Italy History

July 25, 2023

Paul Kay

What about Italy for a European vacation? Are you a tourist or a traveler? For many people, the words might seem the same. For me, a tourist comes with the idea of an organized tour to see places and to take photos. A traveler wants to experience the culture and the history. Travelers want to see memorable sites and take tours as well, but they also want to meet and experience people and learn their customs and be a welcome visitor. If you are like me, you are a traveler so now we need to look for destinations and vacations. Here are some fun facts about Italy.

Are you a coffee lover? Italy is known for its coffee culture, and it is the birthplace of the espresso. The first modern espresso machine was invented by Angelo Moriondo in Turin, Italy, in 1884. Italy might be more affordable for a traveler. Unlike many other countries, Italy doesn't have a strong tipping culture. While it's not uncommon to leave small change or round up the bill, tipping large amounts is not expected or customary. I think UNESCO is a wonderful place to look for beautiful places to see when we travel. Italy is home to the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world, with a total of 58 sites. These include famous landmarks like the Colosseum, the historic center of Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and the archaeological ruins of Pompeii. There are plenty of reasons to visit Italy, it’s time to look at some of its history.

Italy encompasses over 116,000 square miles with a population in excess of 67 million people.  Both Italy and Greece debate who came first.  Evidence of Italian civilization is purported to be around 8,000 BC. The Etruscans and the Romans, which emerged in Italy around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, respectively.

Italy has a rich and complex history, dating back to ancient civilizations such as the Etruscans and the Romans. The Roman Empire, which was centered in Italy, was one of the largest and most influential empires in world history, lasting from the 8th century BCE to the 5th century CE. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was dominated by various foreign powers, including the Byzantines, the Ostrogoths, and the Lombards.

The Etruscans were an ancient civilization that lived in central Italy from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE. They were one of the earliest civilizations in Italy and had a significant impact on the development of the Roman Empire. The Etruscans were skilled in metalworking, agriculture, and trade, and they established a rich and sophisticated culture, known for its art, architecture, and religious practices.

The photo above shows the remains of the ancient Etruscan city called Ferento, located in Viterbo, Lazio, Italy. It was one of the twelve cities of the Etruscan League, a political and religious organization of the Etruscan people.

The exact date of the founding of Ferento is not known, but it is believed to have been established sometime in the 8th or 7th century BCE. During the height of Etruscan civilization, the city was surrounded by walls and had several monumental structures, including a theater and a temple dedicated to the Etruscan goddess Uni.

The origins of the Etruscans are somewhat shrouded in mystery, and their language has not been fully deciphered. They are believed to have come from the eastern Mediterranean or Asia Minor, and they established settlements in what is now central Italy. They traded with other civilizations in the Mediterranean, including the Greeks, and they gained considerable wealth and power.

The Etruscans were a dominant force in Italy for several centuries, but they were eventually conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BCE. Despite their decline, the Etruscan legacy continued to influence Roman culture, particularly in the areas of religion and art. Today, the Etruscans are remembered for their impressive achievements and their contributions to the development of Western civilization.

Romulus and Remus on facade of building by the street Via della Conciliazione leading to the Vatican, Rome, Italy

If you’ve followed our blog, we’ve talked about the Roman Empire just about everywhere else in Europe.  Of course, Italy is where it all started.   The city of Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus in 735BC and expanded for hundreds of years and eventually ended in 476AD with the death of the emperor Augustus. 

Romulus and Remus are central figures in the mythological founding of Rome. According to the legend, they were twin brothers who were abandoned as infants in the Tiber River and were rescued and raised by a she-wolf. As the twins grew up, they had a disagreement about where to establish a new city and eventually came to blows. In the ensuing fight, Romulus killed Remus and went on to create the city of Rome, naming it after himself. He then became its first king.

This story has been used over the centuries to explain the founding of Rome and to provide a legendary origin for the city and its people. It has also been interpreted in various ways, with some seeing Romulus as a symbol of the city's power and others seeing the story as a cautionary tale about the dangers of fraternal conflict. Despite its mythological origins, the story of Romulus and Remus remains an important part of Roman history and culture, and it continues to be remembered and celebrated in modern times.

The Roman Empire existed from 27 BCE to 476 CE. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy experienced a period of political and cultural instability. The country was dominated by various foreign powers, including the Byzantines, the Ostrogoths, and the Lombards, who ruled over different parts of the peninsula.

The Ostrogoths were originally a tribe of the Gothic people, who lived in the area that is now modern-day Ukraine and Russia. In the late 3rd century CE, the Ostrogoths migrated to the Balkans, where they became a major power in the region. They eventually established a kingdom in Italy, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, where they ruled as a sovereign state for two decades.

Theodoric the Great

Under the leadership of their king, Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogoths made significant contributions to Italian culture, including the construction of new buildings and the support of the arts. However, they were eventually defeated by the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century, and their kingdom in Italy was absorbed into the Byzantine Empire.

When the Byzantine Empire conquered the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy, it marked the beginning of Byzantine rule over parts of the Italian peninsula. During this period, the Byzantine Empire introduced the Greek language and culture, and the use of Greek became widespread in Italy. This had a lasting impact on the development of the Italian language and the Italian Renaissance.

The Byzantine Empire also brought the Eastern form of Christianity, known as Eastern Orthodoxy, to Italy. This had a lasting impact on the development of the Christian Church in Italy and the rest of Europe. The Byzantine Empire also introduced a new style of architecture, known as Byzantine architecture, which became popular in Italy and was later incorporated into the Italian Renaissance.

The Byzantine Empire had a significant influence on the development of Italy and its culture. Its contributions to Italian language, religion, and architecture continue to be felt in Italy today.

In the Middle Ages, Italy was divided into a number of city-states, such as Venice, Florence, and Milan, each with its own unique culture and history. During this period, Italy experienced a revival of culture and learning known as the Renaissance, which had a profound impact on art, science, and politics throughout Europe. Byzantine rule in Italy officially ended in the mid-8th century, following a series of invasions and territorial losses to the Lombards and the Franks.

In the 7th century, the Lombards, a Germanic people, conquered the northern and central parts of Italy and established their own kingdom. The Byzantine Empire retained control of the southern part of the Italian peninsula, including the cities of Naples, Calabria, and Sicily, but these territories were gradually lost over time to the Arabs and the Normans.

Equestrian statue of Charlemagne

In the mid-8th century, the Franks, under the rule of Charlemagne, conquered the last Byzantine holdings in Italy, marking the end of Byzantine rule in the region. From this point forward, the Byzantine Empire no longer had a presence in Italy and its influence on the country declined. However, its contributions to Italian culture, including its art, architecture, and religion, continued to shape the development of the Italian peninsula for centuries to come.

In the following centuries, Italy was divided into a number of city-states and small kingdoms, each with its own unique culture and history. During this time, some of these city-states, such as Venice, Florence, and Milan, rose to become major powers in the region and exerted significant influence over the rest of Italy.

Ferdinando I Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany

Roman civilization continued through the middle ages which lasted through the 14th century when the Renaissance began.  The Italian Renaissance was a cultural period that began in Tuscany in the 14th century and spread to Florence and Siena.  It is believed that part of the reasons for the Renaissance came from the Greeks who left Greece because of the Ottoman Turks.  The   Medici family was another large reason for the movement since they provided funding for artists from all cultural areas.  Some of their patronage existed to Dante, Botticelli, Da Vinci and Petrarch.  Also, during this period was the invention of the printing press which allowed information to be produced in bulk and distributed.

The period ended in war when a combination of France, Germany and Spain all invaded at one time or another.  By 1559 Spain controlled much of Italy until 1713 when Austria took over until 1796 when France and Napoleon ruled.  After the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1814 a unification effort began which resulted in the country of Italy we know today.  Italy was officially unified in 1861.

Benito Mussolini

After the unification of Italy in 1861, the country faced several challenges as it worked to establish itself as a modern nation-state. One of the main challenges was economic development. Despite its rich cultural heritage, Italy was a relatively poor country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and faced significant obstacles in its effort to industrialize and modernize. The country faced high levels of poverty and unemployment, and many Italians emigrated to other countries in search of work. This paved the way for Benito Mussolini who was the leader of Italy from 1922 to 1943 and had a profound impact on the country during that time. He came to power as the leader of the National Fascist Party and established a dictatorship known as the Italian Social Republic.

Mussolini's influence over Italy was characterized by his charismatic leadership, his focus on nationalism and expansion, and his use of propaganda to control the population. He implemented policies aimed at modernizing the country's infrastructure and strengthening its military, and he sought to increase Italy's global power and prestige. Under Mussolini, the government took control of the economy, and many private businesses were nationalized. He also implemented strict censorship of the media, suppressed political opposition, and used the secret police to maintain control.

Mussolini's rule had a significant impact on Italian society, with the introduction of new laws and policies aimed at increasing the population, improving public health, and promoting the arts. He was also responsible for the creation of new architectural styles, including the so-called "Fascist architecture," which combined elements of classical and modern design.

In 1943, during WW II, Mussolini was overthrown and later executed, and Italy was occupied by the Allies. Post war, Italy experienced rapid economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, known as the "economic miracle." This period of growth was characterized by the expansion of industry, particularly in the areas of steel production, textiles, and chemicals. The growth of the Italian economy created new jobs, improved living standards, and transformed Italy into one of the world's leading industrialized countries.

In the late 20th century, Italy faced new challenges, including rising unemployment, slow economic growth, and political instability. Despite these challenges, Italy remains one of the world's leading economic powers, and continues to play an important role in European and global affairs.

Workers cutting white grapes from vines while harvesting wine in an Italian vineyard

Italy has the eighth largest economy in the world, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately $2.07 trillion USD. The Italian economy is heavily reliant on industry, with a strong emphasis on manufacturing, particularly in the areas of automobiles, machinery, and textiles. The country is also a leading producer of wine, olive oil, and luxury goods.

Italy is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, attracting millions of visitors each year. However, post-pandemic, Italy is yearning to get some tourists back in the country. As you probably saw on TV, Italy was hit very hard by Covid. It might be a great time to plan to visit Italy now. Some of the major tourist destinations in Italy include:

Saint Peters Square and Basilica in Vatican City Italy

  • Rome: The capital of Italy, famous for its rich history, art, and architecture, including the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Vatican City.

The Birth of Venus

  • Florence: Known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is home to some of the world's most famous works of art, including Michelangelo's David and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

View on Grand Canal at night, Venice, Italy

  • Venice: A unique city built on a network of canals, Venice is famous for its stunning architecture, gondola rides, and vibrant arts scene.

  • The Amalfi Coast: A picturesque coastal region in southern Italy, known for its dramatic cliffs, beautiful beaches, and charming towns.

  • Tuscany: A beautiful region in central Italy, famous for its rolling hills, vineyards, and medieval villages.

Embankment of Lake Como in Italy

  • Lake Como: A stunning lake in northern Italy, surrounded by beautiful villages, gardens, and villas. You might know it because of George Clooney.

Milan Cathedral, Duomo di Milano, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world in Square Piazza Duomo, Italy

  • Milan: A fashion and finance hub, famous for the Duomo, its shopping, dining, and nightlife.

  • Cinque Terre: A beautiful coastal region in northwest Italy, known for its colorful villages, scenic trails, and stunning views of the Mediterranean.

I worked in Milan and was so impressed with the area.  My wife came with me, and we visited the city of Milan with so many things to see.  We visited the Duomo, the La Scala opera house, the Brera district for shopping and sightseeing and so many other places.  From Milan, we rented a car and took a day trip to France and Switzerland.  

We took the train to Venice and spent the day there.  It is a very expensive city but it’s a wonder that it still exists considering the rising sea levels.

We also visited Rome and The Vatican.  We saw the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, Circus Maximus, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Vatican City.  Of course, we needed to sample the marvelous food and wine and chocolate.

Spanish steps famous landmark of Rome morning sunrise view, Eternal city and capital of Italy

We also visited the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps, the crypt of the Capuchin Friars, the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, the National Monument and so many other places.

There is so much to see in Italy.  We would love to return to see what we love but also to explore new cities for us like Naples, Lake Como, Sicily, the Amalfi coast and Pompeii.  While there, we might visit Sardinia as well.  I can speak a little French and Italian is one of the romance languages, so I can understand many words and speak a little.  I found that making an attempt to speak the language is greatly appreciated and if you are lucky – the locals will teach you new words every day.  We loved Italy and can’t wait to return.

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