Italy (6) 19
Paul Sackey scored England's opening try after just three minutes
Pens: Bortolussi 4
England (20) 23
Tries: Sackey, Flood
Cons: Wilkinson 2
Pens: Wilkinson 3
England laboured to their first Six Nations victory of 2008 but did nothing to answer the critics with a far from impressive display in Rome.
First-half tries from Paul Sackey and Toby Flood gave them a dream start while Jonny Wilkinson added 10 points, passing 1,000 points for his country.
Italy were 20-6 down at the break but David Bortolussi kept them in touch as England faded in the second half.
And Simon Picone's late try set up a tense finish but England held on.
The victory was a far from perfect response to the second half capitulation at Twickenham last week, which led to the defeat against Wales.
Coach Brian Ashton, who had described his side as a 'bunch of angry men' following that loss, had lost a host of players in the build-up to the match in Rome and suffered a further blow with the loss of skipper Phil Vickery because of illness on the day of the game.
Steve Borthwick captained England, with Matt Stevens replacing Vickery and Jason Hobson taking his place on the bench.
And early on, no-one seemed more angry than Wilkinson, who suffered the most in the face of fierce public criticism since the Wales defeat.
England's record points scorer needed just three minutes to show exactly why Ashton kept faith in the Newcastle number 10 as he set up the opening try.
England stole line-out ball, the play eventually found its way to Wilkinson who delicately and delightfully chipped over the flat Italian defence before collecting his own kick and releasing wing Sackey with a superb reverse offload.
Wilkinson sent over the conversion from a tight angle, calming any pre-match nerves on and off the pitch.
Italy's response was swift. Two penalties in quick succession from the boot of Bortolussi, following indiscipline from Stevens and Lesley Vainikolo, got the hosts to within a point.
But Newcastle's trio of Jamie Noon, Wilkinson and Flood all combined to increase England's lead with their second try on 15 minutes.
Noon charged down Bortolussi's kick, Wilkinson offloaded to Flood who had the legs to dive over in the corner for his second try in two games.
The guys were brilliant to a man, we were fantastic
England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson
Wilkinson kicked the conversion to become the first player to pass 1,000 points for England and put his side 14-6 ahead.
He missed an easier penalty a few moments later and after a bright start, England seemed to lose their way.
James Haskell conceded yet another penalty for foul play and England's forwards struggled to set a decent platform for their backs.
But England managed to chip away at Italy's resilient defence and penalties continued to follow, with two more successful kicks for Wilkinson giving England a comfortable 14-point lead at the break.
The second half was scrappy at best with England struggling for ball and conceding penalty after penalty - Bortolussi sending over a further two kicks to give his side hope.
With England stuttering, Ashton tried to freshen up his side with Sale scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, making his Test debut, and Bath hooker Lee Mears entering the fray.
Wilkinson sent over his third penalty but it failed to galvanise England, who were laboured in their attempts to break Italy down.
Simon Picone goes over for Italy to set up late drama
Ball retention was also poor and with 15 minutes remaining, Wasps' youngster Danny Cipriani replaced Wilkinson as Ashton continued to make changes.
With time running out, Italy started to open up and only a superb tap tackle from Noon halted a try-scoring opportunity for Kaine Robertson.
It was one of several fine tackles from the Newcastle centre who was solid in defence throughout and England's best performer behind the scrum.
But there was late drama when Cipriani had his kick charged down by Picone, who collected the ball to score Italy's first try.
Bortolussi sent over the extras to narrow the score to four points with only a couple of minutes remaining.
Italy had late chances to win the game, but poor line-out play - a feature of their game - cost them dear as England held on for a vital victory.
Despite the win, questions will remain about the direction England are heading in after yet another under-par performance from the 2003 world champions.
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Italy: Bortolussi, Robertson, Canale, M. Bergamasco, Galon, Masi, Travagli, Lo Cicero, Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Dellape, Del-Fava, Sole, M. Bergamasco, Parisse.
Replacements: Sgarbi for Canale (63), Marcato for Masi (73), Picone for Travagli (56), Perugini for Lo Cicero (52), Festuccia for Ghiraldini (63), Nieto for Castrogiovanni (60), Zanni for Dellape (73).
England: Balshaw, Sackey, Noon, Flood, Vainikolo, Wilkinson, Gomarsall, Payne, Regan, Stevens, Shaw, Borthwick, Haskell, Lipman, Easter.
Replacements: Cipriani for Wilkinson (67), Wigglesworth for Gomarsall (60), Mears for Regan (59), Kay for Shaw (77), Narraway for Easter (65).
Not Used: Hobson, Tait.
Ref: Alain Rolland (Ireland).