Italy (6) 11
Try: McLean Pens: Bergamasco 2
Ireland (3) 13
Try: O'Driscoll Con: Sexton Pen: Sexton Drop-goal: O'Gara
Extended highlights - Italy 11-13 Ireland
Ronan O'Gara's late drop-goal spared Ireland's blushes as Italy were denied a sensational first ever RBS Six Nations victory over the Irish.
Ireland produced an error-ridden first half against the lively Italians as two Mirco Bergamasco penalties helped the home side to a 6-3 interval lead.
Brian O'Driscoll's try helped Ireland move 10-6 ahead but Luke McLean's 75th-minute reply gave Italy a shock lead.
But O'Gara's drop-goal two minutes later rescued the relieved Irish.
On this evidence, Ireland will have it all to do against France in Dublin next Sunday while the Italians will hope to produce another vigorous display against England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Italy's early enterprise yielded a successful penalty for Bergamasco in the seventh minute after Sean O'Brien had been penalised for not releasing.
Sergio Parisse had already shown his line-out prowess in the opening exchanges with Keith Earls needing to move smartly to prevent Bergamasco chasing down a clever diagonal kick from Kris Burton.
When Ireland did attempt to put phases together in the opening 15 minutes, their efforts were undone by a series of unforced errors which included a wild pass into touch by O'Driscoll.
If Declan Kidney had sent his team out with a game plan, it wasn't obvious in the opening 20 minutes as they appeared surprised by the Italians' aggression.
By that stage, Italy had lost Six Nations debutant scrum-half Edoardo Gori to a dislocated shoulder with Pablo Canavosio coming on.
After the 20-minute mark, Ireland finally began to show attacking intent as O'Brien's break set up a charging Luke Fitzgerald before Jonathan Sexton was dispossessed by Alberto Sgarbi inches short of the Italian line.
O'Driscoll attempted to lead from the front as he charged deep into the Italian 22 a minute later before McLean produced a try-saving tackle.
The Irish appeared to have numbers out wide again in the 25th minute but the chance was wasted by Gordon D'Arcy's knock-on.
Sexton's successful 28th-minute penalty meant the Irish didn't come away empty-handed from their period of dominance but it still represented a limited return.
Play became increasingly scrappy before the break but Italy ended the half on a high as Bergamasco slotted his second penalty of the day in added time.
Declan Kidney is noted for his quietly-spoken nature but he may have felt the need to pump up the volume in his half-time team talk.
In the event, Ireland showed immediate purpose after the break as Paul O'Connell won possession from the restart which enabled the visitors to drive into the Italian 22.
Luke Fitzgerald is pursued by Quintin Geldenhuys in Rome
A series of thrusts was eventually rewarded by O'Driscoll's close-range finish in the 44th minute as he borrowed his way over the line after brushing off Martin Castrogiovanni's weak tackle.
Sexton added the conversion to extend Ireland's lead to 10-6.
The Irish wasted chances to put the game out of Italy's reach as another wild O'Driscoll pass failed to find debutant Fergus McFadden and then D'Arcy, yet again, spilled possession just short of the try-line.
But many of the Irish mistakes were being forced by superb Italian defence which was a credit to their South African coach Nick Mallett.
Irish nerves were stretched in the 66th minute as the Italians suddenly stormed into the visitors' 22 and rolled a maul to within three metres of the line.
The Irish escaped on that occasion but they were in trouble seven minutes from time when Denis Leamy was sin-binned for an offside infringement.
Italy's first ever Six Nations win over Ireland then looked in the making when McLean ran in a try in the corner with five minutes of normal time left.
Crucially, Bergamasco missed the conversion so an O'Gara drop-goal was going to be enough for Ireland to snatch victory.
By that stage, the veteran Munster fly-half had replaced Sexton and, once again, he came to Ireland's rescue as he took his chance with three minutes left.
McLean tried to reply in kind with a late long-range effort but it fell into the hands of a mightily relieved Fitzgerald in the final act of the match.
Italy: McLean, Masi, Canale, Sgarbi, Mirco Bergamasco, Burton, Gori; Perugini, Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Dellape, Geldenhuys, Sole, Zanni, Parisse (capt)
Replacements: Garcia for Canale 69, Orquera for Burton 72, Canavosio for Gori 11, Lo Cicero for Perugini 64, Ongaro for Ghiraldini 64, Del Fava for Dellape 55, Bernabo for Sole 51.
Ireland: Fitzgerald, McFadden, O'Driscoll (capt), D'Arcy, Earls, Sexton, O'Leary; Healy, Best, Ross, O'Callaghan, O'Connell, Leamy, D Wallace, O'Brien
Replacements: P Wallace for D'Arcy 77, O'Gara for Sexton 66, Reddan for O'Leary 64, Court for Healy 77, Cronin for Best 77, Cullen for O'Connell 74.
Not Used: Jennings.
Referee: Romain Poite (FRA)