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Things you need to know about Italy

Italy is largely a peninsula situated on the Mediterranean Sea, bordering France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia in the north. The country, which is boot-shaped, is surrounded by the Ligurian Sea, the Sardinian Sea, and the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, the Sicilian and Ionian Sea in the South, and Adriatic Sea in the East. Italian is the official language spoken by the majority of the population, but as you travel throughout the country, you will find there are several distinct Italian dialects corresponding to the region you are in. 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. Italy has two major islands as part of its country: Sardinia, which is an island off the west coast of Italy, and Sicily, which is at the southern tip (the “toe”) of the boot. Italy has a population of around 60 million. The capital is Rome.

In case of emergency or inconvenience, the Italian Ministry for Tourism has implemented a multilingual contact centre providing information and assistance to foreigners. Easy Italia operates seven days a week 09:00-10:00. You can contact Easy Italia by dialling +39 039 039 039 from anywhere in the world, from either a landline or a mobile. If you are in Italy you can also contact them by dialling the toll free number 800 000 039 from landlines and public phones. The service is also available on Skype (easyitalia) and you can get any information for free by filling in their form online.

History

Prehistory

There have certainly been humans on the Italian peninsula for at least 200,000 years. Prior to the Romans, the Etruscan Civilization lasted from prehistory to the founding of Rome. The Etruscans flourished in the centre and north of what is now Italy, particularly in areas now represented by northern Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. Rome was dominated by the Etruscans until the Romans sacked the nearby Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BC. In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Greek colonies were established in Sicily and the southern part of the Italy and 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.

The Roman Empire

Ancient Rome was at first a small village founded around the 8th century BC. In time, it grew into one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen, covering the whole Mediterranean, including the northern coast of Africa, and as far north as the southern part of Scotland. The Roman empire left a lasting impact on the cultures of Western civilisation, and its influence can still be seen in European cultures today. Its steady decline began in the 2nd century AD, and the empire finally broke into two parts in 285 AD: the Western Roman Empire with its capital in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople. The western part, under attack from the Goths, finally collapsed, leaving the Italian peninsula divided. After this, Rome passed into the so-called Dark Ages. The city itself was sacked by Saracens in 846.

From Independent City States to Unification

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula was divided into many independent city states, and remained so for the next thousand years.

In the 6th century AD, a Germanic tribe, the Lombards, arrived from the north; hence the present-day northern region of Lombardy. The balance of power between them and other invaders such as the Byzantines, Arabs, and Muslim Saracens, with the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy meant that it was not possible to unify Italy, although later arrivals such as the Carolingians and the Hohenstaufens managed to impose some control. In the south, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a result of unification of the Kingdom of Sicily with the Kingdom of Naples in 1442, had its capital in Naples. In the north, Italy was a collection of small independent city states and kingdoms and would remain so until the 19th century. One of the most influential city states was the Republic of Venice, considered one of the most progressive of its time, which saw the opening of the first public opera house in 1637, and for the first time allowed the general public to enjoy what was once court entertainment reserved for the aristocracy, thus allowing the arts to flourish. 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 and Michelangelo. Rome and its surrounding areas became the Papal States, areas in which the Pope in Rome had both religious and political authority.

From 1494 onwards, Italy suffered a series of invasions from the French and the Spanish. The north became dominated by the Austrians.

The Kingdom of Sardinia eventually began the process of unifying Italy in 1815, which ended with the eventual capture of Rome in 1870. The Kingdom of Italy lasted from 1861 to 1946. Giuseppe Garibaldi led a drive for unification in southern Italy, while the north wanted to establish a united Italian state under its rule. The northern kingdom successfully challenged the Austrians and established Turin as capital of the newly formed state. In 1866, Victor Emmanuel II managed to annex Venice. In 1870, shortly after France abandoned it, Italy’s capital was moved to Rome. The Pope lost much of his influence, with his political authority now being confined to the Vatican City.

The Kingdom of Italy

After unification, the Kingdom of Italy aspired to overseas colonies like many of its neighbours, and most notably took part in the Scramble for Africa, where it was able to occupy colonies of its own. This culminated in the occupation of Libya, during which Italy scored a decisive victory over the Ottoman Empire.

At the outbreak of World War I, despite officially being in alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy initially refused to participate in the war. Eventually, Italy did join in the war, but as part of the Allies with the United Kingdom and France. The eventual victory of the Allies allowed Italy to gain control of what was formerly Austo-Hungarian land. However, Italy was not able to obtain much of what it desired, and this, in addition to the high cost of the war led to discontent among the Italian population. This was eventually taken advantage of by the nationalists, which later evolved into the Fascist movement.

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.

Italian Republic

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. Cities such as Rome returned to being popular tourist destinations, expressed in both American and Italian films such as “Roman Holiday” or “La Dolce Vita”. In 1957, Italy became a founding member of the European Economic Community.

From the late 60s till the late 1980s, however, 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 was twice been defeated, but emerged triumphant again in the 2008 election.

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 Leaguepolitical 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.

Climate

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. Winters are cold and damp 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.

Literature

Non-Guidebooks about Italy or by Italian writers.

Italian Journey (in the German original: Italienische Reise) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; a report on his travels to Italy via Innsbruck and the Brenner Pass. He visited Lake Garda, Verona, Vicenza, Venice, Bologna, Assisi, Rome and Alban Hills, Naples and Sicily from 1786–7, published in 1816–7.

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone — a biography of Michelangelo that also paints a lovely portrait of Tuscany and Rome.

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King — a compelling story of one of the greatest structural engineering achievements of the Renaissance. The story of the building of the immense dome on top of the basilica in Florence, Italy.

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes — an account of a woman who buys and restores a holiday home in Cortona, Italy. Full of local flavour and a true taste of Tuscany.

The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence — describes a brief excursion undertaken by Lawrence and Frieda, his wife aka Queen Bee, from Taormina in Sicily to the interior of Sardinia. They visited Cagliari, Mandas, Sorgono, and Nuoro. Despite the brevity of his visit, Lawrence distills an essence of the island and its people that is still recognisable today. Also by D.H. Lawrence is Etruscan Places, recording his impressions of Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci and Volterra.

Italian neighbours and A season with Verona by Tim Parks. Two portraits of nowadays life in Italy as seen by an English writer who decided to live just outside Verona.

Winter Stars by Beatrice Lao — poems born between the Alps and the Tyrrhenian by the oriental poetess, 988979991X.

The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo — stories about China by the Venetian traveller.

Written by The Travel Valet

Photo courtesy of Fototeca ENIT

By Sandy Karwacki-farber, BA

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