Since the National Gallery has become a three-ring circus in recent months (Hurry! Hurry! Step right up and see lavish British Country Houses, maligned Impressionists and the real Winslow Homer under two Big Tops!), it is fitting indeed that its latest featured event should come straight from the founder of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

With a refreshing lack of pretense of being "the greatest show on earth," the 33 select "Baroque Paintings From the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art" bring simple evidence that Sarasota, Fla., is home to one of America's finest collections of Italian Baroque paintings, surpassing even that of the National Gallery of Art.

That's not saying much, as it turns out. Northern Baroque painters such as Rubens, van Dyck and Hals, and Frenchmen Poussin and Vouet -- all represented in superb examples here -- have always found collectors. But Baroque painting from Italy, where it all began in the late 16th century, has been largely scorned or ignored since critic John Ruskin wrote it off as immoral and Bernard Berenson pronounced it too splashy and theatrical -- the latter with good reason.

Thus, out of favor for more than a century, Italian Baroque paintings have rarely been collected, though the Bible Belt's Bob Jones University Gallery of Sacred Art in Greenville, S.C., for reasons having nothing to do with art, is a notable exception. But tastes are fickle and collecting habits change, as this show proves: Even the National Gallery is seeking such works.

Back in the 1920s, circus tycoon John Ringling had little competition as he gathered more than 625 post-Renaissance paintings for a museum he hoped would transform his circus' winter watering hole into Florida's leading cultural center. The Ringling complex -- now a huge pink villa housing the collection, a circus museum, a jewellike theater transplanted from Asolo in Northern Italy and Ringling's own lavish, Venetian-style home -- has become not only Florida's state museum but the best place for an art lover to be on a rainy day in the Sunshine State.

Ringling, a flamboyant showman and illusionist, had natural affinities for Baroque painting, which for him stretched from 1550 to 1750, offering a wide-open, untilled field for an ambitious collector. It is a period best remembered and best expressed in Bernini's sculpture and fountains, and in the dynamic, embellished fac,ades and swirling illusionistic painted ceilings of 17th-century Roman churches.

But there was some great Baroque painting as well, and though Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, who launched the style, unfortunately are not represented, their profound influence is clear in two dominant strains that run through this show: the earthy, spotlighted drama of Caravaggio, seen in the unforgettable, almost bizarre "Judith With the Head of Holofernes" by Francesco del Cairo; and the cooler naturalism and classical tendencies of Carracci, best exemplified in Pietro da Cortona's languid "Hagar and the Angel."

Whichever route these artists take, it is clear that 17th-century religious painting was not what it used to be back in the Renaissance, when angels were angels rather than street urchins or old men. Religious or moralistic messages are all but lost in very naturalistic paintings such as Bernardo Strozzi's "An Act of Mercy," which reads as nothing more than a genre scene.

The taut relationship between religious belief and secular ideas that pervaded the 17th century is monumentalized in the portrait of a corpulent cardinal who sits between a Raphael-like Madonna and a real battle observed through a window. Representing the Church of the Counter-Reformation, the cardinal clearly is in full control of both.

But a worldly, visual reality wins out in this show, producing the wonderful shimmer of the silk gowns on the life-size figures in Rubens' splendid "Departure of Lot and His Family From Sodom," and the amorous, almost erotic look that passes between two lovers in Vouet's elegant "Mars and Venus." Fascination with the visible world also brought new diversity to 17th-century Baroque painting, as evidenced by the several landscapes, portraits and still lifes on view.

Even the late "Holy Family With the Infant Saint John" by the great Neo-Classical painter Poussin (recently cleaned and sparkling with fresh color) is filled with a sense of tenderness, even though the Virgin wears a masklike face straight out of classical antiquity. Perhaps it is here that the Baroque pull between naturalistic and classical impulses seems most vivid and strange.

There are two ways to look at this show: as a browser among some top-notch paintings or as a seeker of ideas that weave Baroque painting together. A small brochure written by Ringling chief curator Anthony F. Janson helps in either case, though a good deal more needs to be said by way of clarification. Some help is available in the just-published "Great Paintings from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art."

"This exhibition is very important to me for selfish reasons," says the National Gallery's chief curator, Sydney Freedberg, who arranged to bring it to Washington while the Ringling undergoes renovations. "Our own collection in the Italian field is not at this level, so this is a model for us . . . I hope it will educate our staff to the possibilities that exist."

When the National Gallery staff has learned to love Italian Baroque painting, it no doubt will make it easier for us to do the same. Until then, viewers can judge for themselves whether Ringling's greatest legacy will be his circus or his art. The exhibition will continue through Sept. 29 upstairs in the West Building, adjoining the museum's own Baroque galleries.