"I was born in Rome in Via XXIV Maggio on 12 th August 1921, a step away from the Quirinal and the statues of the Dioscuri". In his autobiography, Federico Zeri brings in both Papal Rome and Imperial Rome to reconstruct his cultural boundaries on the basis of an early vocation for art and classical antiquity which was to shape his career as a scholar.
Orvieto – Federico Zeri beside Francesco Mochi's “Angel of the Annunciation” (1996)
When at the University of Rome in the early 1940s, Zeri followed the courses of Pietro Toesca, under whom he graduated in 1945. It was an encounter which would change his life. Zeri's unconventional approach to the discipline made an early appearance in his degree thesis, where the subject was Jacopino del Conte, a painter of Roman Mannerism to whom little importance was given at the time.
Zeri would often choose obscure viewpoints from which to ask innovative questions on the great themes in art history. Evidence of this is given in his book Pittura e Controriforma (1957) which, though the subtitle bore a reference to Scipione Pulzone, another figure in late Mannerism, was to create a milestone in contemporary historical interpretation.
It was Toesca who introduced him to Bernard Berenson, a figure who held a deep fascination for the young Zeri, who was later to dedicate to him his book on the Master of the Barberini Panels (1961). At the end of the war Zeri made the acquaintance of Giuliano Briganti, Mario Praz and particularly Roberto Longhi, a maestro with a strong and charismatic personality with whom he was to have a quarrelsome and sometimes competitive relationship.
He took up employment on the fine arts committee of the Ministry for the Cultural Heritage and in 1948 was appointed director of the Galleria Spada in Rome. He left this position at the beginning of the 1950s after publishing a fundamental catalogue of the collection (1952).
From then on, Zeri's career was that of an independent art historian, but he was never to lose his critical conscience as regards the protection of art and the close ties between the works and their contexts. His interest in rediscovering minor areas of art production led to a philological and historical recuperation of forgotten artists, lost pictorial series, an entire figurative geography overlooked by studies. From 1948 the scholar published extensively on the subject in a clear, terse style, in the tradition of art literature in the English-speaking world, even borrowing from the language of science. This certainly went against the more allusive and literary style in fashion in Italy at that time.
Nemrud Dagi, Turkey: Antiochus I's dynastic monuments (1988)
His first trips to Paris and London between 1947 and 1948 brought him in contact with leading figures in international connoisseurship like Philip Pouncey, Denis Mahon, John Pope-Hennessy and Frederick Antal. Zeri was later to claim that he owed a great deal to this last for his interest in the relations between art and society. His philological approach to the work of art and the moment where the "attribution" is revealed were never in fact an end in themselves but were evidence of attention to the works' material data, their history and even historical short circuits. In this way, from Renaissance painting Zeri came to concern himself with forgeries as revealing a certain taste in collecting and a different way of interpreting art works of the past.
The method of the connoisseur, which he learnt from Toesca, Berenson and Longhi, was to be of fundamental importance for him. His first instrument of work was the photograph library which he began to collect in the 1940s and which over time was to become "the world's largest private archive of Italian painting", an essential reference work for the historical sequencing of any work out of context. It had been Berenson who claimed that the "winner" in art history is the one with the most photographs, in other words a historian who can provide the best documentation of individual stylistic variants recorded over time.
Palmyra, Siria (1988)
He combined his talent as a connoisseur with a close network of relations which brought him into contact with the leading collectors and antiquarians of the time, including Vittorio Cini, J. Paul Getty, Alessandro Contini Bonacossi and Daniel Wildenstein.
Of great significance were his relations with the United States. Visiting professor at Harvard University in Cambridge (Mass.) and New York's Columbia University, he was instrumental in setting up the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He was commissioned to catalogue the Italian paintings in US state-owned collections (1972), publishing the catalogues of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore (1976) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1971, 1973, 1980, 1986).
Zeri's time was spent between Europe, the States and the Middle East. When not travelling he would retreat to his villa in Mentana, designed especially for him by the architect Andrea Busiri Vici in 1963 to suit his requirements for living and studying. From his isolated location in the Roman countryside he had no hesitation in expressing outspoken views through the Press and television, eventually becoming the critical conscience of Italian culture, which was only later to bring him recognition. In 1993 he was appointed deputy chairman of the national council for the cultural heritage. In February 1998 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Bologna, a year after becoming a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, where he took the place of Richard Nixon.
Zeri continued working right up to the end, because "each day brings its share of photographs and paintings". He died in Mentana on 5 th October 1998.