It’s not the big attraction Orlando is known for, but after a visit to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, with its historic waterfront mansion, circus museums, theater, and jaw-dropping fine art collections, you’ll wonder if the Mouse shouldn’t be bumped down to second place instead.
The “John” in John and Mable was one of the five original Ringling Brothers. The Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, with its checkered floors, lavish tapestries, sparkling chandeliers, and marble bathtubs, will make you feel like you’ve walked (or waltzed) into the castle from Beauty and the Beast – every curved chair and table looks ready to spontaneously start dancing or provide romantic advice. Built in 1925, the Gothic Mansion was inspired by the couple’s love of travel and was heavily influenced by buildings Mable photographed in Venice. Constructed in part from terra cotta, it has 41 rooms, 15 bathrooms, and an 81-foot tower to top itself off. Sure, living in excess can make one feel guilty… but not visiting the home of someone else who lived in excess!
You can also visit one of the first real circus museums in the country; costumes, wagons, and vintage posters are just some of the items on display. You can even scope out John and Mable’s private rail car, The Wisconsin. A new exhibition center that just opened in September of this year that will focus on the performer’s experience.
The Baroque-style Asolo Theater is the U.S.’s only 18th-century European theater, dismantled and brought back to the Ringling’s home in the 1940′s. If you’re interested in catching some opera, dancing, or a unique lecture, you couldn’t ask for a more atmospheric seat!
If you need some fresh air, the outdoor grounds are arguably more beautiful than all the art and furniture. Hundreds of new trees were planted when the estate was recently restored, and the Rose Garden, Secret Garden, and Dwarf Garden will make you feel like you’ve wandered into a much more pleasant era.
John was a bit of an art collector (Rubens and Poussin, to name two of the artists whose work he displayed – lucky for him he had almost two dozen galleries in which to spread out his treasures). Today you can also find Titian, van Dyck, and Gainsborough up there on the walls. The courtyard outside displays replicas of Greek and Roman statues, also collected by the couple on their travels, including Michelangelo’s David in bronze cast form.
Florida State University now holds the Ringling Museum in its charge – now one of the largest university-owned museums in the country.