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United in 1861, Italy has significantly contributed to the cultural and social development of the entire Mediterranean area, deeply influencing European culture as well. Important cultures and civilizations have existed there since prehistoric times.

After Magna Graecia, the Etruscan civilization and especially the Roman Republic and Empire that dominated this part of the world for many centuries came an Italy whose people would make immesurable contributions to the development of European philosophy, science and art during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Dominated by city-states for much of the medieval and Renaissance period, the Italian peninsula was eventually unified amidst much struggle in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Origins of the name

The name Italy (Italia) is an ancient name for the country and people of Southern Italy. Its origin is unclear, but could be Greek for "Land of Cattle Calves or Veal". Coins bearing the name Italia were minted by an alliance of Italic tribes (Sabines, Samnites, Umbrians and other) competing with Rome in the first century B.C. By the time of emperor Augustus approximately, the multi-ethnic territory of Italy was included in Italia as the central unit of the Empire; Cisalpine Gaul, the Upper Po valley, for example, was appended in 42 BC. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Lombard invasions, "Italy" or "Italian" gradually became the collective name for diverse states appearing on the peninsula and their overseas properties.

Bronze Age (15th to 8th c. BC)

Terramare culture takes its name from the black earth (terremare) residue of settlement mounds, which have long served the fertilizing needs of local farmers. The occupations of the terramare people as compared with their neolithic predecessors may be inferred with comparative certainty. They were still hunters, but had domesticated animals; they were fairly skilful metallurgists, casting bronze in moulds of stone and clay, and they were also agriculturists, cultivating beans, the vine, wheat and flax. It is thought the Terremare culture may be an early manifestation of Italic-speaking Indo-Europeans.

Iron Age (8th to 5th c BC)


Languages in Iron Age Italy, 6th century BC.

Villanovan culture brought iron-working to the Italian peninsula; Villanovans practiced cremation and buried the ashes of their dead in pottery urns of distinctive double-cone shape. Generally speaking, Villanovan settlements were centered in the Po River valley and Etruria round Bologna, later an important Etruscan center, and areas in Emilia Romagna (at Verruchio and Fermi), in Tuscany and Lazio. Further south, in Campania, a region where inhumation was the general practice, Villanovan cremation burials have been identified at Capua, at the "princely tombs" of Pontecagnano near Salerno (finds conserved in the Museum of Agro Picentino) and at Sala Consilina.



An Etruscan walled town.

Culture that is identifiably and certainly Etruscan developed in Italy after about 800 BC approximately over the range of the preceding Iron Age Villanovan culture. The latter gave way in the 7th century to an increasingly orientalizing culture that was influenced by Greek traders and Greek neighbors in Magna Graecia, the Hellenic civilization of southern Italy. The Etruscans are generally believed to have spoken a non-Indo-European language. They were a monogamous society that emphasized pairing. The historical Etruscans had achieved a state system of society, with remnants of the chiefdom and tribal forms. In this they were ahead of the surrounding Italics, who still had chiefs and tribes. Rome was in a sense the first Italic state, but it began as an Etruscan one. The Etruscan system of belief was an immanent polytheism; that is, all visible phenomena were considered to be a manifestation of divine power, and that power was subdivided into deities that acted continually on the world of man and could, by human action or inaction, be dissuaded against or persuaded in favor of human affairs. Rome was founded in Etruscan territory. Despite the words of the sources, which indicated that Campania and Latium also had been Etruscan, scholars took the view that Rome was on the edge of Etruscan territory. Near the Etruscan center of Viterbo, an Etruscan citadel now called Acquarossa was destroyed ca 500 BC and never rebuilt, thus preserving relatively undisturbed Etruscan structures, which have been excavated under the auspices of the Swedish Institute.

Magna Graecia

Template:Main In the 8th and 7th centuries, driven by unsettled conditions at home, Greek colonies were established in Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula. During the Early Middle Ages, following the Gothic War that was disastrous for the region, new waves of Byzantine Christian Greeks came to Magna Graecia from Greece and Asia Minor, as southern Italy remained loosely governed by the Eastern Roman Empire until the advent first of the Lombards, then of the Normans. Moreover, the Byzantines found in southern Italy people of common cultural root, the Greek-speaking eredi ellenofoni of Magna Graecia.

Romans (5th c. BC to 5th c. AD)

See also: Italia (Roman province)

The Colosseum in Rome, built in the 1st century AD

According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, and was then governed by seven Kings of Rome. In the following centuries, Rome started expanding its territory, defeating its neighbours (Veium, the other Latins, the Sannites) one after the other.

Italia, under the Roman Republic and later Empire, was the Italian peninsula from Rubicon to Calabria.During the Republic, Italia was not a province, but rather the territory of the city of Rome, thus having a special status: for example, military commanders were not allowed to bring their armies within Italia, and Julius Caesar passing the Rubicon with his legions marked the start of the civil war.

The Italian "province" was privileged by Augustus and his heirs, with the construction, among other public structures, of a dense mesh of roads. The Italian economy flourished: agriculture, handicraft and industry had a sensible growth, allowing the export of goods to the other provinces. The Italian population grew as well: Three census were ordered by Augustus, to record the presence of male citizens in Italia. They were 4,063,000 in 28 BC, 4,233,000 in 8 BC, and 4,937,000 in AD 14. Including the women and the children, the total population of Italia at the beginning of the 1st century was around 10 million.

After the death of emperor Theodosius I (395), Italia became part of the Western Roman Empire. Then came the years of the barbarian invasions, and the capital was moved from Mediolanum to Ravenna. In 476, with the death of Romulus Augustus and the return of the imperial ensigns to Constantinople, the Western Roman Empire ends; for few years Italia stayed united under Odoacer rule, but later it was divided between several kingdoms, and did not reunite under a single ruler until thirteen centuries later.

Middle Ages (6th to 14th c.)

Italy in 1050.

After the Lombard invasion, the popes (i.e. St. Gregory) were nominally subject to the eastern emperor, but often received little help from Constantinople, and had to fill the lack of stately power, providing essential services (ex. food for the needy) and protecting Rome from Lombard incursions; in this way, the popes started building an independent state. In 751 the Lombards seized Ravenna and the Exarchate of Ravenna was abolished. This ended the Byzantine presence in central Italy (although some coastal cities and some areas in south Italy remained under Byzantine control until the eleventh century). Facing a new Lombard offensive, the papacy appealed to the Franks for aid. In 756 Frankish forces defeated the Lombards and gave the Papacy legal authority over all of central Italy, thus creating the Papal States.

The age of Charlemagne was therefore one of stability for Italy, though it was generally dominated by non-Italian interests. The 11th century signed the end of the darkest period in the middle ages. Trade slowly picked up, especially on the seas, where the four Italian cities of Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa and Venice became major powers. The papacy regained its authority, and started a long struggle with the empire, about both ecclesiastical and secular matter. The first episode was the Investiture controversy. In the twelfth century those Italian cities which lay in the Holy Roman Empire launched a successful effort to win autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire; this made north Italy a land of quasi-independent or independent city-states until the nineteenteth century.

In 1155 the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos attempted to invade southern Italy. The Emperor sent his generals Michael Palaiologos and John Doukas with Byzantine troops and large quantities of gold to invade Apulia (1155). However, the invasion soon stalled. By 1158 the Byzantine army had left Italy, with only a few permanent gains.

Renaissance (15th to 16th c.)

Template:Main By the late Middle Ages, central and southern Italy, once the heartland of the Roman Empire, was far poorer than the north. Rome was a city largely in ruins, and the Papal States were a loosely administered region with little law and order. Partly because of this, the Papacy had relocated to Avignon in France. Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia had for some time been under foreign domination. The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were major conduits of culture and knowledge. The city-states of Italy expanded greatly during this period and grew in power to become de facto fully independent of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Italian Renaissance began in Tuscany, centered in the city of Florence and Siena. It then spread south, having an especially significant impact on Rome, which was largely rebuilt by the Renaissance popes. The Italian Renaissance peaked in the late 15th century as foreign invasions plunged the region into turmoil. From the late fourteenth century, Florence's leading family had been the Albizzi. The Renaissance ideals first spread from Florence to the neighbouring states of Tuscany such as Siena and Lucca. The Tuscan culture soon became the model for all the states of Northern Italy, and the Tuscan variety of Italian came to predominate throughout the region, especially in literature. In 1447 Francesco Sforza came to power in Milan and rapidly transformed that still medieval city into a major centre of art and learning. Venice, one of the wealthiest cities due to its control of the Mediterranean Sea, also became a centre for Renaissance culture, especially architecture. In 1378 the Papacy returned to Rome, but that once imperial city remained poor and largely in ruins through the first years of the Renaissance. As a cultural movement, the Italian Renaissance affected only a small part of the population. Northern Italy was the most urbanized region of Europe, but three quarters of the people were still rural peasants.

A map of the Italian peninsula circa 1494.

A series of foreign invasions of Italy known as the Italian Wars that would continue for several decades. These began with the 1494 invasion by France that wreaked widespread devastation on Northern Italy and ended the independence of many of the city-states. Most damaging was the May 6, 1527, Spanish and German troops sacking Rome that all but ended the role of the Papacy as the largest patron of Renaissance art and architecture.

Foreign domination and unification (16th to 19th c.)

Template:Main The War of the League of Cambrai was a major conflict in the Italian Wars. The principal participants of the war were France, the Papal States, and the Republic of Venice; they were joined, at various times, by nearly every significant power in Western Europe, including Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of Scotland, the Duchy of Milan, Florence, the Duchy of Ferrara, and the Swiss.

Monarchy and Fascist period (1861-1945)

Template:Main Italy became a nation-state belatedly — on March 17, 1861, when most of the states of the peninsula were united under king Victor Emmanuel II of the Savoy dynasty, which ruled over Piedmont. The architects of Italian unification were Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the Chief Minister of Victor Emmanuel, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, a general and national hero. Rome itself remained for a decade under the Papacy, and became part of the Kingdom of Italy only on September 20, 1870, the final date of Italian unification. The Vatican is now an independent enclave surrounded by Italy, as is San Marino.

At the beginning of World War I Italy remained neutral, claiming that the Triple Alliance had only defensive purposes, and the war was started by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, both the central empires and the Triple Entente tried to attract Italy on their side, and in April 1915 the Italian government agreed (London Pact) to declare war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire in exchange for several territories ([Trento], Trieste, Istria, Dalmatia).

The Italian Empire in 1940

The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini that took over in 1922 led to the alliance with Germany and other Axis Powers and ultimately Italy's defeat in World War II. The Allied Powers invaded Sicily in 1943, and gradually made their way north through the mainland. After the war, on June 2, 1946, a referendum on the monarchy resulted in the establishment of the Italian republic, which led to the adoption of a new constitution on January 1, 1948.

Italian Republic (after 1945)


Italy is a charter member of NATO and the European Union. It joined the growing political and economic unification of Western Europe, including the introduction of the Euro in 1999.

A new constitution was written for the new republic, taking effect on January 1, 1948, while the desperate fascist Salo Republic attempt was crushed by the Allies in April 1945. The referendum at the origin of the Italian republic was, however, the object of deep discussion, mainly because of some contested results. Under the 1947 peace treaty, minor adjustments were made to Italy's frontier with France, the eastern border area was transferred to Yugoslavia, and the area around the city of Trieste was designated a free territory. In the fifties Italy became a member of the NATO alliance and an ally of the United States, which helped to revive the Italian economy through the Marshall Plan.

This period came to be known as the anni di piombo ("lead years") because of a wave of bombings, attributed to far-right, far-left and secret services' actions. Piazza Fontana bombing in the centre of Milan, on December 12, 1969, marked the beginning of this violent period. The police arrested 4 000 people in left-wing circles, among whom Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist who was initially blamed for the bombing. In December 1970, a coup dubbed the Golpe Borghese failed. Christian democrat Aldo Moro was murdered in May 1978 by the Red Brigades, a militant leftist group then led by Mario Moretti.

In the 1980s, for the first time, two governments were led by a republican and a socialist (Bettino Craxi) rather than by a member of DC (which nonetheless remained the main force behind the government). From 1992 to 1997, Italy faced significant challenges as voters (disenchanted with past political paralysis, massive government debt, extensive corruption, and organized crime's considerable influence collectively called Tangentopoli after being uncovered by Mani pulite - "Clean hands") demanded political, economic, and ethical reforms. The 1994 elections also swept media magnate Silvio Berlusconi (leader of "Pole of Freedoms" coalition, which included Forza Italia, the regionalist far-right ‘‘Lega Nord’’ party and the far-right Alleanza Nazionale) into office as Prime Minister. However his government collapsed after only a few months because the Northern League split out.

A technocratic cabinet led by Lamberto Dini, supported by the left-wing parties and the Northern League, lasted until Romano Prodi's new center-left coalition won the 1996 general election. In 2001 the center-right took the government and Berlusconi was able to remain in power for a complete five year mandate. The last elections in 2006 returned Prodi in the government with a slim majority.

See also

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