traveled annually to Europe to locate new circus acts, while also making purchases of art objects. An imposing figure, John Ringling stood more than six feet tall. One journalist wrote, "John Ringling is not your chatty type of man...It is no wonder that he is the least-known element in his minutely publicized business." In dress, he was elegant and preferred tailored English-made suits. He enjoyed fine Cuban cigars and his own private-label whiskey.

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Pretty cool stuff huh? And you thought it was all about the elephants...Ok in my best Ringmaster voice: "Ladieeees aaaaand gentleman of aaaaaall ages! The most stupendous....The most colossal.....the most death defying act under the big top...I direct your attention to the trapeze high above the circus floor......" cue circus music............

As always, Bon Appetit,

Lou

To learn more about the Ringling Museum of Art , Ca d'Zan and the Circus Museum visit their website : www.ringling.org

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