Radke ’73 charts success with Leonardo exhibition, recent discoveries
Leonardo da Vinci was many things—painter, designer, draftsman, engineer, architect and scientist—but his work as a sculptor has been largely forgotten. Gary Radke ’73, Dean’s Professor of the Humanities in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences, set about rectifying this gap with recent exhibitions at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “Part of the challenge is that Leonardo created a small number of sculptures, only a few of which have survived,” he says. “Furthermore, many scholars take Leonardo at his word when he wrote that painting, rather than sculpture, was the superior art form.”
Any doubts about Leonardo’s respect for sculpture were laid to rest with Radke’s collection of rare Leonardo drawings and sketches (used primarily for drafting study and planning purposes) and of sculptural masterpieces by Renaissance contemporaries. “I don’t think any of us anticipated the success of these exhibitions. People poured in at both places,” says Radke, who served as guest curator of the High Museum show and as curatorial consultant of the Getty’s show.
Case in point: the Getty set an attendance record, drawing more than 265,190 visitors in three months. Julian Brooks, the Getty’s associate curator of drawings and co-curator, with Anne-Lise Desmas, of the Leonardo show, estimates that 20,000 people a week—about 5,000 more than average—came through the museum’s doors. “Leonardo really transformed the art of draftsmanship, says Brooks. “He was the first person to use a piece of paper as a thinking pad, as something to visualize a figure in lots of different dimensions.” The Atlanta and Los Angeles exhibitions were enhanced by Radke’s proposal that a relief, previously thought to be the work of the artist’s teacher, may have been created by Leonardo himself. “Leonardo, Gary and the Getty are a potent cocktail,” says Brooks.
Radke, who has been honored for his teaching excellence as a Meredith Professor, is as busy as ever in the classroom and out. In October, he delivers the Walter W. S. Cook Lecture at New York University, shedding new light on the 15th-century renovation of the convent of Santa Croce alla Giudecca in Venice. “For almost 10 years, I’ve been studying the day-to-day life of these nuns and how they interacted with architects and builders,” Radke says. “In the process, I have uncovered some of the earliest architectural plans of the entire Venetian Renaissance and have learned surprising details about nuns’ kitchens, choir stalls and even their toilettes.”
Radke is also leading a newly expanded senior seminar, “Doing Art History: Research and Professional Practices.” The course provides professional opportunities for art history majors to write catalog entries and gallery reviews, and includes a weekend immersion experience in New York City, established by Alan Mirken, in memory of his late wife, Barbara ’51, an Arts and Sciences alumna. “This fall, we will focus on [American sculptor] James Earle Fraser, many of whose papers and works are housed on campus,” he says. “We’re expanding the seminar on an experimental basis, but I have a good feeling about it.”