He was born in the Italian countryside near Verona but left for the city in 1934. He volunteered for the Spanish Civil War in 1939, but his schizophrenia quickly revealed itself, and he was placed on medical leave after only two months. He was committed to the psychiatric hospital in Verona in 1947 and spent ten years in almost total isolation.
Carlo's life took a turn ten years later, when he and twenty other patients were admitted to the painting atelier created by sculptors Michael Noble and Pino Castagna and psychiatrist Mario Marini. In this atelier, patients were encouraged to paint or sculpt freely.
Completely engrossed by his work, Carlo drew for eight hours a day with tempera paints and colored pencils. This routine seems to have calmed him considerably; clinical evaluations from this time comment on his good behavior. By 1964, his work had been exhibited, and he had attracted the attention of art historians associated with Jean Dubuffet and the Compagnie de l'Art Brut.
In 1969, the hospital moved to a new location in Marzana, Italy. Disoriented by the move, Carlo painted much more infrequently until his death in 1974.
His body of work comprises about nineteen hundred paintings and a few sculptures. The paintings are created on white sheets, and are two-sided from 1962 to 1968. These two-sided works can be seen as continuous, as a single narrative from one side to the other.
He used pure colors to create narratives that tell the story of his childhood in the country, frequently repeating figures to cover the entire background in "horror vacui" style. His human figures are always solid shapes drawn in profile, often with holes to represent eyes or other features.
- Wojcik, Daniel (2016). Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-4968-0808-0.
- Gomez, Edward M. (March 25, 2017). "In Carlo Zinelli and Eugen Gabritschevsky's Art, the Life Spirit Endures". Hyperallergic. Retrieved June 24, 2017.