Substitute Antonio Di Natale had given Italy a deserved lead on the hour mark.
Spain might have snatched all three points, however, but Fernando Torres spurned a succession of late chances.
The weight of history was stacked against La Roja coming into the tournament.
No European team had ever won three major tournaments in succession, none had ever successfully defended the European Championship title.
Fatigue was another source of concern for Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, whose 23 players had played a total of 89,884 minutes in the past season, some 17,000 more minutes than their Italian opponents.
There was more than a hint of lethargy about Spain in the opening exchanges. They lacked purpose and penetration having opted to play without an obvious centre forward as Fabregas was preferred to Fernando Torres in the starting XI.
Having seen his smile and his form return in the final weeks of the season at Chelsea, this was another setback for Torres on an afternoon he will ultimately want to forget. Silva threatened twice in the early moments, but it was Italy who looked the more composed in the early stages.
Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas was forced to dive low to his right to turn away an Andrea Pirlo free-kick after 13 minutes as Cesare Prandelli's side, led by the tremendous Daniele De Rossi, tackled, battled and denied their more celebrated opponents space.
The Azzuri were equally effective with the ball ensuring Casillas was much the busier goalkeeper as half-time approached.
Antonio Cassano dragged a shot beyond the far post when well-placed but it was two nervy moments from Spain goalkeeper that gave his side most cause for concern.
First, he lost control of a back-pass only to be fouled by Cassano, before he spilled a fierce low shot from Claudio Marchisio as the ball ran to safety.
Marchisio tested Casillas again moments later, thumping a thunderous left-foot volley straight at the goalkeeper.
Spain were only threatening sporadically. Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were constantly probing and just before the interval linked up only for the latter to shoot over having collected his team-mate's looping pass.
It was Italy who finished the half the stronger, however. A piece of trickery wide on the left touchline by Mario Balotelli set in motion another fluid attack. It ended with Casillas sprawling low to his right to turn away Thiago Motta's close-range header after a pin-point cross by Cassano.
The interval did little to disrupt the breakneck pace of play. Fabregas set Iniesta free down the left, only for Buffon to deny him with a fingertip save.
But it was Balotelli who could and perhaps should have broken the deadlock moments later. The Italian striker robbed Sergio Ramos of possession wide on the right before bursting towards goal but he then hesitated long enough to allow the Real Madrid defender back in with the goal apparently as his mercy.
The Manchester City striker was replaced by Di Natale moments later and he was to have an instant impact.
Pirlo skipped beyond Xavi in midfield, before playing a cleverly weighted pass that freed Di Natale down the left of the penalty area, which the Udinese striker calmly stroked beyond the advancing Casillas with his first touch.
Spain's reponse was instant as it was devastating. Three minutes later Iniesta and Silva put Fabregas clear in the penalty area and the Barcelona midfielder struck a low left-foot shot beyond Buffon from 10 yards.
Substitute Jesus Navas picked out Jordi Alba as Spain began to dictate. Torres was brought on to a huge ovation and might have made an instant impact but he fluffed his chance after cleverly beating the offside trap.
Italy were being forced to rely on longer raids now, but they almost stole in again when Di Natale poked narrowly wide.
Spain were pouring forward time and again now. Torres should have won the game for Spain but squandered two easy chances, first running down a blind alley before looping a shot high over Buffon's goal with the net at his mercy. To make matters worse, he was later booked for a rash challenge.
Italy might have snatched victory at the death when Marchisio burst forward, exchanged passes with Di Natale, only to shoot straight at Casillas.