Born in 1901 in Rovereto, Italy, Melotti first studied mathematics and physics before graduating with a doctorate in electro-technical engineering in 1920. Soon after, he became interested in art and architecture. In 1928, Melotti settled in Milan to take classes at the Brera Academy which specialized in sculpture.
Melotti had his first exhibition at the Galleria del Milione in Milan in 1935. Rejecting the traditional sculptural emphasis on volume and form, these sculptures were abstract works in white plaster or thin metal. They are de-materialized, penetrable sculptures that incorporate the empty space that passes through them. Emphatically geometric and rhythmically balanced, these works fuse Melotti's love for mathematics and music. They have rigorous geometric proportions based on the golden section of base/height ratio and harmoniously combine straight lines and curves with concave and convex forms to create a sense of musical "counterpoint." Counterpoint refers to compositions that harmoniously combine multiple melodies. In their relation to music, Melotti's early sculptures represent a pioneering, new genre of modern sculpture.
In 1936, Melotti created twelve, seven-foot tall plaster mannequins of a man, entitled Costante Uomo (Constant Man) (Second Room, Front), which were first displayed at the Sixth Triennale of Milan. Beautiful yet vague, this representation of Man captures the enigmatic nature of existence. While the towering white simplicity of this work seems blank and unanimous, it is also simultaneously personalized by the mark of the hand on the chest. The figurative and mysterious nature of this work starkly contrasts with his conceptual abstract work of the previous year.
During much of World War II, Melotti lived in Rome. He returned to Milan in 1943 to find that bombs had destroyed his studio. The traumatic experience of the war dramatically altered his artistic outlook, subordinating his love for pure, geometrical abstraction to his need for personal expression. In 1943, he installed a muffle kiln in 1943 in his studio in Milan and began making figurative ceramics and small terra-cotta figurines. Melotti made his first Teatrini, Solo coi cerchi (Alone with Circles), in 1944. These Teatrini represent miniature "theaters," small and condensed worlds that use abstract and figurative elements to convey narratives. They are open-front boxes that contain tiny figures and decorative elements that subtly suggest a story. As one endeavors to understand the narrative, the viewer's imagination brings a miniature performance to life. Even when Melotti allusively titled these works, however, they retain a sense of ambiguity and still challenge the viewer to construct the drama.
In the late 1950s, Melotti began adding delicate metal motifs to his Teatrini, which soon evolved into separate, free-standing sculptures. In dramatic contrast to the narrative work he was simultaneously making with heavy ceramic, Melotti made these sculptures out of minimal fragile strokes. Since they were made of shiny metal, usually brass and stainless steel, these sculptures create a dramatic interplay of light and shadow which seems to dance in highly rhythmical movements.Although they share the profound harmony of his 1930s abstract sculptures, these works also add identifiable figurative motifs to the vocabulary of abstract forms. These whimsical figurative elements create a narrative and infuse the works with a sense of joy. He has brought the mysterious and wonderful tales of the Teatrini into his delicate metal sculptures, fusing his love for geometric and musical harmony with his penchant for enchanting story-telling.