Mirella Levi D'Ancona was born to a Jewish family in Florence, Italy, the daughter of Ezio Levi and his wife Flora Aghib. Her father was a philologist and professor at the University of Naples, who in 1921 adopted the surname of his wife's uncle, writer and politician Alessandro D'Ancona. The family fled Fascist persecution of Jews to the USA in 1940. Mirella became an art historian and art critic, and taught history of modern art at the City University of New York from 1959 to 1986. An expert in the history of miniatures and iconography, she was particularly interested in the symbolism of plants in Italian Renaissance painting. Her books included The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting, Florence (1977), Botticelli's Primavera: A Botanical Interpretation (1983), and The Renaissance Zoo: the Meaning of Animals in Italian Painting from the 14th to the 16th Century (2001).