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Zeri, Federico

    Full Name: Zeri, Federico

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1921

    Date Died: 04 October 1998

    Place Born: Rome, Lazio, Italy

    Place Died: Mentana, Rome, Lazio, Italy

    Home Country/ies: Italy

    Subject Area(s): Italian (culture or style), Italian Renaissance-Baroque styles, and Renaissance

    Career(s): art collectors


    Collector and art historian of renaissance Italy. Zeri was born into a wealthy Roman family. He attended Rome University, where he initially studied botany. In 1944 he switched to the department of fine art under Pietro Toesca, a leading scholar of (then) undervalued Italian medieval art. Toesca introduced him to Roberto Longhi. He also made the personal acquaintance of influential rival to Longhi, Harvard art historian Bernard Berenson. Zeri described his meeting with Berenson as lasting “from 16:32 to 16:54 precisely”. After graduating, Zeri worked for the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage in its fine arts committee for six years. In 1952, however, Zeri left, claiming that mismanagement and bureaucratic lethargy in the ministry were destroying the very monuments they were intended to save. Others suggested that Giulio Carlo Argan, the Inspector, actually dismissed Zeri for reasons of conflict of interest with private work. This proved to be a boon for Zeri, who developed his profile as an art historian by writing and lecturing. He published catalogs from two famous private collections in Rome, the Galleria Spada (1954) and the Galleria Pallavicini (1959). He advised collectors such as the Venetian Count Vittorio Cini. He was a visiting professor in the United States at Harvard and Columbia. In 1957, still only 36, he published Pittura e Controriforma, a book on Mannerism praised by Donald Posner) and was commissioned to catalog of the Italian paintings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Florentine School, 1971; The Venetian School, 1973; and The Siennese School, 1980). At roughly the same time, he also collaborated with Burton Fredericksen on the Inventories of Italian paintings in the United States. In 1976 he published a similar catalog of Italian painting in Baltimore’s Walter Art Gallery. These are considered among his best scholarhsip. In the 1980s Zeri took over co-editorship of the 13-volume Storia dell’arte italiana, the scholarly survey of Italian art. In later years, he focused his writing on forgery and issues of methodology. L’Inchiostro Variopinto (1985) recounts his unmasking of fakes. Dietro L’Immagine: conversazioni sull’arte di leggere l’arte (1987, translated into English as Behind the Image, 1990) focused on methodology. Zeri was appointed a founding member of the Board of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. In 1993, when he could not dissuade the museum from purchasing a Greek kouros, which he insisted was a forgery, he resigned in protest. The incident was widely reported and today the museum lists the piece as “circa 530 B.C. or modern forgery.” In 1994 he published Giorno per Giorno nella Pittura a book highlighting lesser-known works in Italy that Zeri championed. Although he chided his country as unfit to be a custodian of its own treasures, he supervised the restoration of the Royal Palace and the Sforza Castle in Milan shortly before his death. Zeri was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Bologna, nearly the only honor he received within Italy. He subsequently left his villa/museum/library to the University. Zeri’s methodology reflects the connoisseurship approach of Berenson and Longhi, though he disparaged both men in later years. When writing in his area of expertise, Italian painting from the 12th to the 16th centuries, or even as far afield as Modigliani, Zeri was capable of greatness. He shunned the traditional monograph format, focusing instead on erudite, well- researched yet readable shorter articles and scholarly museum catalogs. Yet Zeri personified the eccentric art historian: he toured visitors through his 1960s villa, filled with important works of art next to kitchy objet d’art, subjecting guests to his unique interpretations. Michelangelo, he once said, was such a poor painter that it would not have been a great loss if his Sistine Chapel paintings had been allowed to crumble. He characterized Ludovisi Throne (now in the Palazzo Altemps) as a 19th-century fake rather than the fifth century BC Greek sculpture generally believed today to be. He and the conservator Bruno Zanardi, denied Giotto’s hand in the Basilica of St. Francis at Assisi frescos. At the root of many of his excellent re-attributions was his scorn for the Italian academy which he chided in almost every submission of his newspaper and radio program. To the notion that Florence was the birthplace of the renaissance innovation, Zeri characterized as a “sad episode of cultural hooliganism.” Although he had criticized Longhi’s authenticating questionable works of art for monetary gain, similar accusations were also made against him.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Gardner, Elizabeth E. Pittura e Controriforma: L’arte senza tempo di Scipione da Gaeta. Turin: Einaudi, 1957; [Metropolitan Museum of Art Catalogs] Italian Paintings : a Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, North Italian School. New York: The Museum, 1986; Italian Paintings: Florentine School; a Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1971; Italian Paintings: Sienese and Central Italian Schools: a Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art . New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980; Italian Paintings: Venetian School; a Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society,1973; and Packard, Elizabeth C. G. Italian Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery, 1976; Diari di lavoro 1. Turin: G. Einaudi, 1983; La Galleria Pallavicini in Roma : catalogo dei dipinti. Florence: Sansoni, 1959; La Galleria Spada in Roma: catalogo dei dipinti. Florence: Sansoni 1954; and Francesco Rossi. La raccolta Morelli nell’Accademia Carrara Milan: Silvana, 1986; L’inchiostro variopinto. Milan: Longanesi, 1985; Dietro l’immagine: conversazioni sull’arte di leggere l’arte. Venice: N. Pozza, 1998, English, Behind the Image: the Art of Reading Paintings. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987; and Fredericksen, Burton B. Census of pre-nineteenth-century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.


    [autobiography] Confesso che ho sbagliato (“I confess I was wrong”). Milan: Longanesi, 1995; [cited] Previtali, Giovanni. “The Periodization of Italian Art History.” History of Italian Art. vol. 2 Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 16, note 18; Dolcetta, Marco. Federico Zeri: un velo di silenzio. Milan: Rizzoli,1999; Bona Castellotti, Marco. Conversazioni con Federico Zeri. Parma: Ugo Guanda, 1988; Federico Zeri: diario marchigiano, 1948-1988. Turin: U. Allemandi per la Banca delle Marche, 2000; Bolla, Luisella, and Cardini, Flaminia. Federico Zeri: l’enfant terrible della televisione italiana. Rome: Rai Eri, 2000; Posner, Donald. “Introduction.” Friedlaender, Walter. Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965, pp. xvii; [obituaries] The Daily Telegraph (London). November 2, 1998, p. 21; The Times (London). October 21, 1998; Anne Hanley. The Independent (London), October 7, 1998, p. 7


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Zeri, Federico." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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