Willett reached a career-high of ninth in the world after claiming his first major title at Augusta National in 2016, but has since plummeted to 462nd after struggling with injuries and a loss of form.
The 30-year-old was forced to withdraw from his scheduled season opener in Abu Dhabi with a shoulder problem and has missed the cut in all but one of nine starts in 2018.
But on a day of low scoring at Gardagolf in Brescia, Willett compiled a bogey-free, six-under-par 65 to lie just two shots off the lead shared by fellow Englishmen Robert Rock and Laurie Canter and South Africa’s Richard Sterne.
“It’s been a while,” Willett said after only his second round in the 60s this season. “We played really well and got the ball in play a lot which you have to do around here.”
Willett teamed up with three of Italy’s Paralympic golfers in the pre-tournament pro-am and added: “It was one of those days that just puts life into perspective when you see what this game does to bring people together.
“We golfers don’t know how lucky we are sometimes and to have the experience I did in the pro-am was one of those days where you step back, realise how fortunate we are.”
Rock was one over par after three holes, but carded nothing worse than a three in the next nine and a total of seven birdies and an eagle in his 63.
“I did well to bogey the second after two terrible tee shots, my provisional was in the water as well, but got on a run after that with all threes and twos for nine holes,” Rock said. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that.”
The 41-year-old, who won the Italian Open in 2011, spends almost as much time coaching other players as working on his own game, but added: “It’s probably a little more difficult when we come to a new venue, but generally I do all right. I was here Monday morning so I could do my work before Matt [Wallace, who shot 65] got here and I spent Tuesday with him.”
Canter, who was a promising junior tennis player who once played Andy Murray, made the most of his late entry into the £5.2 million event with six birdies and an eagle in a flawless 63. “I got a call Sunday night saying you’re into the event, which was a nice bonus,” Canter said. “I was just putting some meat on the barbeque. I was over the moon.
“I was thinking I would travel as a reserve, but obviously to get in Sunday night and prepare Monday through Wednesday I was really, really excited and ready to go today.”
BMW PGA Championship winner Francesco Molinari, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell were among a large group of players on five under.
Richie Ramsay led the Scottish challenge at four under after carding a 67, with Connor Syme, David Drysdale and Marc Warren a further shot back.
Scott Jamieson and Stephen Gallacher finished the day at two under, while Bradley Neil was at two over.