This week we’ve arrived in beautiful Italy. Once the heart of a massive empire, the country is now famed for its gorgeous countryside, great cuisine, and historic landmarks.
- Capital (and Largest City): Rome
- Population (2015): 60,725,000 (23rd)
- Total Area: 301,338 km² (72nd)
- Official Language: Italian
- Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)
Prior to the founding of the Roman Empire, Italy was inhabited by a variety of tribes and peoples. These included, among others, Celts and Greeks (who set up colonies along the coast). In the year 753 BC however, human history would be changed forever with the founding of a settlement along the banks of the river Tiber. This settlement, ‘Rome’, would become the heart of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen.
During the height of its power, the Roman Empire controlled the entire Mediterranean while also stretching from Persia to Britain. While not the largest ever in terms of area, the effect Rome had on the regions it controlled is still felt to this day – forming the basis of Western civilization. Rome shifted over time from a republic to an empire, thanks in part to the actions of one Julius Caesar and later Augustus. We could fill libraries with the history of Rome (and many have), but just know that the late 4th century and 5th century saw the downfall of the great empire – thanks in part to the eastern half splitting off (later known as Byzantine) and barbarian invasions.
These tribes picked over what was left as Europe entered the Dark Ages. Eventually, the Lombards came to control much of the peninsula before ending up under the power of the Frankish Empire’s great ruler – Charlemagne. As Charlemagne’s kingdom broke up after his death, new powers including the Holy Roman Empire rose to prominence. Relations between the HRE and the papacy (which remained in Rome) were at the centre of Italian politics for much of the Middle Ages.
Italy was a fractious place, with no one power laying claim to the entire region. Towards the latter Middle Ages, city-states such as Venice and Genoa came to be dominant powers in Europe thanks to their ideal coastal location and vast mercantile networks. These city-states often quarreled with one another but still grew to be extremely prosperous.
As the Middle Ages came to an end, the Renaissance began. A period of cultural exploration and art, the Renaissance is commonly associated with Italy – indeed that is where it started before spreading to other parts of Europe. Cities such as Florence (under the Medici family) became very wealthy thanks to newfound banking enterprises while also growing into a mecca of sort for artists, sculptors, scholars, and inventors. Eventually, the discovery of new trade routes to the New World as well as the Far East meant other countries rose to prominence as the Italian cities dominance waned. While no longer a great power, the ideals of the Renaissance that began here had come to change the face of Europe.
The tumultuous years following the Renaissance saw a variety of powers in Europe rise and fall, while parts of Italy (especially the south) were neglected. While the north of the country was unified for a time under Napoleon, Italy remained a divided and fractious entity. It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s when the Kingdom of Italy (a unified power) finally came to be. The north of the country industrialized (though the south remained impoverished) and Italy soon began to flex their colonial muscles – specifically in Africa.
When the Great War broke out, Italy sided with the Allies against Germany and Austria-Hungary (both of which Italy was previously allied with). The hard-fought Italian victory against Austria-Hungary was an instrumental factor in ending the war. The conflict left the country in dire straits economically while some were upset about not being granted all the land they were promised.
The tough inter-war period saw the country looking for answers – which resulted in the rise of a fascist regime led by Benito Mussolini (who took power in 1922). As he cemented his control, Mussolini also alienated many of the Allies by invading Ethiopia. When World War II broke out, Italy allied itself with the nearby fascist power – Nazi Germany. The war was long but eventually Allied forces defeated the Italian army and Mussolini himself was executed.
After the war, Italy voted to become a republic. The country also sought to become closer to other European and Western countries – joining NATO and benefitting from the economic rebuilding of the Marshall Plan. In addition, Italy was a founding member of the European Economic Community – which eventually led to the EU. Corruption remains a constant concern in Italian politics, especially in the south, and the economic effects of the Global Financial Crisis are still felt. Despite this, Italy is a highly developed and largely wealthy country that, in addition to being the home of the Catholic Church, plays host to millions of visitors every year from around the world.
Due to the divided nature of Italy for many years, there are distinct cultural differences between most parts of the country. If there’s one thing the entire country is known for however – it’s art and architecture. Some of the world’s most famous works are in Italy or were completed by architects, sculptors, and painters of Italian origin. Names like Leonardo da Vinci, Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo come to mind along with works such as the Mona Lisa (though it resides in Paris), David, and the Sistine Chapel. Architecture found in Italy ranges from ancient – with the Coliseum and Forum in the heart of Rome prominent examples – to Renaissance and beyond.
Italians also have a reputation – which remains to this day – as expert craftsman and designers. Milan is at the heart of the fashion industry and Italian goods of all types are often viewed as the apex of quality. In addition, luxury auto-making affords Italians another chance to flex their muscle – with Lamborghini and Ferrari among the most renowned brands.
Italian cuisine is adored the world over and has become a staple of many western diets. Pizza and pasta are perhaps two of the best-known examples of Italian food that have been adapted and evolved by other countries.
Sports are also popular in Italy, with soccer far and away the most followed. The national team is considered one of the best in the world and has won the World Cup four times (including most recently in 2006). The Serie A (the domestic league) is also considered one of the world’s best with teams such as Juventus, Milan, Inter, Roma, and Napoli garnering international acclaim. Rugby is also popular, with the team competing against other European powers in the Six Nations.
Italy is easily spotted on maps thanks to its uncanny resemblance to a boot. As a peninsula, the country has a long coastline which includes the Mediterranean Sea and Adriatic Sea among others. Mountains are also found throughout the country, with the Alps in the north and the Apennines cutting through the country north to south. Europe’s tallest peak, Mont Blanc, is situated on the French border while numerous volcanoes’ can be found throughout the country – including the infamous Vesuvius which is responsible for the destruction of the ancient city of Pompeii.
Italy is home to many large cities, foremost among which are Rome, Milan, Naples, and Turin. Each city has a distinct history and culture that comes from years of political division – which makes every metropolis in Italy unique.
Did you know?
- Vatican City (in the heart of Rome) is the world’s smallest country
- There are more UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy than anywhere else
- Italy is the world’s largest wine producer
- The Mafia still accounts for about 7% of the country’s GDP
- All gondolas in Venice must be black
- Soccer fans are known as ‘tifosi’, which translates to ‘carriers of typhus’…
- The wolf is the unofficial national animal
- Bologna is home to the world’s oldest university
Italy has a history that would take years to explain. A great empire, powerful city states, a fascist regime, and eventually one of the world’s most developed and largest economies – it truly is a place like no other.
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE). Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the euro.
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