While Italian art of the last two decades has introduced a host of influential names, it has largely failed to produce any truly significant painters - or at least, none afforded the levels of international recognition last achieved in the 1980s by artists such as Sandro Chia, Mimmo Paladino, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi.
For a country so fundamentally rooted in the evolution of Western painting, this omission seems glaring, especially given the medium's widespread resurgence over the last decade.
But for an emerging group of young Italian artists, the possibility of new direction springs from an unlikely source.
The so-called LowBrow tendency that emerged in California in the 1990s has continued to find enthusiastic advocates, despite the condescension with which it's generally viewed by the fine art establishment. Encompassing a raft of alternative approaches to art, from underground zines to tattooing, one of its most intriguing scions is pop surrealism, a darkly gothic fusion of commercial and pop iconography.
Notwithstanding art world antipathy, the scene has produced several successful crossover figures, including Chris Johansen, Shepard Fairey, Clare Rojas, the Clayton Brothers and Paper Rad. In view of its tenacious appeal and high levels of illustrative quality, the term 'Newbrow' is increasingly adopted by practitioners and enthusiasts in preference to the LowBrow label.
And with talk of an Italian NewBrow movement gathering pace, it seems a challenge to erstwhile hierarchies of Italian art may already be underway.
Like many so-called directional shifts, however, claims of a newly emergent hegemony should be approached with caution. For a start, NewBrow's conception as a coherent tendency depends on little more than a handful of PR-savvy pundits and a grouping of artists whose work is proving (in every sense) increasingly popular. The notion has, however, received extensive coverage in the Italian popular press, as well as a dedicated section in the 2009 Prague Biennale.
So what are we to really make of Italy's latest new wave?
It has to be said that few of the artists gathered under the Italian NewBrow banner provide much in the way of apparent complexity or even, perhaps, originality. Yet this is at least partly intentional: NewBrow's emphasis on the accessible is in itself regarded as a challenge to the more rarefied aspects of 'high-brow' art practice.
For opponents of the NewBrow aesthetic in general, it's precisely this disregard for conceptual depth that unflatteringly differentiates the genre from sophisticated production. And although comment on contemporary lifestyle is, in fact, almost always intrinsic to NewBrow output - and, as we shall see, in certain cases as incisive as anything establisment names have produced - for those who prefer their art layered with meaning its many one-liners inevitably fail to satisfy.
Nevertheless, an official art world that readily embraces the likes of Takashi Murakami, Assume Vivid Astro Focus and Yoshitomo Nara could easily be accused of a certain hypocrisy. When does the decorative start to become acceptable, and according to which (and whose) criteria?
The neo-Pop ethos of NewBrow simply claims to depict the world as it has increasingly become: a welter of pop cultural referents which its artists regard with profound unease. The resulting cynical slapstick or darkly brooding angst are all a far cry from the assertions of 1960s pop. And interestingly, there are several ways in which NewBrow's concerns extend and complement existing aspects of Italian art practice.
As part of its quest for mainstream accessibility, NewBrow privileges the academic traditions of figurative art, a demand that accords perfectly with an undoubted strength of Italian painting in general.
Couple this with pop surrealism's gothic sensibilities and predilection for the dysmorphic, grotesque and generally unsettling, and this interest echoes a pervasive note in recent Italian art already seen in the work of Roccasalva, Burremi and Carruba, among others.
However relevant Italy's counter-cultural flourish really turns out to be, its emergence adds yet another strand to the shifting identities of contemporary Italian art.
Wide-eyed doll-girls peer at the viewer, their expression ambivalent. Are they guardians of, or guides to, the half-recognisable worlds they inhabit?
Like several of Italy's NewBrow generation, Silvia Argiolas' painting fuses the unsettling quintessence of U.S. pop surrealism with a distinctly European heritage.
Arcadian landscapes provide an unlikely habitat for martian-faced beings; expressionist traces emerge in loosely rendered, technicolour backdrops laden with symbol.
It's true that there's a certain horror flick conventionality to Argiolas' impassively sinister protagonists, but her painting is far less routine than this central motif might imply. Creepily atmospheric and often genuinely intriguing, increasing interest in her work could see this NewBrow outsider elevated to insider status.
Elena Rappa's NewBrow credentials are just what they ought to be, her work an edgy combination of fantasy with the raw vigour of underground graphics.
Like many U.S. pop surrealists, Rappa constructs an other-world of her own invention, and although childhood provides a central theme, it's a far from sanitised evocation replete with disturbingly grotesque human-animal hybrids and undercurrents of amoral chaos.
At its best, Rappa's painting and drawing reverberates with the kind of fearless energy sometimes missing from more cerebral art practice. At worst, there's little to really differentiate her work from hundreds of other adherents to the pop surrealism ethos.
Like something from the dark underbelly of fairy tales, Vanni Cuoghi's cast of characters metamorphose into half-recognisable entities, suffer dismemberment and torture, or dish out devious punishment.
The storybook analogy is apt in various ways: Cuoghi's large-scale vignettes are offset by plain white backgrounds reminiscent of huge pages; the artist's illustrative style exudes apparent disingenuity.
Cuoghi's characters are prised from a wide range of sources, including common art iconography (Botticelli's Venus, Saint Sebastian); pop cultural standards such as Batman and Robin, and homegrown Italian kitsch in the form of Capo di Monte-style figurines.
All are savagely recontextualised, their positive associations systematically undermined as superheroes lose their superpowers or coy porcelain shepherdesses become lewd temptresses.
Turning expectation on its head, Cuoghi creates a corrupt and corrupting universe: not merely in a moral sense, but at the level of meaning itself.
Unlike many other NewBrow pop practitioners - for whom comment essentially resides in the dissonant juxtaposition of well known iconography - Cuoghi seems to attempt a critique of his materials.
In a climate of endless interreferentiality, meaning becomes mangled to the point of near redundancy. If Cuoghi can still depend on a largely consensual significance for the popular icons he depicts, his own actions undermine this precarious stability. And without a currency of dependable meaning, Pop itself becomes an impossibility, its components as volatile and prone to mutilation as the universe Cuoghi depicts.
Paolo de Biasi's combination of retro imagery with sizzling colour is hardly an unfamiliar approach to pop, but the narrative ambiguity of his paintings and collages is slightly less usual.
His open-ended references invite, yet simultaneously defy a suggestion of meaning - which may, of course, be the intention, although it's also quite possible that these works simply revel in well-executed decoration with a pleasingly graphic edge.
(Born 1977) As is often the case with NewBrow artists, Giuliano Sale's paintings edge exceedingly close to kitsch.
Yet (as every clued-up Newbrow artist also knows) this much-maligned aesthetic exerts a rare and compulsive fascination, and if this essence is properly tapped and directed, the results can be very powerful indeed.
Sale's work falls squarely into such a category. His dramatic effects - inexplicably isolated figures; brooding gothic skies; a hint of hypertrophy in his often Amazonian protagonists - lead us exactly where intended, while also adding up to something far more enigmatic than the sum of their parts.
Sale's work may lack intellectual undertow, but his eerily unsettling portraits pack a surprisingly visceral punch.
Giuseppe Veneziano's systematic trashing of trash-culture makes no pretence at subtlety, either in terms of its paint-by-numbers style or crude iconoclasm.
Animation and comic book stalwarts - Veneziano has a particular fascination for Spiderman - cavort indecently with historical dictators such as Hitler and Stalin (Berlusconi, too, rather tellingly makes an appearance). Art historical references from Goya to Koons are numerous but glib: a classical Madonna bearing a mini-Hitler in her arms predictably caused a minor scandal when exhibited.
It would be easy, of course, to write off Veneziano's work as banal sensationalism, but it's likely that this is exactly what he's attempting to convey. His world, after all, consists of nothing more than an abject array of pop culture informed by sordid thrills and zero subtlety. A world, in short, that looks very like aspects of our own.
It's a reading that's perfectly in tune with NewBrow's often cynical, paradox-laden assimilation of mainstream iconography, and accords with Vanni Cuoghi's vision (above) in which pop's very nature systematically undermines its own valency.
In their own way, both artists support Roberto Cuoghi's more esoteric assertions regarding the erosion of meaning and identity.