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The director of the Louvre, Pierre Rosenberg remembers his friend, Italy’s most famous art historian

Federico Zeri, an independent mind

Federico Zeri was more than a personality, he was a character to be reckoned with: redoubtable, feared, demanding, unclassifiable among art historians and among men.

He was all of a piece, yet full of contradictions. A sedentary man, he nonetheless loved travelling. A hermit in his solitary retreat near Rome, he scorned neither society nor television. He denied being a collector but in his splendid house he surrounded himself with Roman inscriptions, mosaics, antique busts, paintings and sculpture. A self-effacing man, and yet a media-star. Although his erudition was phenomenal, he did not despise journalism nor public debate, believing that “the true specialist must be socially and politically engaged.” He liked to create an uproar, to denounce vandals and scandals.

He maintained a passionate and combative relationship with his native Italy. Nothing and no one there escaped his anger, no class save the artisans—humble people of whom he spoke with a moving tenderness—and certain old aristocrats, especially the grandes dames now dead, who knew how to launch intellectual fashions and promote artistic talent.

This love-hate relationship with Italy was never moderated and yet his whole life was devoted to studying his country’s past. His essays and numerous writings are above all about Italian artists, especially the “Primitives”, which often, in our museums, rediscovered their authors thanks to him. He produced exemplary catalogues for the Spada and Pallavicini galleries in Rome, for the Italian paintings departments of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. His entries are models of their kind. But his favourite painter was Rubens—unclassifiable Zeri!

One of the greatest Italian art historians of this century, he preferred to call himself a philologist. His “eye”, his visual memory, remain legendary. He was one of the great “attributionists”, an equal of Bernard Berenson and Roberto Longhi. His method was essentially pragmatic: he looked at the innumerable photographs—preferably black and white—that came his way and identified first the subject, the origin, the date, the hand of the painter. Nothing to it, apparently, but it was the fruit of a daily asceticism, of hourly practice, of permanent observation and above all a fresh and critically powerful way of looking.

He knew how to say no to a name written on a label, to replace one name with another. He allowed himself to denounce many fakes, often sculptures, whether the sculpted heads of Livorno attributed to Modigliani, the so-called Ludovisi throne or even the immense Kouros bought for a fortune by the Getty.

He also learned to look at works in different ways according to their geographical origins. Of the “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden in the Prado, he said, “One must begin with the tears,” while for the “Last Judgement” of Michelangelo, the composition was primary. But to see him merely as an “attributionist”, a virtuoso in putting polyptychs back together again, would be to misunderstand his ambitions. He was interested in iconologists such as Panofsky and Antal. He sought to place the work of art in its proper context, its “ambiente”. “My only passion is direct contact with works of art,” he said. It is for this reason that he loved areas abandoned by the mainstream of art history. Zeri was above all an art historian of independent mind..

The writer is the Director, Musée du Louvre

A brief biography, and Zeri’s bequests

The eminent Italian art historian was born in Rome 1921 and died on 5 October, aged seventy-seven. He was too provocative, even eccentric, a man to have had a conventional academic career, although he was an associate professor at Harvard and Columbia in the 1960s. Zeri was a made a trustee of the fledgling J. Paul Getty Museum by Mr Getty himself in 1975, but resigned in 1984 over the purchase of the Kouros, which he believed to be a fake. For most of his career, he was almost ostracised by Italian officialdom and it was only this year that he was honoured with an honorary doctorate, by the University of Bologna. He was also appointed vice-president of the national council of the Ministero ai beni culturali (the ministry of culture).

He bequeathed his villa, his library of 5,000 volumes and his photo archive of around a million images to the University of Bologna. The Accademia Carrara in Bergamo has received his collections of Late Roman Empire antiquities, and the Vatican his funerary reliefs from Palmyra, a fragment of a Christian sarcophagus and a Fayoum portrait. To the French Academy in Rome, he bequeathed two sixteenth-century tapestries made from cartoons by Francesco Salviati and exhibited in the recent Salviati exhibition at the Villa Médicis and the Louvre. The Institut de France, of which he was a member, has received a sculpted marble head that once belonged to cardinal Mazarin.

Federico Zeri, an independent mind

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 86 November 1998