“I was born in Rome in Via XXIV Maggio on 12 August 1921, a step away from the Quirinal and the statues of the Dioscuri”. Federico Zeri links Papal Rome and Imperial Rome in connecting his cultural boundaries to an early vocation for art and classical antiquity, a dual thread which would run throughout his career as a scholar.
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 (Einaudi, Torino 1957) which, though the subtitle bore a reference to Scipione Pulzone, another figure in late Mannerism, was to create a milestone in the historical interpretation of that period.
It was Toesca who introduced him to Bernard Berenson, a figure who deeply fascinated the young Zeri, who would later dedicate to him his book on the “Master of the Barberini Panels” (Einaudi, Torino 1961). At the end of the war Zeri made the acquaintance of Giuliano Briganti, Mario Praz, as well as 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 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 catalog of the collection, published by Sansoni in 1954.
From then on, Zeri's career was that of an independent art historian, but he was never to lose his critical conscience in regards to the protection of art, and the close ties between 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, and an entire figurative geography overlooked by scholars. From 1948 on Zeri would publish 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 Longhian style in fashion in Italy at that time.
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 later claimed to owe a great deal to Antal for his interest in the relations between art and society.
His philological approach to a work of art, and the moment when 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, in Renaissance painting Zeri came to concern himself with forgeries, revealing a certain taste in collecting and a different way of interpreting art works of the past.
The method of the connoisseur, which he learned from Toesca, Berenson and Longhi, was to be of fundamental importance to 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.
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: as a visiting professor at Harvard University in Cambridge (Mass.) and New York's Columbia University, as well as being instrumental in setting up the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He curated the repertory of Italian paintings in public American collections (Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections, Cambridge, Mass., 1972, in collaboration with B. Fredericksen), as well as the catalogs of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore (1976), and the four volumes of the catalog of Italian paintings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1971, 1973, 1980, 1986).
Zeri's time was spent between Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. When not traveling he would retreat to his villa in Mentana, designed especially for him by 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.
From 1975 to 1984 he is trustee of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
In 1993 he was appointed deputy chairman of the national council for cultural heritage. In April 1997, he was admitted as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, where he took the place of Richard Nixon.
On 6 February 1998
he was awarded an honorary degree
from the University of Bologna
by Chancellor Fabio Roversi Monaco; the laudatio was pronounced by Anna Ottani Cavina.
Zeri continued working right up to the end, because "each day brings its share of photographs and paintings". He died in Mentana on 5 October 1998.