Italy (Italian: Italia) is a country in Southern Europe. Together with Greece, it is acknowledged as the birthplace of Western culture. Not surprisingly, it is also home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. High art and monuments are to be found everywhere around the country.
It is also famous worldwide for its delicious cuisine, its trendy fashion industry, luxury sports cars and motorcycles, diverse regional cultures and dialects, as well as for its beautiful coast, alpine lakes and mountain ranges (the Alps and Apennines). No wonder it is often nicknamed the Bel Paese (the Beautiful Country).
Italy in its region.svg
Flag of Italy.svg
Government Parliamentary Republic
Currency Euro (€)
Area total: 301,340km²
Population 59,433,744 (2011 census)
Language Italian (official); minor German, French and Slovene-speaking communities
Religion predominately Roman Catholic with mature Protestant and Jewish communities and a growing Muslim immigrant community
Electricity 230V, 50Hz (European or Italian plug)
Country code +39
Internet TLD .it
Time Zone UTC+1
Emergencies dial 112
Two independent mini-states are surrounded entirely by Italy: San Marino and Vatican City. While technically not part of the European Union, both of these states are also part of the Schengen Area and the European Monetary Union (EMU). Apart from different police uniforms, there is no evident transition from these states and Italy’s territory, and the currency is the same. Italian is also the official language in both countries.
Italy is, for the most part, a peninsula situated on the Mediterranean Sea, bordering France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia in the north. Italy, which is boot-shaped, is surrounded by the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian Seas to the west, the Mediterranean and Ionian Seas to the South, and the Adriatic Sea to the East.
Italian is the official language spoken by the majority of the population, but as you travel throughout the country you will find that there are several distinct Italian dialects depending on the region you’re in. French is spoken in the northwest and German in the northeast. Italy has a very diverse landscape, but can be primarily described as mountainous, including the Alps and the Apennines mountain ranges that run through the vast majority of it. Two major islands are part of this country: Sardinia, which is an island off the west coast of Italy, and Sicily, at the southern tip (the “toe”) of the boot.
While abroad somewhat preserving the reputation as a fiercely catholic society, the Italian religious reality is actually rather diverse. If churches are a ubiquitous sight in large cities as in tiny small towns, the actual practice and mass attendance among believers is in line with that of other European countries: older generations being more observant while younger ones more on the indifferent side. All possible Christian denominations – and a sizeable Jewish community – have made Italy their home for centuries. Moreover, in recent decades Islam and Buddhism have also become increasingly visible, partly as a consequence of mass immigration from North Africa and Asia, but also due to sporadic conversions among Italians. Agnosticism or downright atheism have also become common, according to the latest census, accounting for nearly 20% of the population.
The Pantheon, a huge Roman temple, which is a symbol of the Roman civilization in Italy.
Certainly, humans inhabited the Italian peninsula for at least 200,000 years; Neolithic civilisations flourished in prehistoric Italy but were either wiped out, or assimilated, around 2000 BC by a group of Indo-European tribes, which are collectively known as the Italic peoples. These were more or less closely related to each other and comprised tribes such as the Latins, Etruscans, Umbrians, Samnites, Sicels, Ligures, Oscans, just to name a few. The Etruscan civilisation was among the first to rise in the 6th century BC and lasted until the late Republican period; it flourished in what are now northern Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Greek colonies were established in Sicily and the southern part of Italy: the Etruscan culture rapidly became influenced by that of Greece. This is well illustrated at some excellent Etruscan museums; Etruscan burial sites are also well worth visiting. Rome itself was dominated by Etruscan kings until 509 BC, when the last of them – Tarquinius Superbus – was ousted from power and the Roman Republic was founded. After a series of wars, the Romans sacked the nearby Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BC; this triggered the collapse of the Etruscan confederation and the Etruscan people themselves began to be assimilated.
The Celts settled in what is now Northern Italy, where their civilisation flourished, in the 1st millennium BC and began expanding further south; they made the mistake of sacking Rome in 390 BC and the Romans, hell-bent on revenge, waged wars against them until they were conquered and their people assimilated.
Ancient Rome was at first a small village founded around the 8th century BC. In time, its primitive kingdom grew into a republic – which would later evolve into an empire – covering the whole Mediterranean and expanding as far north as Scotland and as far east as Mesopotamia and Arabia. Its steady decline began in the 2nd century AD, and the empire finally broke into two parts in 285 AD: the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire in the East. The western part came under attack from various Germanic tribes; Visigoths sacked Rome in 410AD and their Vandal fellows would follow in 455AD. The Western Roman Empire finally collapsed in 476 AD, and the barbarian chiefs divided the Italian peninsula among themselves; after this, Italy plunged into the so-called Dark Ages.
Following a lengthy, and bloody, reconquest by the Byzantines (the so-called “Gothic Wars”), much of Italy was controlled by the Eastern Roman Empire. Needless to say, this wouldn’t last long – as a Germanic tribe, the Lombards, invaded Italy once more in 572; hence the present-day northern region of Lombardy. Like their predecessors, they divided the land among themselves; however, due to their numerical inferiority, they were eventually assimilated by the native populace. Only parts of southern Italy – which were under Byzantine control – and what would later become the Papal States (that is, Rome and the surrounding region, which were under the authority of the Pope) survived as relatively independent entities: indeed, the Church was so independent that it saw fit to call other barbarians, the Franks, in order to get rid of their (now almost-completely romanised) violent, unstable, nosy Lombard neighbours. These were defeated in 774 by the aforementioned Franks and subsequently lost their kingdom.
Meanwhile, the Veneto was being devastated by the barbarians: a part of its inhabitants thought they’d been safe on the islands in the Venetian lagoon and thus founded a city there: Venice was born. The first evidence of what would become the Italian language dates back to this century and more precisely to 960.
Sicily remained in Byzantine hands until the late 8th century, when it was conquered by the Arabs whose reign, however, was short-lived: in 1092 the Normans – after having kicked out the Byzantines from the rest of Southern Italy – proceeded to invade Sicily. They created the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples (which would later become the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, as a result of the unification of these two realms in 1442, and had its capital in Naples).
In the north, Italy was a collection of small, independent city-states and kingdoms which were under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. However, they revolted against the then-Emperor – Frederick Barbarossa – in 1176 and beat the Imperial army at Legnano, thus gaining their independence. The so-called repubbliche marinare (maritime republics) of Genoa, Venice, Pisa and Amalfi remained relativey authonomous and competed against each other for the control of the seas and for that of the lucrative trade routes with the Far East. This was also the era of the comuni, independent city-states which were governed by what must have been a close approximation of democracy (that is, they were what we’d call today a “oligarchies” in which the most powerful, or prestigious, families in town were called to cooperate – at least nominally – for the “public good”). Meanwhile, the Hohenstaufens ruled the south and, under Frederick II – who was a patron of the art – gave birth to a rich culture.
From the 13th century onwards, Florence became the main cultural hotspot of the peninsula: not only it was home to poets such as Dante Alighieri and Petrarch but hosted also writers of the calibre of Boccaccio. Indeed, their works formed the basis of a standard form of the Italian language (which is itself a mixture of Florentine grammar and Roman pronunciation). People looked to strong men who could bring order to the cities and this is how dynasties such as the Medici in Florence developed. In turn, these families became patrons of the arts, allowing Italy to become the birthplace of the Renaissance, with the emergence of men of genius such as Leonardo da Vinci, Bramante, Tiziano, Raffaello, Michelangelo and many others. After the heir of Frederick II was killed in battle in 1268, the French ruled the south; they were however expelled from Sicily in 1282 after a popular uprising, the vespri siciliani, during which thousands of Frenchmen were slain (opera buffs will certainly recognise one of their favourite operas!).
In the late 14th and 15th centuries, Italy was home to some of the richest states in Europe; however, they were often at war with each other and only the diplomatic skills of Lorenzo il Magnifico prevented the many petty kingdoms from warring each other. Predictably, when Lorenzo died in 1492, the Italian states plunged into chaos; the King of France took advantage of the situation, crossed the Alps and reclaimed the Kingdom of Naples for himself. He succeeded, but was forced to return to France. Only then did the Italian majors realise the danger, but it was too late: after a futile victory at the battle of Fornovo, in 1495, the peninsula came to the attention of its European neighbours and suffered a series of invasions from the French and the Spanish. The north eventually became dominated by the Austrians.
The discovery of the New World damaged the already declining Italian economies and most of Italy’s states came under foreign domination: and despite the artistic, architectonic and literary developments, life in post-Reinassance Italy became pretty miserable. The Counter-Reformation, while it did succeed in restraining most of the clergy’s “earthly” excesses, further plunged the peninsula into a not-so-happy era. This situation, further aggravated by the Italian Wars of 1494-59 (during which Rome itself was sacked by the German mercenaries of Emperor Charles V) became even worse in the 17th centuries, when the foreign powers fought each other in a series of mostly useless wars over the dynastic rights on the Italian states. The 18th century, while (relatively) more peaceful than the one that preceded it, was, culturally speaking, not-so-grand; on top of that, the Austrians ruled the North with an iron fist and the once-prosperous South had the misfortune of being governed by a particularly backward and obscurantist ruling class.
The birth of modern Italy
Eventually, the French revolution was “exported” to Italy and revolutionary movements popped up almost everywhere. These ideals had a lasting impact on the future of the peninsula (the Italian flag dates from 1797); a Partenopean (Neapolitan) Republic was proclaimed in 1799 but was crushed by the royalists supported by the British fleet commanded by Horatio Nelson. The advent of Napoleon Bonaparte and the adoption of the Napoleonic Code set the basis for the Risorgimento, or “Resurgence”, of Italy: after the Restoration – particularly after the Revolutions of 1848 – the notion of an Italian nation-state became popular; in 1849, the people of Rome, Milan and Venice rebelled against their oppressors but were soon crushed (the current Italian national anthem was composed in this period).
In that same year (1849), the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont – ruled by the House of Savoy – became the fulcrum of the movement that advocated the unification of Italy. A disastrous war against the Austrians did not stop the cunning Piedmontese Prime Minister, Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, and King Victor Emmanuel II from becoming the people behind the unification process. With the help France, and after the first two Wars of Italian Independence (which ended in 1859), Austria was finally defeated: Lombardy was ceded to Piedmont-Sardinia. At roughly the same time (1860), Giuseppe Garibaldi led an expedition in order to annex the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (the so-called Spedizione dei Mille or “Expedition of the Thousand”); his volunteer army, the Redshirts, landed in Sicily, defeated the enemy troops despite being outnumbered 20:1, conquered the island and set forth to invade the rest of the Kingdom. Once this process was complete, the people of the Grand-Duchy of Tuscany – which was ruled by a cadet branch of the Hapsburg dynasty -, Umbria and the Pontifical Legations (provinces) of Emilia and Romagna – which belonged to the Pope – revolted and requested the annexation to Piedmont-Sardinia, a request that was duly granted.
The Parliament of Piedmont-Sardinia was then called to a meeting by Victor Emanuel II and the Kingdom of Italy was finally proclaimed on 17 March 1861. Turin was chosen as the capital of the newly formed state, but was moved to Florence in 1865. Why not Rome? The city was still home to the Papal States, which were under the protection of that same French emperor – Napoleon III – who helped establish the Kingdom of Italy. In 1866, Victor Emmanuel II managed to annex Venice after the Third War of Independence. On 20 September 1870, shortly after France abandoned it due to the Franco-Prussian War, Rome was stormed by the Italian troops and became the capital of Italy.
Cavour died in 1861, when the newly-formed country was in a rather delicate phase due to the brigantaggio, that is, a particularly violent recrudescence of brigandage which was raging in the South; Victor Emmanuel II was thus forced send the army in order to suppress the brigands. He died in 1878 and was the first King of Italy to be buried in the Pantheon. He was succeeded by his son, Umberto I whose Queen consort, Margherita di Savoia, was homaged by a Neapolitan pizza chef who named the pizza margherita after her in 1889. That same year, the death penalty was abolished in Italy.
Francesco Crispi, then Prime Minister, sought a defensive alliance with the Austrian-Hungarian and German empires – despite the fierce opposition from the Italian public opinion (Austria was seen as the country’s traditional enemy) – and made the nation join the Triple Alliance in 1882. In 1890, Italy – a late-comer to the “Scramble for Africa” – conquered Eritrea and Somalia, which became colonies; despite these successes, the economy had significantly worsened and millions of Italians, mainly from the rural South, were forced to emigrate. In 1896 Francesco Crispi, Prime Minister for the second time, gave order to invade Ethiopia: the badly-led expedition however was massacred at the battle of Adwa. Crispi was forced to resign due to a public uproar; two years later, a protest took place in Milan because of the high prices of food but was cruelly crushed (Fiorenzo Bava Beccaris, the general who ordered to fire the cannons at the crowd, was publicly congratulated by the King himself and was even offered a seat in the Royal Senate).
Unsurprisingly, King Umberto became quickly unpopular and was fatally shot on 29 July 1900 by an anarchist, Gaetano Bresci. His son, Vittorio Emanuele III, succeeded him.
In 1911, war broke out between Italy and the Ottoman Empire, which was quickly defeated and had to cede Libya and the Dodecanese islands as war reparations (this conflict is notable because aircraft were employed for the first time in reconnaissance/bombing roles). The Italian state, however, was only in control of Libya’s main towns and coastal areas as a strong resistance movement prevented it from completely occupying the country: this situation would last until the mid ’20s, when the Fascist régime brutally repressed the rebels.
World War One
Italy, in virtue of the defensive pact of 1882, did not join the war immediately. Many Italians wished however to regain the so-called terre irredente (these were provinces inhabited by an autochtonous, Italian-speaking majority and were once part of past Italian states; by 1915, these had been Austrian possession for little more than a century).
Most intellectuals – among them was the famed poet, writer and war hero Gabriele d’Annunzio – were pushing to join the war on the Entente’s side. The interventionist faction eventually got the upper hand, and a secret pact – the Treaty of London – was signed between Italy, France and Great Britain: by virtue of said treaty, Italy would have gained the ethnically-Italian provinces of Trentino, Istria and Dalmazia if it joined the war agains the Central Powers.
Hostilities began on May 24, 1915 and ended on November 4, 1918. After three years of bloody fighting all over the Alpine arch, more than a million Italian soldiers lost their lives but Italy managed nevertheless to win the war; the Entente, however, disregarded some of the treaty’s provisions and Italy was awarded just part of the territories it claimed.
The rise of Fascism and World War Two
In October 1922, a small National Fascist Party led by Benito Mussolini attempted a coup with its “March on Rome”, which resulted in the King forming an alliance with Mussolini. A pact with Germany was concluded by Mussolini in 1936, and a second in 1938. During the Second World War, Italy was invaded by the Allies in June 1943, leading to the collapse of the fascist regime and the arrest, flight, eventual re-capture and death of Mussolini. In September 1943, Italy surrendered. However, fighting continued on its territory for the rest of the war, with the allies fighting those Italian fascists who did not surrender, as well as German forces.
The Republic and the post-war years
In 1946, King Umberto II was forced to abdicate and Italy became a republic. In the 1950s, Italy became a member of NATO and allied itself with the United States. The Marshall Plan helped revive the Italian economy which, until the 1960s, enjoyed a period of sustained economic growth. In 1957, Italy became a founding member of the European Economic Community. In the 1950s and early-1960s, Italy experienced a period of rapid economic growth and industrial production, called “il boom”, which saw the country’s rise from a poor and weak nation, to a powerful one. During this period, also, cities such as Rome returned to being popular tourist destinations, expressed in both American and Italian films such as Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita.
The Trevi Fountain, symbol of 18th century Baroque Italy.
However, despite a productive and successful period which lasted until the mid-early 1960s, from the late 60s till the late 1980s, the country experienced an economic crisis. There was a constant fear, both inside and outside Italy (particularly in the USA), that the Communist Party, which regularly polled over 20% of the vote, would one day form a government and all sorts of dirty tricks were concocted to prevent this. From 1992 to the present day, Italy has faced massive government debt and extensive corruption. Scandals have involved all major parties, but especially the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, which were both dissolved. The 1994 elections put media magnate Silvio Berlusconi into the Prime Minister’s seat; he has twice been defeated, but he emerged triumphant again in the 2008 election.
The modern 1960s Pirelli Tower in Milan is often considered a symbol of the new Italy, and of post-war economic growth and reconstruction.
Despite Unification having lasted for over 150 years, there remain significant divisions in Italy. The northern part of the country is richer and more industrialized than the south and many northerners object to being effectively asked to subsidise southerners. The Northern League political party pushes for greater autonomy for the north and for reduced fund transfers to the south. On one thing the people of the north and the south can agree: none of them likes paying for the enormous bureaucracy that is based in Rome.
The climate of Italy is highly diverse, and could be far from the stereotypical Mediterranean climate. Most of Italy has hot, dry summers, with July being the hottest month of the year. Autumns are generally rainy. Winters are cold and damp (hence often foggy) in the North, and milder in the South. Conditions on peninsular coastal areas can be very different from the interior’s higher ground and valleys, particularly during the winter months when the higher altitudes tend to be cold, wet, and often snowy. The Alps have a mountain climate, with cool summers and very cold winters.
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