Italianist, Giotto and Bellori scholar. Previtali came from a family of prominent musicians, his father was the conductor Fernando Previtali (1907-1985) and his mother the daughter of the conductor Vittoria Gui (1885-1975). He studied art history under Roberto Longhi. He assumed the editorship of Longhi's magazine, Paragone. In 1961 he was appointed to the University of Messina. In 1964 he published a pioneering study of reception of medieval art, La fortuna dei primitivi dal Vasari ai neoclassici. He followed this with his 1967 Giotto e la sua bottega, a book placing Giotto in the context of his followers. Though he agreed with his other Italian colleagues, Longhi, Pietro Toesca and others that the St. Francis cycle was Giotto's conception but not his accomplishment, his book framed the question in terms of his specific accomplishment, rather than, as viewed by Richard Offner, a question of "Giotto or non-Giotto" (Castelnuovo). The same year he and Paola della Pergola and Luigi Grassi brought out a nine-volume edition of Varsari's 1568 edition of the Lives. Previtali contributed to a film on Giotto, adapted and issued in English as "Giotto and the Pre-Renascence [sic]," narrated by Richard Basehart, in 1969. His academic career was followed with teaching positions at Siena and Naples through 1971. By the early 1970s, dissention from the other members of Paragone, also Longhi students, arose regarding whether classical art subjects should be included. In 1975, Previtali and the archaeologist Mauro Cristofani (1941-1997) founded the art journal Prospettiva, open to all areas of art history. In 1976 Previtali wrote an introduction to the Italian translation of the Shape of Time by George Kubler. His interest in historiography continued with an essay in the Einaudi series, Storia dell'arte italiana on "La periodizzazione della storia dell'arte italiana" in 1979. In the 1980s he curated two exhibitions during the years he taught at Siena. These included Gotico a Siena (1982) and Simone Martini. He died at age 54. His periodization essay appeared in an English translation in 1994. Previtali's main area of scholarship was the Italian Gothic. Articles first in Paragone (1965-1970) and then in Prospettiva (1983-1986) on Gothic Umbrian sculpture were particularly original. La fortuna dei primitivi dal Vasari ai neoclassici traced the changes in attitude toward medieval ("primitives") from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. It launched an career interest in art criticism. Previtali's introduction to the Borea edition of Bellori's Lives, still the most important study devoted to the scholar, placed him for the first time in a truly historical context. Previtali both located him in the evolution of an aesthetic theory and in his own historical time. His evaluation of the Lives was not on the basis of the Idea, but as a work addressing the relations of power within artistic culture and society in Rome in the seventeenth century. Previtali asserted that "Bellori was a true critic (beset with doubts, like every true critic, to a greater extent than is usually imagined) and at times a great one," i.e., profoundly sensitive to the values of figurative language. (Montanari). A Marxist politically and somewhat methodologically, he followed Longhi (especially the late Longhi) in addressing large-scale issues and questions of reception (Castelnuovo).
Scritti in ricordo di Giovanni Previtali. 2 vols. Florence: Centro Di, 1990; La pittura del Cinquecento a Napoli e nel vicereame. Turin: G. Einaudi, 1978; "Introduzione." Kubler, George. La forma del tempo: considerazioni sulla storia delle cose. Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1976, "Ingtroduzione." in Borea, Evelina, ed. Bellori, Giovanni Pietro. Le vite de' pittori, scultori e architetti moderni. Turin: G. Einaudi,1976; L'Arte di scrivere sull'arte: Roberto Longhi nella cultura del nostro tempo. Rome: Editori riuniti, 1982; Early Italian Painting [chiefly a slide collection]. New York: McGraw-Hill 1964; Giotto e la sua bottega. Milan: Fabbri, 1967; La fortuna dei primitivi dal Vasari ai neoclassici. Turin: Einaudi 1964; Studi sulla scultura gotica in Italia : storia e geografia. Turin: G. Einaudi, 1991; and della Pergola, Paola, and Grassi, Luigi, eds. Vasari, Giorgio. Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori. 9 vols. Novara,: Istituto geografico De Agostini, 1967; "Periodizzazione della storia dell'arte italiana,"and "Materiali e problemi ," in Bollati, Giulio, and Fossati, Paoloed, eds. Storia dell'arte italiana. vol. 1, Turin: G. Einaudi, 1979, English, "The Periodization of the History of Italian Art," in Burke, Peter, ed. History of Italian Art vol. 2, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, pp. 1-118.
Romano, Giovanni. Storie dell'arte: Toesca, Longhi, Wittkower, Previtali. Rome: Donzelli,1998; Montanari, Tomaso. "Introduction." Giovan Pietro Bellori: The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects: A New Translation and Critical Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 3; [obituaries:] Castelnuovo, Enrico. "Giovanni Previtali." Burlington Magazine 131, no. 1033 (April 1989): 298; "Giovanni Previtali (1934 - 1988)." Prospettiva 53/56 (1988/1989): 7-9; Romano, Giovanni. Storie dell'arte: Toesca, Longhi, Wittkower, Previtali. Rome: Donzelli, 1998.