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Italy History

This description page about the History of Italy will guide you in planning your trip to Italy and help you to find useful travel information about Italian History.


History is everywhere in Italy. Important cultures and civilizations have existed in Italy since prehistoric times, but it was the Etruscan civilization and, especially, the Roman Republic and Empire that dominated this part of the world for many centuries. Central to the development of modern European civilization and thought during the middle ages and Renaissance, Italy is a mix of the many peoples occupying the country through the centuries, adopting parts of each culture, cuisine and attitude, resulting in an interesting and eclectic mix whose influences can still be seen today.

It wasn’t until 1861 that Italy would become a unified nation, following centuries of existence as a collection of smaller kingdoms and city-states. But before this, aggression, hostility and invasion would mark a centuries long journey to unification and freedom.



the origins

The Etruscans were the first major civilization and the most powerful people in northern Italy by the 6th century BC, overriding the indigenous population of Ligurians, Latins, and Sabines. Though little is known about this group, it is determined that the people were sophisticated, organized and successful traders throughout the Mediterranean from their base in Central Italia. Tomb frescoes in Umbria and Lazio depict a refined and luxurious culture with highly developed systems. Carefully constructed and highly decorated cities can still be seen in Tuscany and Lazio, confirming the impact of their influence even today.

While the Etruscans thrived to the north, the Greeks occupied the southern tip of Italy, which became known as Magna Grecia. The extremely successful Greek settlements introduced the grapevine and olive to Italy and established a high-yielding agricultural system. Cities like Siracusa and Tarentum were wealthier and more sophisticated than those on mainland Greece, dominating trade in the central Mediterranean, despite competition from Carthage. Ruins such as the temples of Agrigento and Selinute, the fortified walls around Gela and the theatres at Siracusa and Taormina in Sicily attest to a great prosperity. Magna Grecia became an enriching influence on the culture.


the roman period

Displacing both the Etruscans and the Greeks was a small kingdom in the center of Italy called Rome. From relatively humble beginnings, ancient Rome would take control of most of the known world. Called the “Prussians of the ancient world” for their militarism, they first showed their might in two decades of bloody war against Carthage in North Africa, and Hannibal over possession of Sicilia.

After defeating Carthage, Rome spread its influence across the Mediterranean. When it outgrew its kings, Rome became a Republic, but the Republic was not to last. The end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire occurred largely through the hostility of two great generals, Pompey and Julius Caesar, who became a dictator after his defeat of Pompey. Following Caesar’s murder on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., civil war ensued and was won by Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted son, Octavian, who became the first emperor, Caesar Augustus. His regime turned Rome into a glowing marble city the likes of which the world had never seen. Extensive traces of the Roman Empire can be seen through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, but there can be little to compare with the power of seeing the ruins of the Forum in Rome, the heart of all that power, glory, and myth.



the medieval period

The issue of papal or imperial supremacy was to polarize the country for centuries, with almost every part of Italy torn by struggles between Guelphs (supporting the pope) and Ghibellines (supporting the emperor). Meanwhile the cities of Lombardy and Tuscany used the political confusion to grow in strength. The Comuni started to flourish in commerce, art and politics and soon became independent powers. This is the era of the famous artists an writers as Dante and Giotto.

By the 13th century, Italy had become the crossroads of the Mediterranean with a banking and commercial culture based on the great seafaring empires of Venice and Genoa and powerful Florence. The Papal State continued to loose power in the peninsula and shortly after the election of the French Pope Clement V in 1305, the papacy moved to Avignon in France.  But soon a plague fell on Italy killing a third of the entire population.



the renaissance period

In the 15th century Italy experienced a flourish of art and scholarship unmatched in Europe since the days of Greece and Rome.  It was during this time that the Rinascimento (Renaissance) was born: an explosion of magnificent artistry and the spread of humanism, a new philosophy promoting the dignity of the human individual.  Architects turned from the Gothic to the Classical models for inspiration, art produced a generation of master artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. Backed by the patronage of the wealthy Medici and Visconti families, art and culture blossomed.



the foreign invasions

The disruption of unity was not, however, without outside aggression from the French King Charles VIII, who took part in an attack against Naples, from Spain, the Austrian Empire that conquered part of northern Italy, and from Napoleon who conquered Italy in 1800 and crowned himself King of Italy. Though initially perceived as the great liberator of Italy, this image was quickly changed as he took many of the most important art masterpieces away to Paris, implemented high war taxes and conscription.

The fall of Napoleon led to the Vienna Congress of 1815 and the restoration of the ruling class by the Austrians. Yet the years between 1820 and 1849 became years of revolution. The last period had given Italians a sense of national feeling for the first time, but uprisings began in Sicilia, Napoli, and Piemonte when King Ferdinand introduced measures that restricted personal freedom and destroyed many farmers' livelihoods.



the italian unification

In 1848, patriots rose up against the Austrians in Milan and Venice, the Bourbons in Sicily and the Pope in Rome, and a republic was declared. In May 1860, Garibaldi and his red-shirted “Mille” (a thousand people) landed in Sicily, beat the Bourbons forces and started a march across the peninsula.

On March 17, 1861, the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, with Victor Emmanuel II as king and Cavour as prime minister, uniting all the territory except Venice and Rome, both of which would enter some years later.

When Victor Emmanuel II died in 1878 his son, Humbert I, succeeded to the Italian throne. During his reign, Italy concluded the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, marking the division of Europe into two hostile camps. Assassinated by an anarchist in 1900, Humberto’s son ascended the throne.  Meanwhile, prompted by the examples of France and Britain and by the desire to distract attention from economic and social problems at home, the government had launched a colonial program. In early 1885 an Italian expedition occupied a portion of East Africa.



the world war I

When World War I began in August 1914, the Italian government brushed aside the Triple Alliance and declared its neutrality. Subsequently, after having signed the secret Treaty of London with the Allied powers, Italy declared war on Austria and the Ottoman Empire, and then declared war against Germany about a year later. The Italians and their allies assumed the offensive, culminating in their smashing victory in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto in autumn 1918. Shortly after the Austro-Hungarian government and the Allies signed an armistice.  Italian casualties during the war totaled more than half a million. In the treaties that followed, Italy acquired the Trentino, Trieste, and the South Tyrol, but did not get all the territory promised in the Treaty of London.



the rise of the fascism and the WW II

From 1919 to 1922 Italy was torn by social and political strife, inflation, and economic problems, aggravated by the belief that Italy had won the war but lost the peace. Armed bands known as the Fascisti (Fascists) fought Socialist and Communist groups in Rome, Bologna, Trieste, and elsewhere. On October 24, 1922, the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, emboldened by the support of conservatives and former soldiers, demanded that the government be entrusted to his party and King Victor Emmanuel III satisfied him.  Although given extraordinary powers to restore order, Mussolini initially governed constitutionally. He headed a coalition government in 1923 that included Liberals, Nationalists, and Catholics, as well as Fascists. But after violent rebellions and the murder of the Socialist Party deputy Matteotti in 1924, Mussolini moved to suspend constitutional government. He proceeded in stages to establish a dictatorship, forbidding the parliament to initiate legislation and making himself responsible to the king alone.

During the world economic depression that began in 1929, the Fascist government increasingly intervened to prevent the collapse of a number of industries. The construction of new factories or the expansion of old ones without governmental consent was prohibited. The government reorganized the iron and steel industries, expanded hydroelectric plants, and embarked on other public works projects. The military was also expanded and strengthened.

In 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia upset European alignments and brought the Fascist and the Third Reich of Germany’ dictatorships into close accord providing for joint action in support of their commons goal. This disastrous alliance with Hitler’s Nazi Germany led to Itali's defeat in WWII. Fortunately the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943 and shortly after the Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies.

Meanwhile Mussolini escaped to the north helped by the Germans, and founded the Italian Social Republic. The partigiani (the Italians rebels) caught Mussolini in April 1945 as he was attempting to escape to Switzerland through mountains surrounding Lake Como and shot him with his mistress.  A referendum in 1946 made Italy a democratic republic and an economic revival followed.



the contemporary history

In 1949 Italy became a charter member of NATO, followed by its entrance to the  European Union (1952/58).  In 1955 Italy joined the United Nations, and joined the growing political and economic unification of Western Europe as a signatory to the Treaty of Rome in 1956, and the adoption of Euro in 1999.

Italy’s history, despite its struggles, is marked by the innovation of many things we enjoy today.  Over 2,000 years ago, ancient Romans invented conveniences like window panes and were responsible for inventing concrete and paved roads, candles, metal locks and the first daily newspaper dating back 59 B.C. Schools, paid for by the Roman government, were opened more than 1900 years ago and today that concept is known as public schooling. Forks were invented in Tuscany more than 900 years ago; in 1935 Italy invented the first mechanical clock and more than 700 years ago Italians came up with the idea of eyeglasses.

Gugliemo Marconi invented the first radio, and at 20 years old made the first successful broadcast. The Italian scientist, Galileo made the first thermometer in 1592 and in 1800, Alessandro Volta invented the first battery.  Musical notation was invented in Italy more than 1,000 years ago. Opera and the first modern orchestra originated in Italy about 400 years ago; Bartolomeo Cristofori built the first piano about 300 years ago.

Political and social unrest through the centuries has never thwarted the spirit of the people of Italy to pursue their innate passion for freedom, creativity and self-sufficiency.  The history of Italy’s ever turbulent past serves as the foundation and strength of the country today.

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