Apostolo Zeno was born of Cretan Greek descent in Venice in 1669. His father was Pietro Zeno a doctor of medicine and his mother, Caterina Sevasto, belonged to the Sevasti, an illustrious and powerful Greek family of Candia, Crete.
A Venetian nobleman, he was in 1691 among the founders of the Accademia degli Animosi. In 1695, he composed his first libretto, Gli inganni felici, which obtained great success, making him a fashionable librettist. From 1705, he worked with Pietro Pariati, keeping the theatrical scenes for himself and leaving to Pariati the composition of the libretti.
He began work as a literary journalist for the Galleria di Minerva, also taking upon executive responsibilities, but distanced himself when he realized that he had not succeeded in making the impact upon the publication that he intended. In the end he described it as an idiocy.
In 1710 together with Scipione Maffei, Antonio Vallisneri and his brother, Pier Caterino Zeno, he founded the Giornale de' letterati d'Italia, maintaining that it was necessary that "Italians themselves make their own newspaper... revealing that good sense, erudition and ingenuity never were lacking among us, and now more than ever are they flourishing."
The tri-monthly publication had prestigious contributors such as Scipione Maffei, Antonio Vallisneri, Eustachio Manfredi, Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Giovanni Battista Morgagni, Giovan Battista Vico, Bernardino Ramazzini. Motivated above all by the desire to improve Italian learning, it enjoyed considerable success.
When Apostolo Zeno was called to duty as poet laureate to the imperial court of Vienna in 1718, his brother, Pier Caterino took over the direction until 1732, publishing the periodical annually. Apostolo remained in Vienna until 1729, at which point he was replaced by Pietro Metastasio. He returned to Venice, dedicating himself to works of erudition and to coin-collecting.
Zeno wrote the libretti for 36 operas with historical and mythological themes, including Gli inganni felici (1695), Odoardo (1695) Faramondo (1698), Lucio Vero, Imperatore di Roma (1700), Griselda (1701), Merope (1711, Edition, 1727), L'Ambleto (1712), Alessandro Severo (1716), T'Euzzone (1719), Ormisda (1721), Artaserse (1724), Semiramide (1725), Astarto (1730), Caio Fabbricio (1733), Euristeo (published 1757), and Sesostri re d'Egitto (Prague edition 1760) as well as 17 oratorios. Among his literary works, the Dissertazioni vossiane are additions and corrections to De historicis latinis by Voss. His Annotazioni to the Biblioteca della eloquenza italiana by Giusto Fontanini were published posthumously. His correspondence (Epistolario) is ample.
From condemnation of the unrealistic and exaggerated elements of melodrama was born a demand for greater verisimilitude in plots and for literary dignity in texts. Zeno was the first to undertake reform to make melodrama more sober, according to the arcadici principles, developed further by Metastasio. Inspired by French tragedians, he respected, as they did, the rule of the unity of time and space. He reduced the number of characters and scenes and eliminated the clown roles, constructing his works so that they could be presented also without music.
Francesco de Sanctis, referring to Metastasio, wrote that "if we look at the structure, his drama is constructed in the fashion which Apostolo Zeno already demonstrated. But the structure is only a simple skeleton. Metastasio breathed into that skeleton the grace and the romance of a happy and harmonious life. He was the poet of melodrama; Zeno was the architect."
- Phillimore, Catherine Mary (1891). Studies in Italian Literature, Classical and Modern. S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington. p. 162. OCLC 11170706. "Apostolo Zeno was born in Venice in 1669, His father, Pietro Zeno, was a doctor of medicine ; his brother, Catarina, belonged to the family of the Sevasti."
- Wright, John Henry (1906). A history of all nations from the earliest times: being a vniversal historical library. Lea brothers & company. p. 203. OCLC 5790945. "Apostolus Zeno, a Venetian of Greek descent (1669-1750)"
- ACTON, HAROLD (1960). Art and ideas in eighteenth-century Italy. Ed. di Storia e Letteratura. p. 134. OCLC 163784005. "Apostolo Zeno was a Cretan who lived in Venice until he was made Court Poet to Joseph I and Charles VI in Vienna."
- Brydges, Egerton (1821). Res Literariæ: Bibliographical and Critical. Printed by C. Beranger. p. 107. OCLC 55571742. "His mother was Caterina d' Apostolo Sevasto of one of the most illustrious and powerful families of Candia"
- Knight, Charles (1868). Biography: or, Third division of "The English encyclopedia". Bradbury, Evans & Co. p. 21. OCLC 46988832. "Zeno's mother was of a distinguished Greek family of Candia. Zeno lost his father when a child"