Toscani was born in Milan, and took up photography following the steps of his father, Fedele Toscani, a photoreporter for the newspaper Corriere della Sera. After obtaining his diploma at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich, he started working with different magazines, including Elle, Vogue, L'Uomo Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.
In 1982 he started working as Art Director for the Benetton Group. One of his most famous campaigns included a photo (by Therese Frare) of David Kirby dying of AIDS, lying in a Columbus, Ohio, hospital bed, surrounded by his grieving relatives. The picture was controversial due to its similarity to a pietà painting and because some[who?] thought the use of this image to sell clothing was exploiting the victim, though the Kirby family stated that they authorized the use and that it helped increase AIDS awareness. Other advertisements included references to racism (notably one with three almost identical human hearts, which were actually pig hearts, with the words 'white', 'black', and 'yellow' as captions), war, religion and even capital punishment.
In the early 1990s, Toscani co-founded the magazine Colors (also owned by Benetton) with American graphic designer Tibor Kalman. With the tagline "a magazine about the rest of the world", Colors built on the multiculturalism prevalent at that time and in Benetton's ad campaigns, while remaining editorially independent from group. Toscani left Benetton in 2000.
In 2005, he sparked controversy again with his photographs for an advertising campaign for the men's clothing brand 'Ra-Re'. Their portrayals of men participating in homosexual behaviour angered groups such as the Catholic parents' association Movimento Italiano Genitori, who called the pictures 'vulgar'. The campaign came amidst ongoing debate in Italy about gay rights.
A long-term Tuscany resident, in 2003 he created in collaboration with Regione Toscana a new research facility for modern communication called 'La Sterpaia'.
In February 2015 he was investigated by Procura of Verona because he said that all the people of Veneto are wino, after he was denounced by the lawyer Andrea Bacciga.
He is an atheist.
- Current Biography Yearbook 1999 Elizabeth A. Schick – 1998– Page 571
- Prayer Graeme Garrett, Oliviero Toscani – 2000
- Tungate, Adland: A Global History of Advertising pp 138-43
- Usborne, David (2000-04-02). "Benetton death row ads outrage America". The Independent. Retrieved 2011-01-26.
- "intervista oliviero toscani fotografo". Retrieved 17 December 2014.
- Benetton Pieta in AIDS campaign
- Ireland's Marketing Monthly – Advertiser turned public moraliser
- – Olivero Toscani
- The Observer – Italy snaps over gay poster excess
- Times Online – Campaign to show the naked truth about anorexia
- (Italian) Official website
- OT Horses: American Quarter Horses Oliviero Toscani
- Interview with Oliviero Toscani
- The True Colors of Oliviero Toscani from AdAge International
- Oliviero Toscani from made-in-Italy.com (in Italian)
- Oliviero Toscani at Salon
- ANOREXIA. Storia di un'immagine IMDB
- ANOREXIA. STORIA DI UN'IMMAGINE official info
- The Photo That Brought AIDS Home – slideshow by Life magazine