"A New Romanticism, Sixteen Artists From Italy," at the Hirshhorn, is one of the best and most seductive shows of new painting to come out of Europe since World War II. So far as Italy is concerned, it is the best.

The claim isn't as sweeping as it sounds. Since the New York School preempted the field back in the 1940s, American art has hogged the world spotlight, partly out of a lapse of creative energy in Europe following World War II, and partly out of a myopic worship there (now defunct) of all things American, from blue jeans to minimal art. That art, by the way, was far more admired and collected in Europe than it ever was here.

Over the past five years, that situation has changed dramatically. Energy has been zapping back and forth across the Atlantic in both directions, helped by the communications revolution, low-cost air fares and imaginative and influential exhibitions of new art abroad. While we weren't looking, powerful new creative forces welled up in Europe, especially among Neo-Expressionist painters in Germany, and took the American art world by storm.

A few Italian painters -- notably Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucci and Mimmo Paladino -- were also swept in with the German tidal wave, and gigantic, primal canvases by each of them fill the first two galleries of the Hirshhorn show. But curator Howard Fox has gone well beyond these big names (unjustifiably big, except for Chia) to unearth the rich and untapped vein of highly original and little-known work by avant-garde painters all over Italy. Among them, Fox found no single style, but he has discerned a common thread -- a shared sensibility -- which he calls "a new Romanticism."

"Like the Romantics of the past," says Fox, "many Italian artists have chosen to depict exalted realms -- imaginary places where myths, allegories and dreams predominate. This Romantic strain constitutes Italy's foremost contribution to the contemporary avant-garde." It is also beautifully crafted, rich in allusion and intellectual content, and is thus immensely refreshing in the context of the imitative, angst-ridden figurative painting revival now under way worldwide.

The spectrum of styles in the show is broad, and the 46 paintings by 16 artists range from the primal, throbbing brushwork of Chia's purely carnal rendition of a life force in "Aroused Shepherd Boy" to the idealized calm precision of Carlo Bertocci's Neo-Classical idyll in which two nude young men with ivory skin communicate by way of a rainbow that spans a vast, airless dreamscape.

But different as they are, even these two extreme camps -- expressionist and neoclassical -- have important things in common, including a Post-Modern disdain for doctrinaire Modernist ideologies. Chia, Cucci and Paladino (known as the transavanguardia) cross over and borrow whatever they like from various avant-garde modes, and echoes of Chagall, Picasso, Gauguin resonate in their work. The more classical group (known as anacronisti), which includes Stefano di Stasio, Paola Gandolfi and Carlo Maria Mariani, reaches back considerably farther into the styles and iconography of Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical Italian painting.

They also make the same central point: that while most art since Modernism has set out to destroy the past in hot pursuit of the new, this art embraces the past and restates it in the contemporary vernacular, much like Post-Modern architecture. It's a daring thing to do these days.

No longer interested in the purely formal questions of the relationship of paint to canvas, these artists are pursuing the larger questions of man's relationship to life, to nature, to art and to the supernatural. The whole show is about raising questions, not providing answers.

Stefano di Stasio, for example, makes paintings that look like 17th-century Baroque Italian altarpieces, except that rather than preaching church doctrine, they question man's relationship not only with Christianity but with faith in general. In his "Crossroads," a painting that could symbolize the whole show, the figure of the artist (a self- portrait) heads in one direction in pursuit of truth and knowledge (carrying a lamp symbolic of that search), while St. John, St. Peter and Christ move off in an distinctly different direction. He notices them, but does not change his course.

Man's relationship to nature preoccupies several other artists, none of them more enchanting than Marco Antonio Tanganelli, whose huge crosshatched crayon drawing titled "Arcanarca" (rough translation: obscure ark) portrays a peaceable kingdom of paired animals -- including everything from polar bears and rabbits to unicorns and smiling goats -- apparently all lined up to board Noah's ark, though it is nowhere to be seen.

The animals seem to exist in a state of bliss and have no fear, even of a two-headed devil and a lion nearby, as they chat amiably, the epitome of nobility and civilized behavior. The scene is redolent of an Edenic state, untouched by man, and there is the distinct suggestion that animals exist in the higher state of being. That notion is made specific in another strange painting titled "Disdainful," in which a man and a woman -- presumably lovers -- are shown to be the unhappiest animals in Tanganelli's bestiary.

There are several landscapes that imply man's dominance over -- or submission to -- nature by the simple device of relative size. But more interesting is Ubaldo Bartolini, who conjures up an idealized myth of nature in dreamlike paintings based not upon nature, but on earlier landscapes by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. Intended or not, they also have in them a good deal of the Romantic, visionary spirit of 19th-century American landscapes.

Other painters here also make art about art, but the best of them is Mick Jagger's favorite, the mesmerizing Carlo Maria Mariani, who sees the artist as the true creator, and makes highly rational paintings (they look like Roman statues come to life) about wholly irrational subjects, such as "Left Handed Painter," in which an artist literally paints a baby into existence. Some of these works remain conundrums that we can only puzzle out and ponder, but how sweet it is to have something to ponder for a change.

In all the works by these artists who plumb the distant past -- and who make up the far more interesting second half of this show -- there is an implicit yearning for continuity, for artistic roots, and surely there is no more fertile soil for such excavations in the world. Fox makes an interesting point about the inevitable logic of this art turning up where it has in his superb catalogue essay: "In American culture, history tends to be read linearly . . . one thing after another. In Italy, history is read vertically: one thing upon another upon another. Indeed, the cities have literally been built that way since prehistory, and every place and every event that exists in the present is physically and perceptually situated in the setting of the past."

Harking back to the past is nothing new in Italy: the Romans harked back to the Greeks, the Renaissance to the Romans, the Neo-Classical painters to both. This time, they have abandoned Modernist rules and set out on a dreamlike journey through the present by way of the past. The results are fresh and new, and uniquely Italian.

All of these painters are not equally good; there are, in fact, a few real clinkers -- notably one who works like an overly ambitious finger-painter. But the fabric of the show is strong enough to support them all, and the installation allows an ongoing dialogue that sustains interest throughout.

It should be noted that these artists have never been shown together before even in Italy, partly because of their opposing political views, and partly because no critic has made the connection between them. Former Hirshhorn curator Howard Fox, now contemporary curator of the Los Angeles County Museum, has cut through this artificial and largely irrelevant division to find the common impulse. In the process, he has also catapulted contemporary Italian painting back to center stage, where it now again belongs. The show will continue through Jan. 5 and will then travel to the Akron Art Museum in Ohio.