Syracuse University Magazine

Gary Radke


Reveling in Italian Renaissance Art

Two years ago at the British Museum in London, Gary Radke ’73 was awestruck by the extraordinary detail that Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had created in a silverpoint drawing of a warrior. At the time, Radke, a noted Italian Renaissance art scholar who serves as a guest curator for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, was scouting for items to include in Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius, an exhibition featuring works by Leonardo, his students, and influential contemporaries that opened this fall at the High. “It was just a miracle of representation,” says Radke, Dean’s Professor of the Humanities and member of the art and music histories faculty, as well as a faculty advisor to the Goldring Arts Journalism Program. Two days later in Florence, he experienced a miracle of sorts while studying the recently cleaned silver relief of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Leonardo’s mentor, Andrea del Verrocchio. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, that figure looks like that drawing in London,’” says Radke, author of several books, including Art in Renaissance Italy (2005). “I started looking and doing analysis, and now I’m convinced we have two new Leonardos that are part of that relief.”   


Eureka! Until that moment, the number of Leonardo sculptures known to exist was “next to none,” Radke says, but here was this dazzling find—and the relief was already headed for the Atlanta exhibition. It was Radke’s latest coup in a series of high-profile Italian Renaissance exhibitions he’s organized since 2001 for the High, including shows on Michelangelo, Verrocchio’s bronze David, and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. “We are at a very special moment in time when the interest of the American public, the increasing privatization of aspects of Italian culture, and the spectacular restorations of Renaissance sculpture are allowing unprecedented exhibitions to take place,” Radke says. “No one before would say, ‘Yes, you can have exhibitions of the Gates of Paradise.’ No, those things stay at the Baptistery in Florence. They don’t move. They’re not available.”

Now Radke finds himself bringing these coveted, centuries-old treasures stateside—and it seems like a natural step in his journey as an art historian. As a first-year SU student, he realized his immediate attraction to learning history through the visual world while leafing through his Brewster Hall neighbor’s textbook for the course Arts and Ideas. Two years later, he ventured to Italy for a semester abroad and, living with a host family, experienced Italian life firsthand. “Once I’d gone to Italy, there was no turning back,” says Radke, a Buffalo native who shares a passion for all things Italian with his wife, Nancy Radke ’74, a culinary author and entrepreneur. “We both love it.” 

Since then, Radke has immersed himself in the country’s history and culture for decades, logging countless trips and living there for extended periods, twice through fellowships. With a doctorate from New York University in Italian medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, and a special expertise in 15th-century Florentine sculpture, Radke came full circle in 1980, leaving a fellowship with the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., to return to Syracuse to join the art history faculty. Recognized as a Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence, he enjoys the synergy of teaching, scholarly activities, and museum work. He regularly teaches at SU Abroad’s Florence Center and leads spring-break trips to Florence and Rome for students in his course on Michelangelo’s Italy and, with engineering professor Samuel Clemence, takes Leonardo students to Milan, Florence, Vinci, Paris, and Amboise. Ever the enthusiastic teacher, Radke reveled in collaborating with exhibition designers and creating and narrating the audio tour for Leonardo: Hand of the Genius—a version of which moves to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in March. Through it all, he has maintained an endless fascination with the “visual power” of art—how it can communicate emotions and ideas with a timelessness that connects generations, telling stories and reflecting the trials of creative endeavor. Radke especially relishes uncovering the story behind the art. With the sleuthing skills of a detective, he scours evidence, draws on historical context, and reconstructs the story, piece by piece. “My main goal is to get people to see—to see connections to their own experiences and to understand the visual language and the context,” he says. “Once that happens, a whole new world opens up to them.”

—Jay Cox