Past masters of Futurism

As a London gallery shows the best paintings from a landmark collection of mid-20th-century Italian art, Adrian Hamilton glories in their honesty and energy

Lucky old Florence. Having appealed for Italian artists to help it with contemporary works after the devastating floods of 1967, it received a gift of the entire collection of modern Italian masterpieces amassed by the Genoese engineer and industrialist, Alberto della Ragione.

And lucky old us in Britain that we can see a selection of the cream of his collection at the Estorick Collection in London while the della Ragione hoard awaits the construction of its new home.

Della Ragione, who died in 1973, was a hero, both in the humanitarian sense that he protected others during the Mussolini years, and also that he bought, on his own taste, the works of young artists of the time, many of them in difficulties for opposing the Fascist ideals of what good art should be. He had started first, on the advice of dealers, to buy the works of established masters of the previous century when he realised what he really wanted was to buy the contemporary.

"I felt," he said, in a statement that should be read by every collector, "a desire not to pass by the art of my own times with my eyes closed, but to give living artists the legitimate comfort of comprehension... I was asking myself certain questions: is it possible that all those painters and sculptors were mistaken, and that they are risking a difficult life for the sake of an art which, in most people's opinion, has no reason to exist?"

He was, in other words, a collector rather than a connoisseur, gathering in what he liked and felt ought to be encouraged. And it tells. The collection is diverse, personal and consistently pleasurable. It also fits in well with the permanent holdings of the Estorick. Where the American academic and dealer, Eric Estorick (1913-1993) concentrated his purchases on the Futurists and the Italian works of the early part of the century, della Ragione concentrated mainly on the works of his own time, from the Thirties to the Fifties.

Estorick's collection is particularly strong on the art of the still-life painter, Giorgio Morandi, whom he knew, but where Estorick has etchings and drawings, della Ragione has two superb paintings from 1926 and 1937. "Still life" may be technically accurate but it is still the wrong description. Morandi's work breaths life into the pots, candles and shapes – with their rough brushwork, deep browns and sharp whites – on the table.

Morandi is well-known, but della Ragione's interests reached to lesser-known artists. There is a group of formidable paintings by the Sicilian, Renato Guttuso, best known for his illustrations to Elizabeth David's Italian Food. A fierce anti-Fascist, he developed out of Expressionism and the harsh light of his native land to paint landscapes and social commentary. His Scantily-Clad Women is Toulouse-Lautrec interpreted in an almost-German way, the eyes of the central figure facing you with a doleful look as she lifts her slip from behind.

Other paintings are more delicate. Giorgio de Chirico, the great precursor of Surrealism, makes an appearance with a disturbing but rather uplifting oil from 1934, Les Bains Mysterieux, which owes much to the wall paintings of Pompeii. Filippo De Pisis, a man of extravagance and sentiment who, when in Venice, kept two personal gondoliers on 24-hour duty, is all lightness and quickness in the Blue Vase of 1934 and a Landscape with Swan from 1947. Renato Birolli has a formidable Portrait of della Ragione's Mother of 1954.

The collection is a mixture of the figurative, landscapes and the surrealistic, all done with an awareness of the movements going on outside the country but also a very Italian sense of their own past. Even the most cerebral pictures by Fillia, founder of the Turin Futurist group and a leading light of what is called the second generation of Futurists, balances his coolly-organised compositions in the early Thirties with a touch of movement in Aeropainting and Italian Landscape. Enrico Prampololini, a central figure in the first generation of Futurists, sets the surreal against the rough and ready of figure and landscape in a vigorous but disconcerting way in Bioplastic Life and Synthesis of Taormina.

The confusing thing for the general public about modern Italian paintings is the sheer number of movements they were involved in. The radicalism of the Futurists was replaced by the Mussolini-patronised Novecento artists demanding a return to order and realism. Futurism itself morphed into Metaphysical art. The Corrente group, including Renato Guttuso and Renato Birolli, started off as a pro-Fascist movement based around the youth publication of that name and then changed into an anti-Fascist journal which Mussolini tried to suppress.

The paintings stand by themselves. But this multiplicity of movements also says something about Italian art of the first half of the 20th century. As in France, it was closely associated with literature and journalism, expressing itself almost as much in manifestos, declarations and articles as in paint and sculpture. Half the artists in the show wrote frequently and well.

It also reflects the times. Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin all rated art highly and respected their influence, but they also had very clear ideas about what it should do, which was not to take off in the "decadent" and formalistic ways of Modernism. What they wanted was uplifting realism that induced nationalistic pride. Mussolini was perhaps less brutally oppressive than his fellow dictators, but artists had to be careful nonetheless if they were to survive and thrive. Many of them also were themselves reacting against the abstraction and bombast of Futurism and the modern art of the early part of the century. Some at least, including Morandi, started off sympathising with an art that could be more readily understood by the public. Communism, as Fascism, tended to force the doubters back into small groups, dicatorship also – as we know from Shostakovich and Russian music – forced those who did not escape to other lands into a more private and more ironic art.

There are no big statements in the della Ragione collection. The works are small and intimate. Compared to the energy and the emphatic nature of the better-known Modernist art movements in Germany, France and America, Italian art can seem often marginal and rather humble. But seen up close, as they are in this exhibition, the works are wonderfully engaging. Like Italians themselves, they charm and involve you. It's a small show, in two rooms, in Estorick's Georgian house in north London. On display are three dozen works from a collection of more than 240. But each one in its way is entrancing. Go, and enjoy yourself.

From Morandi to Guttuso: Masterpieces from the Alberto della Ragione Collection, Estorick Collection, London N1, to 3 April