Federico Zeri (August 21, 1921 – October 5, 1998) was an Italian art historian, a specialist in Italian Renaissance painting. He wrote for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, and was a well known television-personality in Italy. He had given lifelong effort to acquainting lesser known artists, schools and works.
Zeri was born in central Rome, and graduated from Sapienza University of Rome in 1945. Not wishing to entrench in the academic world, he worked in the Ministry of Public Education until 1952. In 1948 he was made director of Galleria Spada in Rome.
In 1963 Zeri was among the founding members of the Getty Villa's board of trustees. He had left in 1984, after his opinion, that the Getty kouros was a forgery and should not be bought, was not accepted.
He pointed at other forgeries and mis-attributions. In 1984, when four students, planting sculptures in a canal in Livorno, hoaxed both the city and Modigliani experts, he was among the few who called on the amateurish style. Regarding some frescoes at the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, he argued they are works of Pietro Cavallini rather than Giotto. Zeri insisted that a painting can be attributed to an artist, by means of a careful examination or connoisseurship, without resort to external evidence such as documents or dates. The work is to be systematically characterised by its techniques and ideas, which in turn would evidence a circle of artists and schools that influenced the author's development, and from whom he borrowed, with their relative importance. An hypothetical biography can then be constructed, of an anonymous person that was able to meet all those influences and study their work. At which stage, historians might be inclined to attribute other known works to Anonymous. Finally, a matching historical person might be found in documentation.
Zeri composed researched catalogues of the collections in the following institutions: The Frederick Mason Perkins collection in the Sacro Convento in Assisi, Accademia Carrara, Museo Civico Amedeo Lia in La Spezia, Galleria Spada, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Walters Art Museum, and Narodna Galerija in Ljubljana (with Ksenija Rozman).
Zeri died at the age of 77, in his villa in Mentana on October 5, 1998. He bequeathed his estate to the University of Bologna, complete with his library and papers, a collection of about 400 ancient inscriptions and a grand collection of photographs. Most photographs documented artworks from Italy and elsewhere, some done by himself and some acquired from other collections. The collections and accompanying database are managed, partly digitized, by the Federico Zeri Foundation in the university.
Zeri had close connections with Bernard Berenson, Roberto Longhi, and his teacher Pietro Toesca. He was an art history professor at the University of Rome, and had visiting positions in Harvard, where he delivered the Lauro De Bosis endowed lectures in 1962, and Columbia University.
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