The Ringling and New College of Florida

Ca'd'Zan. Photo courtesy of Frank Kovalchek.

Although Jill and I were staying in Siesta Key, we popped up to Sarasota 4 different times during our trip. It's an easy 15-minute drive from Siesta Key so we didn't feel pressured to pack all the Sarasota-area activities into one day. We couldn't have anyway - it turns out we could have used most of one day for the The Ringling complex alone. I had no idea of the Ringling family story or how influential John and Mable Ringling were in the Sarasota area. The legacy they left behind is awe-inspiring.

Our Ringling experience started out with a wrong turn that turned into a special find. Although we plugged Ca'd'Zan into Google maps, we ended up at the admissions office at the New College of Florida. We were confused and intrigued since we were pretty certain we weren't at Ca'd'Zan, and yet we were facing lovely buildings from roughly the same time period. Curiosity won out. We parked and wandered the grounds out to the water where we established unequivically that Ca'd'Zan was right next door, or rather to the left of us as we were facing the water. Hoping to find out more, we headed inside to the admissions office. It wasn't busy and a kind staffer filled us in on the basics about the college and the house. Yes, the house does have an interesting history - it belonged to one of John Ringling's brothers. When we eventually made it over to the Ringling complex, we never once heard mention of this house and the connection to the family, so we are guessing the college would rather not have hoards of people stopping by. Still, we felt warmly welcomed during our quick unobtrusive visit. And as a bonus, we learned a bit about the New College of Florida. Did you know it is the only honors college in the Florida public university system? I didn't!

Once we re-parked and entered the Ringling complex proper, we purchased a single day admission for $25 per person. They have a 3-day pass option for $10 more and I wondered why in the world anyone would do that. Silly me. It is an interesting place with much to explore. If you are in the area for a while and can only handle a couple hours sightseeing at a time, the multi-day ticket might be a helpful option. The whole complex consists of the Circus Museum, Ca'd'Zan, the Museum of Art, the Education Center, the Historic Asolo Theater and the Bayfront Gardens.

Guide map of The Ringling

We were there for 2 1/2 hours and only visited one part of the Circum Muesum, Ca'd'Zan, Mable's rose garden, and two galleries in the Museum of Art. Even at that, we felt the admission price was well worth it and I hope to go back someday. We arrived at about 2:30pm and hightailed it to the Circus Museum and the 30 minute movie summarizing John and Mable Ringling's history. We were expecting a theater, but the movie was showing in a small alcove with a few bench seats. Still, I highly recommend it as a concise overview before touring Ca'd'Zan, the palacial Venetian Gothic home that John and Mable built. We arrived just in time to purchase our $5 tickets for the 3:15 tour which was led by a knowledgable docent and lasted about 40 minutes. We toured the first and second floors and likely caught a lot of flies as we marveled at the family stories, glasswork, custom woodwork and painting, and beautifully appointed rooms. After the tour ended, we were free to wander the back of the house on our own and the impressive patio and dock extending out over the water. Oh, to be lucky enough to live there! We then strolled through the rose garden quickly on our way back to the Circus Museum. Although we only wanted to pop in to see John Ringling's luxurious custom train car, we got drawn into looking at the Human Cannonball cannon, old-time wooden circus cars, and circus memorabilia.

At that point, it was close to 5pm so we were seriously out of time and almost out of energy, but we really wanted to peek inside the Museum of Art. John Ringling oversaw the design of the building, and after seeing Ca'd'Zan, we had a feeling it would be impressive. Oh. My. Goodness. This is a must see, even if you aren't an art lover. The docent encouraged us to at least take a look at the courtyard and the Rubens gallery. Thank you docent. Thank you thank you thank you. The main building is modeled after the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and has 21 galleries surrounding a stunning open courtyard filled with replicas of Greek and Roman statuary. The Ringlings were avid art collectors especially of the Baroque period. It's not my favortie period, but the Rubens! The two Rubens galleries house five 15-foot tall oil on canvas paintings from the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry cycle. They are larger than life and pretty mind-blowing. I shudder to think what else I missed in the other 19 galleries, let alone the rotating exhibitions in the Searing Wing. Upon John Ringling's death in 1936, he left both Ca'd'Zan and the Museum of Art to the State of Florida. It is a priceless legacy. If you happen to luck out and are in the area on the first Thursday of the month, you must visit. The museum is free, open until 8pm, and the courtyard must be beautiful at sunset.

This post is part of the trip summary 4 Days in Siesta Key