When he was six years old, his mother died and a group of English expatriate ladies, the "Scorpioni", looked after him. These ladies were subsequently taken to an internment camp, and Zeffirelli never saw them again (the Scorpioni ladies inspired Zeffirelli's semi-autobiographical 1999 film "Tea with Mussolini"). During his years with the Scorpioni, Zeffirelli learned to love Shakespeare. Decades later, Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet was to become the best ever movie adaptation of the play (both he and the film received Oscar nominations).
In 1941 he graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, and on his father's advice began to study art and architecture at the University of Florence. Fair-haired and handsome, Zeffirelli was working as a set designer when he met Luchino Visconti, starting a long cooperation and tormented love.
Between the '40s and '50s he became the assistant of famous directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti himself. His activity ranged in various fields, from theater to film, opera and television, painting, politics, education, achieving critical acclaim and audience success.
In recent years (in an interview in January 2013 he claimed he has projects that will keep him busy to the end of the 21st century), in his house outside Rome, in the company of the two adopted sons, Pippo and Luciano, he is concentrating on his Fondazione Zeffirelli for a "Centro delle arti internazionali e dello spettacolo" which was born in May 2013.