The inaugural award will go to director Bernardo Bertolucci, of Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor fame.
President Gilles Jacob said the quality of the Italian's work made him "the first legitimate recipient".
The award has previously been presented on an ad hoc basis to directors such as Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood.
Festival organisers said the award would go each year to "an important film-maker whose work is authoritative" but who had never won Cannes' top award, the Palme d'Or.
Bertolucci, they continued, had directed "intimate Italian cinema masterpieces as monumental frescoes".
"His political and social involvement, driven by a profound lyricism and an elegant and accurate direction, gives his films a unique place in the history of world cinema," the statement went on.
The 71-year-old's films - which include The Conformist, The Sheltering Sky and Before the Revolution - are currently being celebrated at the BFI Southbank in London.
Mr Jacob praised the "uniqueness" of Bertolucci's films and "the strength of his commitment to cinema".
This year's festival will begin on 11 May with a screening of Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris.
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