Francesco Pellizzi studied Classical Archaeology and Comparative Religions at the University of Rome, and Anthropology at the E.P.H.E.S.S. and the Collège de France,  in Paris, under the direction of Claude Lévi-Strauss. He wrote a dissertation on the “Jurupari” ritual-mythological complex of the North-West Amazon Basin, (D. Litt., Classics and History of Religions, Rome, 1966). He was a Harkness Fellow at Harvard University (1967-69: M.A., Social Anthropology, 1969), and then joined the Harvard Chiapas Project, doing fieldwork among the Maya of the Chiapas Highlands (Mexico, 1969-72). At Harvard, he was a Resident Tutor (Folklore and Mythology, 1968-9) and a Teaching Fellow (Social Anthropology, 1972-4); since 1979, he has been Associate in Middle American Ethnology at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where, since 1981, he co-founded and edited the multi-disciplinary journal RES - Anthropology and Aesthetics, dedicated to the study of art and cult objects. He was the founder and editor of the RES Monographs in Anthropology and Aesthetics (1984-2002), at Cambridge University Press, and the Editorial Coordinator, for the Menil Foundation (1991-2003), of the project The Image of the Black in Western Art. He was Editorial Counsel, in the late 1980s, of Normal and Co-founder and Associate Editor of XXIst Century. Since 2005, he has been Chair of the University Seminar on the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and Senior Fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, both at Columbia University.

He organized the anthropological conferences Las Civilizaciones Indigenas de Chiapas en el Mundo Contemporaneo (San Cristobal las Casas, Mexico,1974; America Indigena, 1982) and a multidisciplinary colloquium, Tradition, Translation, Treason (New York, Columbia University, 1995; RES 32 Autumn, 1997). He co-organized and co-edited the conference Ethnicities and Nations: Pattern of Inter-Cultural Relations in Latin America, South East Asia and the Pacific; Houston, Texas 1983; distributed by University of Texas Press, 1987).

He has been engaged, in various capacities, with questions of "Tribal" and other "Contemporary" arts: as an editor, scholar and critic, as a trustee of the Menil Collection and of the Rothko Chapel (Houston, Texas: 1977-present), as a member of the “Committe for Exhibitions” of the New York Public Library, and also as a collector. He has written essays on artists such as De Maria, Marden, Clemente, Fischl, Basquiat, Twombly, Galan, Taaffe, Venegas, Smith, Beuys, Cemin, Lezama, Alys, on aspects of "Primitivism" and on issues in the arts of Europe and the Americas, for periodicals such as Artforum, Parkett, African Arts, Curare, etc., as well as catalogues for museums such as the Guggenheim (New York), MARCO (Monterrey), The Arts Club of Chicago, the Witte de Witt (Rotterdam), the Maasricht Museum, The Contemporary Art Museum of Trento, MoMA,  the Museo de Arte Moderno of Mexico City, the Botin Foundation, Santander, etc.

For extensive periods, over the past thirty years, he has conducted research in Mexico on various aspects of religion, shamanism, ethnic identity, politics, etc., principally among the Maya people, but also in the States of Oaxaca and, especially, Morelos. In Chiapas, he promoted the creation of the Pellizzi Collection of Chiapas Textiles (featured in one whole issue of Artes de Mexico),  now in the process of becoming a permanent Chiapas museum; he also helped in the development and sustenance of the thirty year old native weaving cooperative Sna Jolobil, integrated by up to 700 traditional native weavers. In the same region, since 1971, he has also sponsored the Reserva Biotica “ Gertrudes Duby,” which the Chiapas Congress has declared a “State Reserve”.