Sitting here in the Frankfurt Airport, on my way, I’m not going to rehash the Ghiberti-Brunelleschi feud, so let’s stick to the twentieth century:
Painter/artist: There is Morandi, Lucio Fontana, and the Arte Povera group, all of whom remain underrated. The Futurists are dated, but early de Chirico hits the spot. This category is strong. For sculptors throw in Manzu, Burri, Merz, Marini, and many others.
Composer: Puccini I’ve never loved. Scelsi is an acquired taste but for me his drones hold up. Busoni bores me once you get past the Bach transcriptions. I’ll opt for Berio, most of all the songs, Sinfonia, and Points on the Curve to Find, all excellent and surprisingly accessible.
Pianist: Maurizio Pollini started steely and evolved to poetic; try his Stravinsky/Webern disc, and his Chopin Nocturnes. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli is pure rippling glitter, try his Ravel/Rachmaninoff disc.
Conductor: Only rarely is Toscanini’s stuttering whiplash listenable, try his Tchaikovsky #1 with his then son-in-law Vladimir Horowitz. Abbado wins this category, his Beethoven symphonies are the best available.
Maria Callas performance: I am torn between Norma and Barber of Seville, the latter with Tito Gobbi, another notable Italian.
Author: Baron in the Trees and Invisible Cities are my favorite Italo Calvino. When I courted Natasha, she was impressed that I had a working knowledge of The Cloven Viscount at my disposal. Alberto Moravia has compelling psychological portraits, Eco’s The Name of the Rose is fun.
Playwright: Pirandello and Dario Fo.
Film: Most of neo-realist cinema bores me. I do admire Umberto D, most of Pasolini (Arabian Nights as my favorite), and I’ll pick Visconti’s The Leopard as my favorite, with Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns a close second. Satyricon is my favorite Fellini, but otherwise he leaves me cold. Sadly Italian cinema has been getting worse for thirty years.
The bottom line: The twentieth century brought a remarkable cultural renaissance in Italy. This is not as widely recognized as it ought to be.