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History of The Ringling

Today, The Ringling, the State Art Museum of Florida, is home to one of the preeminent art and cultural collections in the United States. Its story begins nearly a century ago, with the circus impresario and his beloved wife’s shared love for Sarasota, Italy, and art.

The Building of Ca’ d’Zan

John Ringling was one of the five brothers who owned and operated the circus rightly called  “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  His success with the circus and entrepreneurial skills helped to make him, in the Roaring Twenties, one of the richest men in America, with an estimated worth of nearly $200 million.

In 1911, John and his wife, Mable, purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in Sarasota. In 1912, they began spending winters in what was then still a small town. They became active in the community and purchased more and more real estate, at one time owning more than 25 percent of Sarasota’s total area.

After a few years the couple decided to build a house and hired the noted New York architect Dwight James Baum to design it. Mable, who kept a portfolio filled with sketches, postcards and photos, wanted a home in the Venetian Gothic style of the palazzi in Venice, Italy, with Sarasota Bay serving as her Grand Canal. Construction began in 1924 and was completed two years later at a then staggering cost of $1.5 million. Five stories tall, the 36,000 square foot mansion has 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms.

Mable supervised every aspect of the building, down to the mixing of the terra cotta and the glazing of the tiles. Today, the entrance to the grounds is through the Venetian gothic gateway where the Ringlings welcomed their guests to the opulent Ca’ d’Zan, or “House of John” in the Venetian dialect.

The Museum of Art

While traveling through Europe in search of acts for his circus, John Ringling, in the spirit of America’s wealthiest Gilded Age industrialists, began acquiring art and gradually built a significant collection. The more he collected, the more passionate and voracious a collector he became, educating himself and working with dealers such as Julius Bohler. He began buying and devouring art books – that would become the foundation of the Ringling Art Library.

Soon after the completion of Ca’ d’Zan, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled on the Florentine Uffizi Gallery to house his treasure trove of paintings and art objects, highlighted by his collection of Old Masters, including Velazquez, Poussin, van Dyke and Rubens. The result is the museum and a courtyard filled with replicas of Greek and Roman sculpture, including a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David.

John opened the Museum of Art to the public in 1931, two years after the death of his beloved Mable, saying he hoped it would “promote education and art appreciation, especially among our young people.” Five years later, upon his death, Ringling bequeathed it to the people of Florida.

A Period of Decline

Hurt by the Depression, John had by the time of his passing, fallen into debt. Creditors and legal wrangling would delay the settling of his estate for a decade. While the state prevailed and took control in 1946, funds languished. The $1.2 million endowment Ringling left was poorly managed and barely grew. Between 1936 and 1946 the Museum was only occasionally opened and not properly maintained. Ca’ d’Zan was used privately and remained closed to the public.

Gradually, the care that the buildings required – weatherproofing, mechanical upgrades, and maintenance of Mable’s gardens – was either put off or handled piecemeal. Some private donors came forward to help keep the Museum open, while a dedicated, but severely underfunded staff struggled to fulfill the Museum’s potential.

The Circus Museum and Historic Asolo Theater

There were, however, some bright spots during this period. In 1948, the Museum’s first Director, A. Everett ‘Chick’ Austin, Jr., used Ringling memorabilia to open the first Circus Museum. In 1950 Austin oversaw the purchase of all the decorative elements of a theater originally built in 1798 by architect Antonio Locateli. The theater was originally located in the castle of Queen Caterina Cornaro, the Venetian-born widow of the King of Cyprus, in the town of Asolo near Venice, Italy.

Plans were finally made in 1954 for a separate building to be constructed for the theater off the west end of the Museum’s north wing. The building was constructed, the theater installed during 1955-56, and then completed in 1957. The U-shaped theater, with three tiers of boxes adorned by decorative panels, was used for plays, concerts, operas, lectures, films and other cultural programming. But because of its immense popularity as the center of Sarasota’s culture life, restoration was difficult and long-term deterioration was inevitable. It was finally closed to the public in the late 1990s and remained unused until The Ringling’s recent renaissance.

A New Beginning

In 2000, after years of negotiation, the state passed on governance of the Museum to Florida State University (FSU). As part of the arrangement, the state promised to fund immediate repairs and in 2002 provided through the University another $43 million to fund all four buildings – the Museum of Art, Ca’ d’Zan, Circus Museum and Historic Asolo Theater – provided the Museum board could raise another $50 million within five years. Thanks to a heroic effort by some in the community and truly generous public support, they exceeded beyond expectations and more than $56 million was raised by 2007.

As importantly, a new Director, John Wetenhall, was appointed in 2001 and under his care The Ringling experienced an extraordinary rebirth. A new roof was put on the Museum of Art and the galleries refurbished. Ca’ d’Zan underwent a $15 million restoration. The Historic Asolo Theater was restored and moved inside the new John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, designed by Yann Weymouth, chief architect for the Pyramide du Louvre and East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., as well as the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion was one of four new buildings added. The Circus Museum Tibbals Learning Center, was built featuring the world’s largest model circus, the Howard Bros. Circus Model, built over 50 years by master model maker and philanthropist Howard Tibbals. A state-of the-art Education Center was also built with storage facilities, offices and an art library that has become an essential resource for scholars, educators and students. The crowning touch, the Searing Wing, provides more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition space capable of accommodating up to four exhibitions at a time. In 2011 Joseph’s Coat, a Skyspace by modern master James Turrell, became part of the Museum’s permanent collection. 

To the delight of all, the Tibbals Learning Center has since expanded with the opening of its interactive family galleries, inviting all to experience the excitement of a day at the circus while preserving the legacy of the Museum’s founder and circus king, John Ringling.

In 2013 the David F. Bolger Playspace opened. Made possible by the Bolger Foundation, the Playspace was designed to engage visitors of all ages and abilities in spontaneous play, creating for families and school groups a place to gather and enjoy their visit.

In 2016, the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Center for Asian Art opened. The Center for Asian Art will enable the public to better understand and appreciate Asian history and society through exhibitions, programs, and publications. It will help to make the Museum an emerging center for Asian Art studies in the U.S.

Mable Burton Ringling (1875-1929)

When and how Mable Burton met John Ringling is today a matter of conjecture. What is known is that they married on December 29, 1905 when she was thirty and he was thirty-nine. By all accounts their marriage was a happy one in which they delighted in their shared interests in travel, art and culture.

Like her husband, Mable Burton Ringling was a woman of humble origins. Born on March 14, 1875 in the farming community of Moons, Ohio, Mable was one of five daughters and a son born of George Wesley and Mary Elizabeth Burton. By the turn of the 20th century, she left Ohio to pursue her future.

During her travels with John, Mable fell in love with the grace and grandeur of Venice. In 1923, they commissioned the architect Dwight James Baum to build their dream home, modeled on the Doge’s Palace and the Cá d’Oro in their beloved Venice.

Mable oversaw every aspect of the construction, from the glazing of the tiles to the mixing of the terra cotta. She designed much of the original landscaping on the grounds of the estate, including her Rose Garden and Secret Garden. And while the house was to be called Ca’ d’Zan, Venetian dialect for “House of John”, it was really, as one writer later observed, truly “John’s love letter to Mable.”

The house, completed in 1926, soon became the site of lavish musicales, as well as garden and dinner parties. There were Gatsbyesque parties that lasted till dawn, with an orchestra playing from the Ringling yacht moored just off the marble terrace, entertaining guests such as the Governor of New York Al Smith, comedian/philosopher Will Rogers, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker and famed producer Flo Ziegfeld and his wife Billie Burke, best known as Glenda, the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Though it was John who took the lead in building the collection that has become the foundation of the Museum of Art, Mable was listed on the Museum’s charter as a Director and Vice President of the Museum’s Corporation.

Like John, she favored purchasing items at auction. At the George J. Gould estate sale in 1924, she drew attention as a “conspicuous buyer,” purchasing many items well above their estimated worth, among them a $10 phone for which she bid and paid $75. Among the Museum’s archives her notes to herself about not only what to buy, but also about where she wanted her purchases placed in the mansion.

Suffering from diabetes and Addison’s disease, Mable passed away on June 8, 1929. It was a loss from which John never really recovered. They had found in one another a shared love of travel, art and culture, of things Italian and of Sarasota, where this remarkable woman left the rich legacy we are fortunate to still enjoy today.

John Nicholas Ringling (1866-1936)

The man who would one day build a great circus empire was born on May 31, 1866 in McGregor, Iowa, to August Ringling, a German immigrant harness maker and his wife, Marie Salomé Juliar. He was the second youngest in a family of seven brothers and one sister.

In 1884 five of the brothers, including John, joined with another showman to form “The Yankee Robinson and Ringling Bros. Double Show.” It was the only time they would ever accept second billing. By 1888, they’d become the  "Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals" and were charging 50¢ for adults and 25¢ for children.

In 1889, the brothers made the move from animal-drawn wagons to railroad cars and they became the first circus to truly travel the country. Indeed, by 1890 the New York Times described John, who had started with the circus as a clown, and was now acting as its advance man, scheduling, contracting and booking acts as, “a human encyclopedia on road and local conditions.” Later the Ringling Bros. Circus would cross the country in a 100 rail-car caravan each season.

In 1905, John married Mable Burton in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was thirty-nine; she was thirty. Two years later the Ringling brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey show for $410,000. It proved a fortuitous investment, as they became the “Kings of the Show World”.

Soon Ringling was investing in railroads, oil, real estate and any number of other enterprises, including Madison Square Garden, where he became a member of the Board of Directors and major investor. In 1925, his personal wealth, holdings and companies were estimated at nearly $200 million.

John’s brother Charles had begun purchasing land in Sarasota, Florida and in 1911 John and Mable purchased 20 acres of waterfront property there. In 1912, they began spending winters in what was then a small town. In the 1920s, they became active in the community and purchased more and more real estate. At one time, John and Charles owned more than 25 percent of Sarasota’s total area.

In Sarasota, John became a formidable force in the Florida land boom of the 1920s, buying and developing land on the Sarasota Keys, where he hoped to create a fashionable winter resort that would rival the popularity of the state’s East Coast resorts. In 1927, he moved the circus’ winter headquarters of the circus to Sarasota from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Like many wealthy Americans at the turn of the 20th century, the Ringlings made annual trips to Europe, where John found new acts for the circus. Together with Mable and the aid of a Munich art dealer named Julius Bohler, John began collecting art by Old Masters such as Rubens, van Dyck, Velázquez, Tintoretto, Veronese, El Greco, Gainsborough and others that were the beginnings of the extraordinary collection of art that today fills The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

They also frequented New York’s more exclusive auction houses, purchasing furnishings, tapestries and paintings from the homes of the City’s socially prominent 400.  These pieces, along with the paintings, were displayed in the Ringlings’ homes in New York City, Alpine, NJ and Sarasota. Today, many of these pieces can be found in the Museum of Art and Ca’ d’Zan, the mansion John and Mable built in the Venetian Gothic style they so greatly admired.

With the purchase of the American Circus Corporation in 1929 for $1.7 million, John, who had taken over the management of The Ringling circus after the death of his brother Charles, now owned most traveling circuses in America. Six feet in height, he was known as a soft-spoken, reserved gentlemen who preferred finely tailored suits, fine cigars and his own private-label bourbon.

Sadly, his reign as “King of the Sawdust Ring” was short-lived. Declining health, over-extended finances, the stock market crash of 1929, and the ensuing Great Depression, as well as an unfortunate second marriage to a young widow, Emily Haag Buck, a year after his beloved Mable’s death, all contributed to his fall.

On December 2, 1936, still marking catalogues for possible purchases and planning a circus spectacle called “Golden are the Days of Memory,” the boy from McGregor who had become the “King of the American Circus” died of pneumonia, at age 70, in his home on Park Avenue, New York.