NEWPORT, R.I.—Marble House oozes decadence at every corner, from the 22-karat gold leaf decorations to the Corinthian columns at the front entrance to the lavish ceiling paintings of Greek gods.
But for more than 80 years, the Gilded Age mansion has been without one of its most treasured features: a vast collection of more than 300 objects of Medieval and Renaissance art.
The wealthy Vanderbilt family bought the works in Paris and displayed them for years on the red-silk walls of their mansion's aptly named Gothic Room. But after the house closed in 1925, the items were sold to art collector and circus entrepreneur John Ringling and today belong to a Sarasota, Fla., museum bearing the Ringling name.
Now, Newport visitors can see the items in their original setting. The John and Mable Ringling Museum has loaned the collection to Marble House through October 31. The items -- paintings and sculptures, busts and furniture -- have been reassembled in the Gothic Room and displayed exactly as they were 100 years ago.
The Preservation Society of Newport County operates the Marble House and other Newport mansions as public museums.
"I think that most people who know the Gothic Room always thought it was a very pretty room, and then you have these 300 objects added to it, and you go, 'Oh my God, it was bare before,'" said Trudy Coxe, the Preservation Society CEO. "But, we didn't know that until the objects were added."
Marble House is among the most popular of Newport's mansions, palatial summer homes built for wealthy industrialists in the late 19th century that today rank among New England's most-visited attractions.
Inspired by Greek architecture and the Petit Trianon at Versailles, the home was completed in 1892 for railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva, a lover of art and culture who collected Renaissance art at a time when not many other Americans did.
In 1889, the Vanderbilts and architect Richard Morris Hunt traveled to Paris to find artworks and other decorative pieces for the home. They acquired the Gothic collection of French architect Emile Gavet and sent it to Newport.
The collection is varied and vast. There are 15th-century Italian paintings depicting battle scenes; painted terra cotta busts; assorted copper and silver chalices and candelabra; intricately detailed French dressers showing stories from the life of Jesus and Greek mythology; and a case of wax portrait medallions bearing the likenesses of such dignitaries as King Henry II of France and popes Benedict XIV and Clement XI.
A highlight of the collection is "The Building of the Palace," a 16th-century Italian painting showing men busily constructing a mammoth structure arising in the background. The painting is by Florentine artist Piero di Cosimo, who was believed to have contributed to the Sistine Collection.
"You could spend a whole day in here and not grasp everything," said Erin Marshall-House, 33, of New Bedford, Mass., who was browsing the collection while vacationing in Newport one recent morning. But she also said the aesthetic seemed a little over-the-top.
"This room was made to look like a museum," she added. "You can't live and be comfortable in a museum."
The Gothic Room, a reception room decorated with stained glass and a mantelpiece, was created to display the collection. Alva Vanderbilt opened the room to the public, but closed Marble House in 1925, moved to France and put the art up for sale. John Ringling, of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, bought the works in 1927 for $125,000.
Many of the items have been displayed at the Ringling Museum, but others were in storage. Preservation Society staff had long discussed displaying the collection, and Virginia Brilliant, the Ringling Museum's associate curator for European art, said she made a loan agreement a priority soon after joining the museum.
The Ringling Museum relocated most of the collection to Newport, though some items were too fragile to travel and are replaced at Marble House by to-scale photographs. Archival photos helped Preservation Society staff know exactly where Vanderbilt hung each piece.
"You can, for all intents and purposes, walk in and out of that room and know that she's there," Coxe said.
Brilliant said it was poignant to see the works in Marble House and that she's open to leaving some items there long term. But, she said, history can't be undone.
"When you talk about the rightful place of an object, then everything should have to go back to the church it was made for, or the home it was made for," Brilliant said. "Art changes hands. That's just the nature of life and collecting."
Coxe said she'll be sad when the collection is returned.
"If I had my druthers, they would forget that they loaned them to us and we would have them forever. But I don't think that's going to happen."