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Road trip to Ringling

With the end of the semester quickly approaching, it’s a given that stress levels among students are rising. To de-stress, whether as a break from cramming or a reward for making it through finals week, students can grab a few moments to reflect and appreciate both natural and manmade marvels in Sarasota’s John and Mable Ringling Art Museum and estate.

Ringling has much more to boast than the average museum: Ca d’Zan, Ringling’s Venetian-inspired mansion on Sarasota Bay, a circus museum documenting the history and memorabilia of the Ringling Bros. legacy, Mable’s rose garden with surrounding vegetation such as banyan trees and an art museum with works from the Ringlings’ own collection.

With all the featured activities, Ringling is much more than the images of sterile, squeaky hallways one may associate with the word “museum.” Art is only the beginning of a venture into the world of Ringling, where one can easily spend a whole day.

Taking a tour of Ca d’Zan – Venetian dialect for House of John – was the highlight of my visit. Elegant furniture fills the inside of the mansion, which has been restored to match pictures Mable took in 1926 when the house was first lived in. From its terrace opening onto Sarasota Bay, one can see Longboat Key, part of which was once owned by John Ringling.

The tour lets visitors see many beautiful rooms and furniture, even though it is limited to the first and second floors of the estate. At an additional charge, however, one can enter the upper levels of the house, seeing more bedrooms, a billiard room and – at the very top – a small tower overlooking the entire estate.

Only the finest of things are in the house: Soft wood floors and Venetian glass mirrors in the ballroom; a chandelier from New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the main room accentuating the high ceilings; more than 20 upholstered chairs in the main dining room – each with 16 gold tassels – to accommodate the numerous guests the Ringlings had over for dinner parties. Additionally, the furniture in John’s bedroom is an exact replica of Napoleon’s bedroom furniture.

Our guide was very knowledgeable about the Ringlings and their estate and had much to share with us. At the age of 16, as John and his brothers began the Ringling Bros. Circus, John was determined that he was going to be rich. He achieved that goal, but wanted to be remembered mainly as an entrepreneur. He began to develop a bulk of land in Sarasota, as he owned a great deal of it. However, the Great Depression came, and John lost most of the land.

After the tour was over, we were encouraged to go out onto the huge marble terrace and “enjoy the day as a guest of the Ringlings,” our guide told us as we parted ways.

Enjoy it I did. I could have stared at that view of Sarasota Bay all day long. With a luxurious mansion and a spectacular view, the Ringlings seemed to have had it all in their day. But the Ca d’Zan only scratched the surface of the legacy that the Ringlings left behind.

Walking from the estate back to the art museum, one passes by Mable’s rose garden and the circus museum. Some of the rose bushes date back to the early 1900s, while the circus museum has a miniaturized version of the big top.

From there it’s a short walk to the art museum. It’s funny how art can broaden you as a person: Just from walking through the 20 different galleries, I felt like a more enlightened human being. The museum has spectacular collections of Flemish art, including canvasses by Rubens, Rembrandt and other less-popularized artists of the period.

Artwork from Rubens includes “The Triumph of Divine Love,” of which the detail – a mischievous-looking lion – is featured on the museum’s brochures. The Ringling Web site states that this painting “is one of the most endearing images” of the museum.

In addition to the permanent collection, a traveling show is almost always displayed in the west wing of the museum. Picturing What Matters, the current special exhibit, features photos of different aspects of American life, such as family, travel and industry. There is also a collection of photographs from area schoolchildren who photographed what was important to them. The photos, amateur and professional, seem to capture the reality of the struggle and triumph in America.

Undergoing renovation, the museum is adding a welcome center and an additional wing to store pieces in its collection not on display.

Getting to Ringling is not too difficult. The drive south to Sarasota takes about 45 minutes. Take I-75 to University Parkway and drive all the way to U.S. 41. This puts you directly in front of the museum’s entrance.

Admission is $5 with a student ID. The price includes access to the art museum, a tour of the first and second floors of Ca’d Zan, Mable’s rose garden and the circus museum. It’s quite a deal for the student on a tight budget desiring to take a break and appreciate the beauty of man and nature.