A year of meetings, books and exhibitions to celebrate 100 years from the birth of a great scholar and connoisseur who bequeathed his outstanding photo archive and art library to Bologna University

To mark the centenary of Federico Zeri’s birth, the Foundation is planning a series of events honouring his scientific and intellectual legacy (1921-1998). Schemes that will flank the immense ongoing cataloguing operation which over the years has gradually made the bequest available on-line, swelled by new collections. A legacy we wish to share above all with the younger generation of students and scholars and with all engaged in conservation and protection of the art heritage.

Some schemes will be joint ventures involving institutions linked to the name of Zeri, like the Accademia Carrara of Bergamo, Milan’s Museo Poldi Pezzoli and the Vatican Museums.
At present the Ministry of Culture is setting up a National Celebrations Committee.

In his will dated 29 September 1998 Federico Zeri bequeathed to Bologna University his art library (46,000 volumes, 37,000 auction catalogues), photo archive (290,000 photographs) and villa at Mentana with its collection of nearly 400 Roman inscriptions. The decision stemmed from a relationship of growing mutual esteem and trust between Federico Zeri, the scholar Anna Ottani Cavina (Foundation Director until 2013) and the University of Bologna, culminating on 6 February 1998 with the conferring of an honorary degree in History of Art.
In 1999 the Alma Mater created the Federico Zeri Foundation designed to preserve the renown of the man and disseminate his work.
Today it is an internationally-recognised research centre offering specialist training in the field of art history.

“Without being a good connoisseur one is not even a historian of art”
Federico Zeri was one of the 20th century’s greatest art historians and connoisseurs. A pupil of Pietro Toesca and Roberto Longhi, he saw himself as a free spirit, a scholar of the utmost rigour. He had a prodigious visual memory and an infallible eye.
His writings contain a wealth of knowledge, research, attributes that are still benchmarks for the study of Italian art history, especially certain branches of it like 13th-16th century painting in Latium, Umbria and the Marche.
The maverick in him brought constant friction with Italian institutions, yet his extraordinary mastery of the art heritage and his intellectual rigour made him one of the most original and brilliant personalities on the art history scene.
“Mine is a free, non-conformist position, not tied to political power, not shackled by bureaucratic or university intrigue”.


“The world’s greatest private archive on Italian painting”
In his work of artwork exploration and philological analysis Zeri drew daily on his incomparable Photo Archive, fruit of a lifetime’s accumulation.
Today that heritage is open to all via an online cataloguee that is rated the most extensive and reliable Italian art repertory to be found on the web. It currently boasts over 180,000 images of paintings and sculptures, and is steadily growing, blending contributions from the Foundation’s other photographic collections. 

“Every now and then I’m asked about my method; but the question draws a blank. At most I can describe the various chapters and stages of the road I have trodden. I begin by going over and over the countless photos that come my way, examining them first as wholes, then with the detail of a magnifying glass”.

 “I can’t read colour photos properly: every fact gets drowned in a kind of minestrone. Colour reproductions prevent you from picking out shapes, or analysing the state of surface conservation which is the first thing I do”.

 “Every day brings me its load of photographs or pictures. I must confess that the older I get and the more these documents pile up, the more acutely I perceive my own ignorance, the vast areas that need to be discovered”.


Battling to protect
Zeri’s civic passion, his commitment to defending the Italian heritage, comes over in his countless appearances in the press and on television (Federico Zeri on television 1974-1997), and formed a key chapter in his intellectual career. The earnestness of his civic conscience drove him to lay bare long-standing or recent scandals and urge the need for conservation work and restoration, to the point where he became known as our country’s critical conscience. 
His own amazing photographic collection proved of crucial value to him in piecing together even marginal art settings that would otherwise have been lost.   
In 1993 Zeri was appointed Vice-President of the National Cultural Heritage Council.
His tenacious daily battle to defend that heritage still sounds a living warning, reminding us of an essential part of our cultural identity.

 “Among so many Italian paradoxes is the fact that we have the richest art heritage in the western world in the hands of the western world’s most inept public administration”.

 “I have always thought that rational enhancement of the huge art heritage … might constitute a great economic resource. I have long thought so. Today I feel it is too late. The Italian landscape is largely despoiled, disfigured beyond remedy. As for the art heritage, I am quite sceptical that it will survive; so many things are doomed to vanish very soon, what with bureaucratic ineptness, mistreatment, ignorance and indifference. On her own I don’t think Italy is now capable of setting things straight…”.    

For a full biography
see this link: Federico Zeri
Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani: Federico Zeri, entry curated by Mauro Natale