Francesco Clemente, the only son of Judge Marchese Lorenzo Clemente di San Luca and his wife, Bianca Quarto, was born into a conservative family in Naples on March 23, 1952. He attended a high school for the humanities, and focussed on Latin, Greek, and Italian literature, along with classic and modern philosophic themes. After graduating in 1970, he began studying architecture in Rome that same year. There, in the following year, the Galleria Valle Giulia featured his conceptual collages with photographs in a solo show, even though he had never formally studied art.
As a child, Clemente had traveled a great deal with his parents. In 1973 he and his mentor, Alighiero Boetti, went to Afghanistan. Later, Clemente began traveling regularly to India, where he set up a studio in Madras in 1978. He studied Hinduism, worked with handmade paper, paints, and the fabrics of South India, and also employed local artists as his assistants. His watercolors, pastels, monotypes, and prints feature abstract symbols, hieroglyphics, and body-oriented motifs on the themes of sexuality and death. Along with Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola de Maria, and Mimmo Paladino, Clemente is one of the representatives of what Achille Bonita Oliva called the Transavanguardia.
An important theme in Clemente's art remains the observation of the self, in the process of which he always maintains a spatial and psychological distance to his body and the bodies of those he depicts. He is interested in the transitions from one person to the next, and the way that a mood can suddenly change to its exact opposite. His interest in sixteenth-century classic Italian painting led him to begin painting frescoes in 1980. He also began making miniatures and mosaics. Clemente finds his themes in art history, the cinema, and television, and he has always had a love for literature. He has participated in the Venice Biennials of 1980, 1988, 1993, and 1997. In 1980, Bischofberger bought Clemente's Autoritratto come un giardino (Self-Portrait as a Garden), from the Basel Kunsthalle exhibition, 7 Junge Künstler aus Italien (7 Young Italian Artists). That same year, the artist had his first show in New York, and began working there more and more, so that he finally acquired a studio there in 1981. In 1983 he and his family moved to New York. Clemente, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat began working on the Collaborations in 1984. He has also collaborated several times with writers Allan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Robert Creeley, John Wieners, and others.