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Renaissance Man

Art historian Gary M. Radke ’73 reflects on a storied career at Syracuse University

June 18, 2014, by Rob Enslin

Gary M. Radke '73
Gary M. Radke '73

Anyone who’s anyone in Italian art history probably has a Gary Radke ’73 story. John Paoletti does. The retired Wesleyan professor recalls traipsing through the Tuscan city of Lucca with Radke and some colleagues one day, when his friend began to look famished.

“Gary never missed lunch,” says Paoletti, adding that the Syracuse University professor was not an “eat-and-run” kind of guy. “The problem was that he had strained his back, and his usual cheery disposition had faded to blankness. Moreover, the restaurant Gary wanted to visit—a laborers’ mensa—was clear across town.”

Would Radke be willing to forgo lunch or, at the very least, settle for something close by?

“We almost ended up carrying Gary to the mensa, but he soldiered on,” Paoletti says. “After eating, Gary emerged a new person. Whatever pains he had suffered earlier in the day had vanished in the sensations of good cooking.”

Whether dealing in food or frescoes, Radke exudes refinement. His appearance, alone, is befitting of someone of eminence. Tall and lean, with a strong jawline and perfectly coiffed silvery hair, the bespectacled Radke is a study in manners. But don’t let the suave buffer or toothy grin fool you. Radke, who retires in December, after 35 years of teaching at Syracuse University, is an adrenaline junkie. And he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. Literally.

“I tell my students that learning should be visceral,” says Radke, speaking from his corner office on the third floor of Bowne Hall. Surrounded by immense shelves of neatly lined books, he explains why studying the Renaissance—and the humanities, in general—should not just be an intellectual exercise. “You have to be able to smell history, taste it, feel it … in the balls of your feet, in your achy legs, and in your stiff neck, as you stare up at great pieces of art,” the smartly dressed Radke continues, his excitement almost palpable. “If you’re going to become an art historian, you’d better know more than just the factual or the theoretical. You need to experience all of it.”

Perhaps nowhere is this aesthetic more evident than in the Florence Graduate Program in Renaissance Art, which Radke has directed since joining the Syracuse University faculty in 1980. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Florence Program is the only accredited M.A. art history program in North America to offer most of its coursework in Italy. Students take one semester on SU’s Main Campus, followed by two semesters in Florence, where they log considerable time at Villa l Tatti, home of the renowned Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies; the Kunsthistorisches Institut; and the Archivio di Stato.

Thirty-five years on, Radke considers the Florence Program his finest achievement. “I inherited an adolescent and helped grow it into an adult,” he says of the program. “With generous support from Syracuse University, I’ve been able to recruit students from all over the country, while making the program more attractive and accessible."

Gary Radke and George and Sylvia Langford
Radke, who also serves as Dean’s Professor of the Humanities and as an art history professor in The College of Arts and Sciences, is especially proud of the Florence Program’s fall symposium, which he initiated 28 years ago. “Every December, each degree candidate delivers a 20-minute scholarly presentation,” he continues. “It’s a great way to promote Syracuse University to the public, while giving back to Florence, which generously opens up its churches, museums, and libraries to our students.”

Since Radke’s arrival, the Florence Program has turned out hundreds of graduates, many of whom have gone on to successful careers in teaching or curating. One such graduate is Molly Bourne G’89, who oversees the art history program at Syracuse University in Florence. “Gary has made the degree very flexible,” she says. “While most of our students end up becoming professors or curators, more of them are finding work in allied fields, such as urban design and cultural engagement. Having access to rare visual and archival materials certainly gives them a competitive edge.”

Case in point: Christine Begley G’02 used her M.A. degree to land a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Today, she is the Met’s deputy chief development officer for government and foundation giving. “Gary Radke and the Florence Program changed my life and helped me clarify my options,” she says. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.”

The rise in popularity of the Florence Program coincides with Radke’s ascendance on the international stage. He hasn’t always been an expert on Italian Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture. Nor has Radke always been a guest curator at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, where he has organized high-profile touring shows of works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Verrocchio, and others. Nor has he always been a magnetic speaker. An accomplished writer. A beloved teacher. Or a fearless fund-raiser.

The way Radke tells it, he started out as “just another teenager” from Buffalo, New York, until fate intervened. During his junior year, Radke traveled to Syracuse University to compete in the Maxwell School’s Annual Citizenship Education Conference and won. “At the end of the day, they gave out awards in Hendricks Chapel,” he says, adjusting his tie. “I was sitting upstairs, when I heard my name called, and I couldn’t believe it. I almost jumped off the balcony, I was so excited. To this day, Hendricks Chapel is my favorite building on campus.”

As part of his winnings, Radke landed a scholarship to Syracuse University, enabling him to become the first member of his family to finish college. The turning point came in 1972, when he spent a semester in Florence and got an up-close look at its many sculptures, churches, and palaces. “The experience was life-changing,” says Radke, who went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in art history from Michigan State University and New York University, respectively. “My first day of graduate school, I felt like I had achieved nirvana: all art history, all the time.”

Ironically, it took Radke being passed over for a job at the Cleveland Museum of Art for him to land a professorship at Syracuse University. By that time, he had already interned at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and had served as a Cloisters Fellow at the Met.

Gary Radke in Florence, c. 1981

In the eighties, Radke (with moustache) was part of a new breed of historians who saw the professional possibilities of contextualizing art and music, while staying true to the interdisciplinary ethos of William Fleming, who founded Syracuse University’s fine arts department. (Fleming’s 1955 book, Arts and Ideas, served as the blueprint for the department and has been credited for launching the interdisciplinary arts history movement, in general.) In time, Radke parlayed his expertise into a number of key positions on campus, including department chair (1986-89), Honors Program director (1989-96), and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities (since 2006). Off campus, he was named a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome (since 1984) and has served as president and vice president of the Italian Art Society (1991-95) and as a guest curator at the High in Atlanta (since 1999).

Ever the diplomat, Radke is quick to acknowledge the people who have facilitated his climb to the top. Chief among them is Philip Verre, the High’s cosmopolitan chief operating officer, who has spent the past decade with Radke, courting museum and cultural officials, publishers, donors, and collectors on both sides of the Atlantic. “I have learned so much about Italian art and life, just by being with Gary,” says Verre, an accomplished curator in his own right. “Sometimes, he’s too good. His command of languages is so impeccable that, during most of our meetings with Italian officials, I’m lucky to catch every second or third word.”

Verre recalls a conversation, a few years ago, in which Radke’s Italian actually caught a Florentine off-guard. “’My God, he just said something in future subjunctive tense. No one in Italy even knows how to do that anymore,’” Verre remembers the gentleman exclaiming.

There’s no end to such stories—like the time in Naples that Verre and Radke took a taxi from the train station to their hotel. The ride was uneventful, until Radke began questioning the driver’s route. “Why anyone would do this, especially in Naples [whose cabbies are notorious for fleecing tourists], was beyond my comprehension,” Verre says. “After a heated debate with the driver, Gary got out of the cab and calmly informed me that one or both of us and our luggage might end up in the Bay of Naples.”

But nothing holds a candle to a meeting that Verre and Radke had with the director of the Vatican Museums, in hopes of securing a loan for their 2009-10 exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture. “After what seemed to be a very eloquent and convincing presentation by Gary, the director asked him point-blank ‘What can the Pope do for you?’ Without missing a beat, Gary answered, ‘We’d greatly appreciate his loaning us Leonardo’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness. A year later, the painting was on its way to Atlanta.”

Another ally of Radke’s is Anna Maria Giusti, recently retired director of bronze restoration at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. Like Verre, she has worked on many of Radke’s major projects—notably Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, whose cleaning she oversaw—and, by nature of her position, has a direct line to the minister of Italian culture. 

“Gary is not only a scholar, but also a shrewd organizer who is able to weave together the many details needed to make his projects successful,” she says. “In the process, he forms professional relationships that eventually blossom into rich friendships. We’ve had many good times together, visiting the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, dining on the Santa Monica Pier, and snacking on French cheese and Italian ice cream at culinary fairs.”

But what good are “interesting and entrepreneurial colleagues,” as Radke calls them, if they don’t get to flex their creative muscles? That’s why he surrounds himself with quality people and lets them take as much time as they need—usually four to five years—to help him with an exhibition. The results speak for themselves. All of Radke’s exhibitions have been critical and commercial successes, often setting attendance records, and have gone a long way toward raising the profile of the High and, by extension, Syracuse University. A typical Radke exhibition starts out in Atlanta and eventually winds its way toward the Met, The Art Institute of Chicago, or the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Relief of St. John the Baptist

Along the way, there are the inevitable “ah-ha” moments that would make even the most caustic Neapolitan cabbie proud. Take Radke’s recent discovery of two silver figures (left) by Leonardo, long thought to have been by his teacher, Verrocchio. Or his involvement with the first (and last) American tour of the Gates of Paradise for the doors of the Baptistery of the Duomo, which Ghiberti completed in 1452.

On the eve of retirement, Radke shows no signs of slowing down. This fall, he will unveil an exhibition at the High called Make a Joyful Noise: Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral. The focus will be on three marble panels that Luca della Robbia created for Florence Cathedral in the 1430s. (Four hundred fifty years later, the panels were moved to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they’ve remained ever since.) The kicker is that the exhibition will feature live music, performed whenever possible on period instruments.

“Music is integral to this exhibition,” says Radke, adding that the show is also slated to appear at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “I can’t think of a better demonstration of the interplay between live music and art. Plus, it’s the first time that these panels, which depict children singing and playing musical instruments, have toured the United States.”

Radke is also starting on an exhibition devoted to Venice. While exciting, the project comes as no surprise to his students or colleagues. If someone wants to know what Radke is up to, all he or she needs to do is glance at the title of his next graduate seminar. “My students get to do some of the first thinking about how a particular theme or set of works might be contextualized,” Radke says. “My seminar is almost like a laboratory, where students and I work alongside one another, testing ideas and concepts.”

Bourne echoes these sentiments, praising Radke for his extraordinary vision and originality. “The fact he didn’t repeat a seminar topic until 2012 tells you something about his commitment to exploring new things with his students and with his own research—an enviable quality reflected by the wide-ranging subjects of his many publications, including Venetian nunneries, Florentine sculpture, and papal palaces,” says Bourne, who has known Radke since 1987. “His textbook Art in Renaissance Italy [co-authored by Paoletti] is one of the best of its kind for undergraduates and has been translated into multiple languages, including Spanish and Chinese. Gary is nothing short of amazing.”

Radke will headline a symposium this fall titled "New Perspectives on Renaissance Art"
Radke will headline a symposium this fall titled "New Perspectives on Renaissance Art"
If the first six months have been any indication, Radke’s final year at Syracuse University is going to be, in his words, a “blow out.” In June, he led a weeklong alumni trip to Italy, as part of the Florence Program’s 50th anniversary. (Titled Encountering the Renaissance, the program included a series of exclusive visits to the Uffizi Gallery and other Florentine landmarks, as well as meetings with and presentations by various students and alumni.) The excitement continues in October with a daylong symposium on Syracuse University’s Main Campus titled New Perspectives on Renaissance Art. Papers will be given by a who’s who of Florence Program alumni, who will join colleagues from across campus to honor Radke at a reception the day before.

Among those in attendance will be Samuel P. Clemence, a Syracuse University professor specializing in civil and environmental engineering. Every other spring between 2002 and 2012, he and Radke taught Leonardo da Vinci: Artist and Engineer, a popular course linking The College of Arts and Sciences with the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science. (Like Michelangelo’s Italy, which Radke taught by himself in alternating years, the Leonardo course included a trip to Italy during Spring Break.) Clemence considers his time with Radke one of the highlights of his career.  

“Professor Radke planned and supervised all the activities for our students when they went abroad—an enormous undertaking, by any standard,” Clemence says. “Once, during an overnight train ride from Florence to Paris, a stowaway was discovered in one of the sleeping compartments. Professor Radke managed the whole situation with grace and humor, from dealing with the train conductor and the security officer to making sure the stowaway was quickly removed from the train. All the while, his students’ safety was foremost on his mind.”

It’s these kinds of “priceless learning experiences,” says Clemence, which compel students to keep in touch with Radke, long after they leave campus. “Many students have called our Leonardo course a life-changing experience. Professor Radke challenged students not just to look at art, but to engage with and learn from it. Every lecture was an active learning experience, where students were expected to ask tough questions and open their minds by viewing art in new ways,” Clemence adds.

Eric Gleason ’05, who oversees the trendy Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea, can attest to the sway Radke has on students. Originally interested in a career in politics, Gleason says that Radke helped him turn an interest in art into an addiction and, ultimately, a profession. “Art history can be dry if you allow it to be, but every time I attended Gary’s Donatello and Ghiberti [course] during my sophomore year, I felt like I had just hung out with Donatello and Ghiberti, themselves,” says Gleason, alluding to the two Renaissance sculptors. “Fostering this kind of connection with history is an art unto itself and, in this regard, Gary has no equal. He’s the Michelangelo of teaching Michelangelo.”

Gleason is proof-positive that one doesn’t always need an M.A. to succeed in the art world. That’s why Radke, along with Professor Laurinda Dixon, recently re-envisioned the art history senior seminar Doing Art History: Research and Professional Practices. Underwritten by publisher Alan Mirken, in memory of his wife, Barbara ’51, the seminar has become a three-credit, semester-long course that provides students with the writing and research chops needed to make a favorable impression upon prospective graduate schools and employers. The highlight of the course is a weekend immersion experience in New York City, where students visit museums and galleries and rub elbows with Gleason, Begley, and others.

“Graduate school is essential for landing a curatorial or professional job,” Radke says. “But nowadays, a graduate with a bachelor’s degree may get his or her foot in the door with an entry-level arts position. This seminar is designed to facilitate that process."

The statement is laced with irony, as Radke, who has spent the past 35 years finding people jobs, is finally letting go of his. He is particularly pleased that Sally J. Cornelison G’89, one of his favorite former students, will succeed him as professor of art history and director of the Florence Program in the summer of 2015. “As director of the Florence Program, I will maintain Gary’s and the faculty’s standard of excellence, while exploring new pedagogies and encouraging students to engage with new research methods," she says. “I also want to prepare students for a variety of careers that includes and moves beyond Renaissance studies.” 

Sally Cornelison G'89
A professor at The University of Kansas, Cornelison (left) is an expert in the history of Italian Renaissance art, particularly religious art. Her coming-out party at Syracuse University will occur at the aforementioned fall symposium, where she will discuss the 16th-century Italian artist Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the influential Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

When pressed to comment on Radke, Cornelison has superlatives at the ready. “He’s a vibrant teacher and a fully supportive mentor who’s generous to a fault,” she says, adding that his transition from professor, to mentor, to colleague, to friend, has been seamless. “Gary has been a guiding force throughout my entire career. Our relationship didn’t end when my M.A. program did.”  

But what of Radke’s retirement? Will he still keep office hours?

“That’s not my style,” says Radke, who looks forward to many hours of ballroom dancing with his wife, Nancy ’74, in Savannah, Ga., where they will also renovate an antebellum home in the city’s historic district. “I will always treasure my time at Syracuse University and will visit the Florence campus now and then," he says, “but it’s time for a new generation of scholars to add their chapters to our department’s illustrious history.”

Paoletti—who knows a thing or two about Radke, having collaborated with him for several decades—thinks that whatever the future holds for his friend will be approached with the same finesse that has defined his long career. “I can attest to the kindness and thoroughness with which Gary has treated all with whom he has worked,” Paoletti says in closing. “I couldn’t be more grateful for his humor and friendship over the years. I wish all of us could have more friends like Gary Radke.”

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Rob Enslin