Roberto Longhi was born in Alba on the 28 December 1890. He was the son of Linda Battaglia and Giovanni Longhi, a teacher of technology at the local Royal Oenological School.
Longhi studied under Pietro Toesca at the University of Turin where he was granted a degree in 1911 after presenting a dissertation on Caravaggio. An interview on Cosmè Tura gained him admission to Adolfo Venturi's post graduate course in Rome in 1912. Longhi began to contribute articles to the periodicals "La Voce" (from 1911) and "L'Arte" (from 1913). In this same period (1912) he got to know Bernard Berenson and offered himself as a translator for Berenson's The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. According to Longhi's Breve ma veridica storia della pittura italiana, a series of lecture notes which were published after his death in 1980, Longhi taught in the Tasso and Visconti High Schools in Rome during the 1913-1914 school year. One of his students was Lucia Lopresti, better known by her pen name Anna Banti, whom he would later marry (1924). The subjects of his early publications range from 15th century painting (Piero della Francesca e lo sviluppo della pittura veneziana) to avant garde art criticism (I pittori futuristi e Scultura Futurista Boccioni), and include essays on Caravaggio (Due opere di Caravaggio) and his followers: Mattia Preti (pure figurative criticism), Orazio Borgianni, Battistello, Gentileschi father and daughter.
From 1920 to 1922 Longhi traveled in Europe with Alessandro Contini Bonacossi visiting churches, museums and private collections all across the continent (in France, Spain, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and Hungary). His grand tour of Europe refined his skills as a connoisseur. From 1922 he worked as a university lecturer in Rome. In 1926 he began to contribute to the periodical "Vita Artistica" which he directed from 1927 with Emilio Cecchi. The following year Longhi and Cecchi founded the periodical "Pinacotheca".
In 1927 Longhi published his famous monograph Piero della Francesca, which was translated into French the same year and into English in 1931. It was followed in 1934 by Officina Ferrarese which stemmed from the exhibition dedicated to Renaissance painting held in Ferrara (1933). In 1934 Longhi was also named professor of Medieval and Modern Art at the University of Bologna. Between 1935 and 1936 he organized the Mostra del Settecento bolognese, the exhibition of 18th century Bolognese art. Longhi also showed an interest in contemporary art. He wrote a monograph about Carlo Carrà in 1937 and became a friend of Giorgio Morandi.
In 1939 Longhi moved to Florence. From 1938 to 1940 he directed the periodical "La Critica d'Arte" with Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli and Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti. The publications Fatti di Masolino e Masaccio (1940) and Carlo Braccesco (1942) date from this period. Longhi's Viatico per cinque secoli di pittura veneziana (1946) followed the exhibit organized in 1945 by Rodolfo Pallucchini and preceded a series of contributions with the periodical "Arte Veneta" (1947-1948). Longhi's well known essay Ultimi studi sul Caravaggio e la sua cerchia was published in 1943 in the first issue of "Proporzioni". Other issues were published in 1948, 1950 and 1963. In 1950 Longhi founded the periodical "Paragone" which he directed until he died, contributing important editorials on cultural policy and essays on a variety of art historical subjects. In 1949 Longhi became a professor at the University of Florence.
Longhi conceived and organized two memorable exhibitions on Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1948) and on Bolognese 14th century painting (1950), both held in Bologna. He also organized the famous exhibit on Caravaggio e i caravaggeschi (1951) which was held in Milan. Longhi's monograph on this Lombard painter appeared the following year. A second exhibition organized in Milan in 1953, I pittori della realtà in Lombardia, examined the special bent for realism which characterized art in Lombardy for several centuries. In the same period Longhi collaborated with Umberto Barbaro, producing documentaries about several artists (Carpaccio, Caravaggio, Carrà). His book entitled Il Correggio e la camera di San Paolo a Parma dates from 1956.
When Longhi died in 1970 he left his collections of art, photographs and books "for the benefit of future generations" in his villa in via Fortini which is now the site of a foundation bearing his name.