Italy has always had a tremendous influence on art and artists. Even today we see Italy at the forefront of many artists' endeavors, such as ready-to-wear fashions, cars, architecture, etc.
European art is inundated with Italian influence. In fact, some of the first art schools were started in ancient Italy during the Dark Ages. This is not to say incredible art was not happening anywhere else in the world, but that the Italians wanted to make art a learning experience like math, Latin, horseshoeing, etc.
Italian art starts with ancient Rome. Originally, not too artistic in their own right as they were too busy conquering weaker civilizations, Italians borrowed heavily on the artistic talents of the people they conquered, most notably the Greeks. But while Grecian art idealized the figure, Romans were more apt to present the realistic view of the person: wrinkles, rolls, and all.
Alas, the glory of what was Rome was not meant to last. The Visigoths conquered them, and all Christendom was plunged into a desolate time known as the Dark Ages. The Byzantine Empire carried on the Roman influence in culture as well as in art.
Even during these dark times, inspiration came from time to time, such as advancements in architecture. These were named "Gothic" by a disgusted Italian!
When is seemed that the light of inspiration was lost forever, in came the Renaissance. Suddenly, advancements were made in every avenue: mathematics, geometry, art, and science. Italy shined brightly during this time. Names, to this day, are easily recognizable from this period: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, etc.
As the Renaissance spread, so did artistic genius. Italy wasn't the only place to find artistic giants as the years passed. Although the country remained a special place for artistic training, Italy had trouble producing new and tremendous talent. You might say they went through an artistic "dry spell." But there were a few who made a name for themselves.
American art would not be what it is today with out the influence of Italy and its art. Though materials and tools change, we can still make out influences from our Italian legacy.