Zeffirelli was the last of a generation of Italian film giants, including Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica, who came of age after World War Two.
Famed for his opulent lyrical productions on the world's major stages as well as for films, Zeffirelli directed more than two dozen movies and worked with stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Faye Dunaway and Jon Voight.
"Franco Zeffirelli, one of the world's greatest men of culture, passed away this morning," Dario Nardella, the mayor of Zeffirelli's home city of Florence, announced on Twitter.
"Goodbye dear Maestro, Florence will never forget you."
Additional reporting by Associated Press