Florida Division of Cultural Affairs

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John N. Ringling

Photo of John N. Ringling

Patron, Collector
1866 - 1936
Inducted in 1987

Biography

An international celebrity of circus fame, John N. Ringling amassed a fortune through his entertainment interests and business ventures.  With his beloved first wife, Mabel Burton, the couple built an elegant Sarasota Bay mansion to house their collection of 17th and 18th Century Baroque art.  On the same property the couple built the John and Mable Museum of Art, which today ranks as the 16th largest collection of art in the U.S.   Ringling died in 1936, willing the ownership of his entire Florida estate, including the museum and all its contents, to the State of Florida.

John Nicholas Ringling was born into a poor farm family in McGregor, Iowa in 1866, the fifth of seven sons and a daughter born to German immigrants August Ringling (original name: "Ruengling") and Mare Salome Juliar.   Eager to escape farm-life, Ringling chose show business as a means of doing just that.  At 16, he began performing as a song and dance man, but soon joined four of his brothers who had turned their small touring company of performers into a small circus act. 

In 1884, he and his brothers formed the Ringling Bros. Circus, a business that would eventually grow to dominate the circus entertainment industry.  In 1890, Ringling revolutionized the American traveling circus when he talked his brothers into using trains instead of horse-drawn wagons to tour both the U.S. and Canada.  Despite having to hire up to 100 railway cars at a time, profits soon skyrocketed, and by 1907 Ringling Bros. was able to buy the company's chief competitor, the Barnum & Bailey Circus for $400,000, making the Ringling brothers' creation a monopoly in the circus business. 

In 1905 Ringling married an Ohioan, Mabel Burton, whose family had ties in the Tampa/Sarasota area.  The couple, now wealthy, started spending their winters together in Sarasota in 1909, and soon Ringling was investing in Sarasota real-estate, buying 20 acres of waterfront property in 1911.

By 1926, Ringling was a world-class business tycoon.  He not only ran the family's mammoth circus operations (the last of his brothers had died), but had ties with roughly 30 businesses ranging from railroads to oil production.  His enormous wealth allowed him and Mabel to travel the world collecting art, a passion they shared. 

When the couple soon found themselves running out of places to store their art treasures, Ringling commissioned the construction of a palatial, 56-room mansion on his property adjacent Sarasota Bay.  Named Ca d'Zan (Venetian for "House of John"), the Venice-inspired mansion was completed by Christmas 1925 at a cost of $1.5 million, a stunning figure at the time. In 2002, Ca d'Zan was restored to its original "Roaring Twenties" look and feel.  It remains one of Ringling's most enduring achievements, drawing thousands of visitors annually.

By 1929, Ringling–known around the world as "the circus king"–was sitting at the pinnacle of his career.  But with the crash of the stock market that year, his fortunes took an irreversible nose-dive.  Ringling not only faced a collapsed economy, but also failing health, a troubled second marriage (he had remarried after Mabel's untimely death in 1928) and some bad business investments.  When he died (from pneumonia) in New York in 1936, Ringling–once listed as one of the richest men in the world–was almost penniless. 

But Ringling's legacy was immortalized through his extraordinary will.  To protect his precious art collection from annihilation by creditors, he willed over all his holdings, including Ca d'Zan, his art museum and its contents to the State of Florida.  In 2000, the Florida Legislature turned over the entire bequest to Florida State University, which has since managed the property.

Meanwhile, the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art has flourished.  First opened to the public in 1931, in 2006 the museum was expanded and restored by a $76 million state appropriation.  The result is one of nation's finest showcases for the work of many "Old Masters" including Rubens, van Dyck, Titian, Gainsborough and El Greco.

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