I have set aside the entire next day for the Ringling Estate, which has more to see in 2012 than it did in John Ringling’s day. The Circus Museum, Historic Asolo Theater, James Turrell’s Joseph’s Coat Skyspace and other features were added after his death in 1936.
The art museum has some modern and contemporary art, but most of it is Renaissance art, represented by the 16-foot statue of David, a bronze copy of the original by Michelangelo, that towers over the museum’s courtyard. Just inside the front entrance are enormous tapestries by Peter Paul Rubens. The Ringlings collected much of this art on their trips to Europe, where they scouted circus acts.
The Circus Museum, added in 1948, features a splendid miniature circus, which was created by Howard Tibbals, a master model builder, over 50 years. I could have spent hours looking at the tiny figures — more than 700 animals and 1,500 acrobats, drivers, animal handlers, cooks, clowns and everyone else associated with the Big Top, all in miniature vignettes that together make up the circus.
I wander through the rose garden, the sprawling banyan trees, the Ringlings’ gravesites and finally, the first floor of their house, Ca D’Zan.
It will take another visit before I get to see James Turrell’s Joseph’s Coat Skyspace, a new addition that is open only a few nights each week. Skyspace is an enclosed space with a square opening in the roof for viewing the sunset, enhanced by lights from within the space that change color and — at least on this night — spotlight the moving patterns of clouds.
About 15 of us sit or lie on benches around the edge of the space, where Sarasota’s art and nature intersect. One man lies on his back in the center of the floor. We watch the interplay of sunlight and artificial light in silence, our necks craned upward, and after a while, I wish I had thought to lie on the floor too so I could stare straight up. Several people nod off, including the guy on the ground. Then white lights come up slowly, and the show is over.
This is an opportunity, in a beach town that celebrates the sunset, to compare an artist’s concept with the real thing, so on another day I go to Siesta Key, one of Sarasota’s barrier islands. The beach is a vast sweep of white sand that “Dr. Beach” — Stephen Leatherman, director of Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research — named the nation’s best beach in 2011.
The sky has a faint blush of pink as the sun draws lower. Couples and families with children walk up and down the sand, some looking for shells. Others sit in beach chairs at the water’s edge. Two 50-ish couples near me take turns posing, the sun over their shoulders turning them into silhouettes. Gulls flap by, hoping for scraps from someone’s picnic.
I raise my camera and see that the sun is on the edge of the world, its bottom half already below the horizon. And then it is gone, out of sight. The light is gray, and now it is hard to distinguish where the sky, sand and water begin and end. Just as suddenly, people leave the beach. Even the birds take flight, perhaps knowing that there will be no more picnic scraps tonight.