Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, whose real name was Francesca Lucchi, was born in Florence to a prosperous family. Financial hardship following her father's death led her to a career as an actress. In the early 1830s she became the second wife of the actor, Giuseppe Salvini, (and the stepmother of the much more famous actor Tommaso Salvini). However, her marriage was an unhappy one, as was her relationship with her stepchildren. Following her desertion of the family in 1842, Giuseppe Salvini obtained a separation on the grounds of infidelity. He died two years later. While married to Salvini, she studied singing and made her operatic debut in 1839 at the Teatro Apollo in Venice as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia.
Salvini-Donatelli went on to a major career in Italy singing primarily at La Fenice and the Teatro Regio di Parma, where in 1850 a sonnet in her honour, written by the city's epigramist, Artaserse Folli, was distributed to the audience. She also performed at La Scala, the Teatro Regio di Torino, the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro Grande di Trieste and several other Italian theatres. Outside Italy, she sang in Paris, Barcelona, Vienna (where she made her debut in 1843 as Abigaille in Nabucco conducted by Verdi himself), and London (where she made her debut in 1858 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane as Leonora in Il trovatore). Although she is primarily remembered for creating the role of Violetta in La traviata, she created four other roles in now forgotten operas: Editta in Giovanni Pacini's Allan Cameron (18 March 1848, La Fenice); Elmina in Salvatore Sarmiento's Elmina (8 February 1851, Teatro Regio di Parma); Clemenza in Gualtiero Sanelli's Il fornaretto (24 March 1851, Teatro Regio di Parma); and Donna Eleonora in Carlo Ercole Bosoni's La prigioniera (16 January 1853, La Fenice).
She was generally thought to have retired from the stage in 1860. However, she is reported as singing at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1877. Fanny Salvini-Donatelli died in Milan in June 1891.