The daughter of an Italian officer, she spent her childhood in Ethiopia, where his father is stationed. After World War II, she studied classics at the University of Messina, where she obtained her degree in 1953 in classics. An archaeology scholarship allowed her to continue her studies at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she came under the tutelage of Rhys Carpenter. At the end of her MA, she wrote her thesis on archaic sculpture at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She received her Ph.D in 1958 and returned as a teacher to Bryn Mawr, where she spent most of her career. In 1977 she was named Rhys Carpenter Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, which she held until her retirement in 1997. In 1988 she won the gold medal of the Archaeological Institute of America. She married the physician Henry W. Ridgway in 1958.
Brunilde Ridgway is, in keeping with her mentor Rhys Carpenter, a follower of the radical questioning of the Meisterforschung (or search for the masterpiece or archetype that inspired a replica series) that dominated the history of Greek art since Adolf Furtwängler. Elaborating on Carpenter's remark that Greek sculpture is “the anonymous product of an impersonal craft.” , she maintains that the notion of the artistic personality doesn’t emerge in the West before the fifteenth century AD. She also addresses the Kopienforschung ("copy research") of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who is finding a type statuary through its Roman copies, focusing on identifying the originality of Roman sculptors. Rather sceptical vis-à-vis the literary sources, she sticks to the stylistic analysis of the works.
Known for the safety of her erudition and for the stimulant of its analyses, it has been criticized, like Carpenter, for what was described as a "devastating or "systematic scepticism”, or revisionism.
Her main works and writings are: