This past winter, the Frick Collection in New York held a small but captivating exhibition about the Renaissance sculptor Andrea Riccio. The show was a revelation, not only because it presented the works of a celebrated but little-studied artist. More importantly, the exhibition raised fundamental questions about the nature of the classical revival during the Renaissance. Active in Venice and Padua at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Riccio chiefly represented subjects drawn from ancient literature, and he worked almost exclusively for a group of erudite scholars, writers, and intellectuals who were at the forefront of the creation and dissemination of humanist learning. Riccio personifies the period’s intense regard for Greco-Roman antiquity, and yet, for the modern viewer, what he treasured about classical art is completely unexpected.

According to standard art-historical...


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