Florida Travel: A European Feel at The Ringling Museum of Art

The extraordinary exhibits and architecture at The Ringling in Sarasota owe much to the grand vision of founder John Ringling.

BY November 26, 2018

I spend so much time in the truly Florida parts of this state—the swamps and sloughs, the coastlines and scrub plains—that I’m astounded when I find a bit of Florida that is, well, nothing like Florida at all. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is exactly that. Though it may be geographically located in our peninsular state, the museum’s architecture and its works of art feel as though they’ve been carved out of a European landscape.

On a hot and muggy afternoon, I lured a friend to visit The Ringling with promises of high art. A connoisseur of museums himself, my friend was dubious. But as we stepped into the first gallery, where the five immense canvases belonging to Rubens’ Triumph of the Eucharist were displayed, my friend gave me a nod of approval. This was no lightweight museum.

The Ringling’s museum of art is built on a grand scale, with expansive galleries and high ceilings. John Ringling—who made his fortune in the circus—went on a grand tour of Europe in the 1920s, where he and his wife, Mable, visited the home of the Duke of Westminster. Ringling discovered Rubens’ Triumph canvases there, which were for sale but nobody would buy, the duke informed Ringling, because they didn’t have a room big enough to hang them.

“I have the space for them,” Ringling told him.

The large-scale Rubens are the grandest of the museum’s works, but all of its pieces are remarkable. As my friend and I strolled its richly wallpapered galleries, we admired the play of light and dark in the Caravaggio-esque Italian baroque paintings. We marveled at the details like the sheen on a string of Venetian glass beads carried by a young noblewoman, or the brooding expression of a background character in a crowded market scene. On the drive up my friend had firmly declared himself anti-still life, but when we found ourselves in a gallery dedicated to nature morte, we both stood open-jawed at the lavish feasts depicted around us. There were rabbits, quail, turkey, deer and boar, trays of oysters and platters of lobster, cracked walnuts and split melons, a half-peeled lemon and the green globes of grapes, artichokes, pomegranates and a magnificently plumed peacock.

I’ve never understood the people who find museums dull, especially a museum like The Ringling. In the rooms after the still lifes, we came across more drama than a Hollywood set. We stood awestruck in front a painting of the myth of Apollo and the satyr Marsyas, in which Marsyas challenged Apollo to a musical duel and lost—and for his pride was flayed alive. The scene was ultra-realistic, down to the satyr’s agonized grimace and the bindings that held his wrists and ankles.

“Well, that’s disturbing,” said a woman beside us as she gazed at the painting. “On every level.”

Ringling’s tastes must have leaned toward the dramatic (no surprise for a man who made his money in show business), but they also tended toward the sensual. Many of the paintings and sculptures had a heavy touch of eroticism, and my friend kept a running exposed-bosom count. But a trip to The Ringling isn’t all harpsichords and nymphs. The museum has quite a diversity, including a wing for Asian art and an entire building dedicated to circus artifacts.

After strolling through the museum, my friend and I sat outside beneath its colonnaded walkway. A nearby docent wrapped up her tour, concluding that before the Ringlings moved to Sarasota it was just a tiny fishing village. The couple had wanted to establish a legacy of European-inspired art and architecture there. We glanced around at the terra cotta pots of bougainvillea lining the porticos, the roofs covered with tiles shipped in from Spain, the Greek and Roman statuary in the courtyard, and the life-size replica of Michelangelo’s David standing at the center of it all.

“I’d say they were successful,” the docent said, and my friend and I had to agree.