Italian art has its roots in prehistoric times, with cave paintings in Fumane, northern Italy, stretching back 32,000-36,500 years. Prior to their discovery in 2000, the oldest examples of Italian art were the thousands of rock drawings discovered in the Alpine regions of Lombardy. These date from around 8,000 BC.
It's been estimated that Italy is home to almost 70% of the world's historic art and architecture; as a result, it holds the record for the largest number of World Heritage sites. Much of Italy's early art has been lost, but what has been recovered is now housed in museums around the world. Italian influence on the world of art has been substantial, no doubt in part because of two important events - the Roman conquest of the ancient world and the cultural impact of the Renaissance.
This is a brief look at the history of Italian art, beginning in ancient times:
The Etruscan Period - 800BC-100BC
Centuries before Rome conquered the known world, the Etruscans flourished in central Italy in the region now known as Tuscany. Their art survives mainly in the form of bronze figures, terracotta urns and wall frescoes from excavated grave sites. Consequently, the themes are predominantly religious.
Other contemporary cultures such as the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians and various Middle Eastern trading partners all had an influence on Etruscan art. Their exceptional talent for sculpture is evident in the many surviving terracotta and bronze pieces found in Etruscan tombs. By 100BC Etruscan art styles had been absorbed into Roman art.
This short video features some great examples of Etruscan art:
Ancient Rome - 508BC-476AD
The Romans were great modelers. In other words, they acknowledged the accomplishments of other cultures and incorporated what was valuable or useful into their own. This is very evident in Roman art, which borrowed heavily from the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Etruscans and other Italian cultures, and combined them in a creative and unique way. Roman art, in turn, then influenced the surrounding regions and the Empire as a whole.
Roman artists held Greek art in high esteem, and its influence can been seen in all forms of Roman artistic expression, from drawing, painting and sculpture through vase art, mosaics, coin art and jewelry. One major difference between the two cultures was that Greek artists were highly recognized by their countrymen, while Roman artists were predominantly anonymous and rarely signed their work. Consequently, we don't know the names of Rome's best artists. The wealthy citizens who commissioned their art regarded them as simply tradesmen who were hired to beautify their residences.
The popularity of painting on wooden panels at the time meant that few examples of this art form survived. The best surviving examples of Roman art are artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Unfortunately, these cover only a small period in the history of Ancient Rome. Sculptures from the same era fared better, such as Trajan's Column, a historical relief that documents the Roman emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars, and the Ara Pacis (or altar to peace).
The following is a video on Roman art:
This final video shows examples from both ancient Greek and ancient Italian art: