Italy - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Italy: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Italy (Italian Italia), republic in southern Europe, on the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of Italy consists of a boot-shaped peninsula that juts out from southern Europe into the Mediterranean. Italy also includes the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Sicily and many lesser islands. Italy is blessed with varied and splendid landscapes, and because of its location most of the country enjoys sunshine and a mild Mediterranean climate.

Italy was the heart of the ancient Roman Empire, which united the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea and spread the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome through much of Europe. After the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century AD, Italy’s political unity was lost. But Rome, under the Roman Catholic Church, remained the spiritual center of western Europe. In the late Middle Ages northern Italian cities such as Florence, Venice, and Milan became prosperous commercial centers. In these cities the rebirth of classical culture known as the Renaissance began in the 14th century. Italian Renaissance painters, sculptors, writers, and architects were admired and imitated all over Europe, while Italy’s many small states became pawns in power struggles between France, Spain, and Austria.

Italian nationalism emerged as a powerful force in the 19th century, and a united Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861. In 1946, after World War II, the monarchy was abolished and the Italian Republic was established. Since then, Italy has had a succession of governments, dominated during most of that period by the center-right, with the left in opposition. Rome is the capital and largest city of Italy, but nearly all of Italy’s towns and cities retain artistic treasures and other reminders of Italy’s cultural heritage.


More than half of Italy consists of the Italian Peninsula, a long projection of the continental mainland. Shaped much like a boot, the Italian Peninsula extends generally southeast into the Mediterranean Sea. The country is about 1,100 km (about 700 mi) long; the toe of the boot adds another 200 km (124 mi) or so. The mainland portion of Italy, in the north, has a maximum width of about 610 km (about 380 mi), whereas the narrower peninsula measures about 240 km (about 150 mi) across at its widest point. Except for a few parts of the Alps in northern Italy, no place in the country is more than 120 km (75 mi) from the sea.

Italy is bordered by Switzerland and Austria on the north; by Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea, on the east; by the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, on the south; on the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Ligurian Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea; and on the northwest by France. It comprises, in addition to the Italian mainland, the islands of Elba, Sardinia, and Sicily, and many lesser islands. Enclaves within mainland Italy are the independent countries of San Marino and Vatican City; the latter is a papal state mostly enclosed by Rome.

The Alps extend in a wide arc along Italy’s northern frontier, from the French border on the west to the Slovenian border on the east. They include high peaks such as Monte Cervino and Monte Rosa, which rises to its highest point in Switzerland just west of the border. The highest point in Italy is near the summit of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco), on the border of Italy, France, and Switzerland; the peak, located in France, is 4,810 m (15,782 ft). Italy’s other mountain chain, the Apennines, forms the backbone of the Italian Peninsula. The broad Plain of Lombardy, including the valley of the Po River, spreads between the Alps and the Apennines. With the exception of this plain in the north, most of Italy is mountainous or hilly, with few large areas of level land. The Apennines run from the Gulf of Genoa on the Mediterranean coast south into Sicily. The highest peak in this chain is Monte Corno (2,912 m/9,554 ft). The Apennines form the watershed of the Italian Peninsula.

Only about one-third of the total land surface of Italy is made of plains, of which the greatest single tract is the Plain of Lombardy. The coast of Italy along the northern Adriatic Sea is low and sandy, bordered by shallow waters and, except at Venice, not readily accessible to oceangoing vessels. From a point near Rimini southward, the eastern coast of the peninsula is fringed by spurs of the Apennines. Along the middle of the western coast, however, are three stretches of low and marshy land, the Campagna di Roma, the Pontine Marshes, and the Maremma.

The western coast of Italy is broken up by bays, gulfs, and other indentations, which provide a number of natural anchorages. In the northwest is the Gulf of Genoa, the harbor of the important commercial city of Genoa. Naples, another leading western coast port, is situated on the beautiful Bay of Naples, dominated by the volcano Mount Vesuvius. A little farther south is the Gulf of Salerno, at the head of which stands the port of Salerno. The southeastern end of the peninsula is deeply indented by the Gulf of Taranto, which divides the so-called heel of Italy (ancient Calabria) from the toe (modern Calabria). The Apennine range continues beneath the narrow Strait of Messina and traverses the island of Sicily, where the volcano Mount Etna is located. Another active volcano rises on Stromboli, one of the Lipari Islands (Isole Eolie), northwest of the Strait of Messina. In addition to volcanic activity, Italy is also plagued by frequent minor earthquakes, especially in the southern regions.

Rivers and Lakes in Italy

Italy has many rivers, of which the Po and the Adige are the most important. The Po, 652 km (405 mi) long, is navigable for about 480 km (about 300 mi), and with its tributaries affords about 970 km (about 600 mi) of inland waterways. The Adige, 410 km (255 mi) long, flows east as far as Bolzano, and then courses in a generally southern direction through Trento and Verona. Like the Po, it empties into the Adriatic. The beds of these rivers are slowly being elevated by alluvial deposits from the mountains.

The rivers of the Italian Peninsula are shallow, often dry during the summer season, and consequently of little importance for navigation or industry. The chief peninsular rivers are the Arno and the Tiber. From its sources in the Apennines, the Arno flows west for about 240 km (about 150 mi), through a well-cultivated valley and the cities of Florence and Pisa. The Tiber rises not far from the sources of the Arno and runs through the city of Rome. Both the northern and peninsular regions of Italy have numerous lakes. The principal lakes of northern Italy are Garda, Maggiore, Como, and Lugano; the peninsular lakes, which are considerably smaller, include Trasimeno, Bolsena, and Bracciano.

Climate in Italy

The climate of Italy is highly diversified, with extremes ranging from frigid in the higher elevations of the Alps and Apennines, to semitropical along the coast of the Ligurian Sea and the western coast of the lower peninsula. Regional climatic variations on the peninsula result chiefly from the configurations of the Apennines, and are influenced by tempering winds from the adjacent seas. In the lowlands regions and lower slopes of the Apennines bordering the western coast, from northern Tuscany to the vicinity of Rome, winters are mild and sunny, and extreme temperatures are modified by cooling Mediterranean breezes. Temperatures in the same latitudes on the east of the peninsula are much lower, chiefly because of the prevailing northeastern winds. Along the upper eastern slopes of the Apennines, climatic conditions are particularly bleak. Semitropical conditions prevail in southern Italy and along the Gulf of Genoa, whereas the climate of the Plain of Lombardy is continental. Warm summers and cold winters prevail on this plain, which is shielded from sea breezes by the Apennines. Heaviest precipitation occurs in Italy during the fall and winter months, when westerly winds prevail. The lowest mean annual rainfall, about 460 mm (about 18 in), occurs in the Apulian province of Foggia in the south and in southern Sicily; the highest, about 1,520 mm (about 60 in), occurs in the province of Udine in the northeast.

Natural Resources of Italy

Italy is poor in natural resources. Much of the land is unsuitable for agriculture because of mountainous terrain or unfavorable climate. Italy, moreover, lacks substantial deposits of basic natural resources such as coal, iron, and petroleum. Natural gas is the country’s most important mineral resource. Other deposits include feldspar and pumice. Many of Italy’s mineral deposits on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia had been heavily depleted by the early 1990s. Italy is rich in various types of building stone, notably marble. Despite Italy’s long coastline, its commercial fishing catch is small; anchovy, mussels, and clams have the greatest commercial importance.

Plants and Animals in Italy

The plants of the central and southern lowlands of Italy are typically Mediterranean. Among the characteristic vegetation of these regions are trees such as the olive, orange, lemon, palm, and citron. Other common types, especially in the extreme south, are fig, date, pomegranate, and almond trees, and sugarcane and cotton. The vegetation of the Apennines closely resembles that of central Europe. Dense growths of chestnut, cypress, and oak trees occupy the lower slopes, and at higher elevations, there are extensive stands of pine and fir.

Because people have inhabited Italy for so many centuries and the country is so densely populated, few wild animals remain. Italy has fewer varieties of animals than are found generally in Europe. Small numbers of marmot, chamois, and ibex live in the Alps. The bear, numerous in ancient times, is now virtually extinct, but the wolf and wild boar still flourish in the mountain regions. Another fairly common quadruped is the fox. Among the predatory species of bird are the eagle, hawk, vulture, buzzard, falcon, and kite, confined for the most part to the mountains. The quail, woodcock, partridge, and various migratory species abound in many parts of Italy. Reptiles include several species of lizards and snakes and three species of the poisonous viper family. Scorpions are also found.

Environmental Issues in Italy

Industrial and urban pollution is a major concern in Italy. Sulfur dioxide emissions that have been linked with health problems and damage to buildings have decreased since 1970, but progress in cleaning the air has been slower than in other European countries. Nitrogen oxide emissions are still on the rise, however, linked with continued growth of the transportation sector. Electric cars are becoming a popular solution to air-quality problems in urban areas. Air pollution has also damaged Italy’s forests. Levels of water pollution from farm chemicals and human waste are high in some rivers and in the Adriatic Sea. Extreme levels in the late 1980s caused widespread eutrophication (oxygen depletion) of the marine environment in this region, and the government declared an emergency.

Nature conservation has been practiced in Italy since Roman times. There are currently five national parks, each independently administered. In addition, there are many other types of smaller protected areas. The lack of a national system of protected areas with centralized administration has impeded efforts to create new preserves and to legally protect existing ones. The government provides incentives for forest preservation and tree planting. About 22.1 percent of the country was forested in 1995, of which 42 percent was managed for tree harvest and only one-quarter was mature forest. A significant proportion of forests is under private management. Forest biomass has increased in recent years due to a decline in human encroachment on mountain habitats. Since the early 1980s Italy has had fairly comprehensive laws and guidelines protecting the sea and coastlines, although enforcement and implementation have been irregular.

Italy has ratified numerous international environmental agreements, including the World Heritage Convention and agreements concerning air pollution, biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, hazardous wastes, marine dumping, the ozone layer, ship pollution, tropical timber, wetlands, and whaling. Regionally, Italy is party to the European Wild Birds Directive and the Council of Europe (CE), under which dozens of biogenetic reserves have been designated. Ten specially protected marine areas exist in Italy under the Mediterranean Action Plan. Several transborder parks have been established with France and Switzerland.


The Italian population consists almost entirely of native-born people, many of whom identify themselves closely with a particular region of Italy. The country can be generally divided into the more urban north (the area from the northern border to the southern part of Rome) and the mostly rural south (everything below this line). The more prosperous, industrialized north contains most of Italy’s larger cities and about two-thirds of the country’s population; the primarily agricultural south has a smaller population base and a more limited economy. In recent decades the population has generally migrated from rural to urban areas; the population was 68 percent urban in 2005.

The overwhelming majority of the people speak Italian (see Italian Language), one of the Romance languages of the Indo-European family of languages (see Italic Languages). German is spoken around Bolzano, in the north near the Austrian border. Other minority languages include French (spoken in the Valle d’Aosta region), Ladin, Albanian, and Slovenian. Regional dialects are spoken in some parts of Italy.

According to the 2001 census, Italy had a population of 56,995,744. The 2009 estimated population is 58,126,212, giving the country an average population density of 198 persons per sq km (about 512 per sq mi). About two-thirds of Italy’s people live in towns and cities.

Principal Regions and Their Cities in Italy

Italy is made up of many distinct regions. Piedmont, in the northwest, consists of the country’s highest alpine peaks and a fertile plain. Its mountains and valleys attract tourists. In the districts around Vercelli and Novara the rivers are used to irrigate rice paddies. They also furnish energy for the vast industrial network of the plains below. Turin, the principal city of the region, has a population estimated at 900,569. In the 19th century it was the home of the political group that struggled to free Italy from foreign control and to unify it into one nation. Turin also played a major role in the economic rebirth of Italy following World War II. As the headquarters of Fiat, it leads Italy in automobile manufacturing.

Liguria occupies a narrow strip of coastline from the French border to Tuscany. Its leading city, Genoa (population 615,686) remains the most important port of Italy and a major commercial and banking center. Beyond the city’s busy suburbs lies the Italian Riviera, which is blessed with a mild, sunny climate, pleasant beaches, and a profusion of exotic plants and flowers.

Lombardy combines scenic beauty with bustling industrial activity. The lake region, with Lake Como, Lake Garda, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Lugano, has become a thriving tourist center. Milan, with a population of 1,303,437, is the second largest city in Italy, after Rome. It is the country’s industrial and financial heart as well as a center of design and fashion. The Italian opera house La Scala is in Milan as is Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated mural, The Last Supper.

Veneto stretches from the Po River to Trieste. Curving along the Adriatic in an arc, it is for the most part a fertile plain, with lively cities and agricultural and industrial centers. At the center of the arc, situated on more than 100 islets, lies Venice (population 268,934). Venice was for many centuries the gateway between East and West and is world-famous for its art treasures. Other cities of Veneto include Verona, an agricultural and industrial center; Padua, with an ancient university and art treasures; and Trieste, built like an amphitheater around a bay, an important port for the commerce of the landlocked countries of central Europe.

Trentino-Alto Adige is a mountainous region in northern Italy where farming and forestry are important and tourism, especially skiing and hiking in the Dolomites, is a major source of income. Situated along the Austrian border, this is the least Italian region in Italy, and Alto Adige is also known by its German name of Südtirol (South Tyrol). The region’s chief cities are Trento and Bolzano.

Emilia-Romagna lies across the Po River from Veneto and Lombardy, stretching from the crest of the Apennines to the Adriatic. An area of rich farmlands, the region also takes pride in its ancient towns. Bologna is the seat of Europe’s oldest university. Ravenna and Rimini, on the shores of the Adriatic, are popular seaside resorts.

Tuscany lies in the part of the Apennine chain where the mountains rise gently from fertile valleys and plains. Olive trees and grapevines cover the slopes. Florence is the artistic heart of Tuscany, but Pisa, Siena, Arezzo, and many smaller towns also are centers of Tuscan art and architecture. The towns and cities of Tuscany retain many of their buildings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Umbria, in the heart of the Italian peninsula, displays rolling hills, woods, silver olive trees, and green plains. It is perhaps best known as the land of Saint Francis of Assisi. The town of Assisi is a shrine to Saint Francis and is noted for its treasures of Italian medieval art. Perugia, an agricultural and trade center, is also an important city in Umbria. Near Perugia are ancient Etruscan tombs, and within the city are remnants of walls that date from Etruscan and Roman times.

Latium, or Lazio, is a hilly and mountainous region on the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea at the foot of the Apennines. The most important city of the region is Rome, with a population, 2007 estimate, of 2,705,603. The ancient capital of the Roman Empire, it remains the capital of modern Italy and is today a commercial, administrative, cultural, and tourist center of great importance. Vatican City, an independent sovereign state, lies within the city limits of Rome.

Between central and southern Italy lie the regions of Abruzzi and Molise, in the most mountainous and inaccessible part of the peninsula. The land is largely used for farming and for grazing livestock. The regional capital of Abruzzi is L’Aquila and of Molise, Campobasso.

Campania, which is also mountainous, includes a small fertile plain near the sea. At the center of the plain is the Bay of Naples, with its famed city and islands, including Capri and Ischia. Naples (population, (975,139) has one of the country’s busiest ports. Nearby are the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Beyond the Sorrento peninsula to the south stretches the Amalfi Coast with its breathtaking scenery.

Apulia, Basilicata, and Calabria lie south of Campania, forming the heel and toe of Italy’s boot. Apulia, after centuries of isolation and stagnation, developed its agricultural and industrial base and is known today for its wines and olive oils. Bari (population, 325,052) is Apulia’s major city. In Basilicata and Calabria, too, ambitious development plans have transformed the landscape.

Sicily is one of the most beautiful lands of the Mediterranean region. Its archaeological treasures, especially its ancient Greek temples, are especially fine. Vegetation covers most of the coast, although the southern coast is barren and arid. Mount Etna, near the northeastern coast, is one of the largest volcanoes in the world. The coastal area has many resorts, of which the most famous is Taormina. Palermo (population, 666,552) is the capital of the island and its chief port. Catania (population, 301,564), the second city, is important for its commerce and industry. It lies at the base of Mount Etna.

Sardinia, in very ancient times, had a curious civilization, of which there is still evidence in Stone Age and Bronze Age houses shaped like truncated cones and in rock tombs and funeral monuments. Cagliari is the largest town and principal port on the island. The beautiful Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), along Sardinia’s northeastern shore, has become popular with wealthy, international jet-setters.

Religion in Italy

The dominant religion of Italy is Roman Catholicism, the faith of more than 90 percent of the people. About 95 percent of Italians are baptized, and about 85 percent claim themselves to be believers as adults. However, the Catholic church’s role in Italy has declined. Despite opposition from the church, civil divorce was introduced in 1970, and abortion was legalized in 1978. A law ratified in 1985 abolished Roman Catholicism as the official state religion and ended mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution guarantees freedom of worship to the religious minorities, which are primarily Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish. Protestants include Waldenses, Methodists, Baptists, and Lutherans.

Education in Italy

The Italian impact on European education dates back to the ancient Roman educators and scholars, outstanding among whom were Cicero, Quintilian, and Seneca. Later, during the Middle Ages, Italian universities became the model for those of other countries. During the Renaissance, Italy was the teacher of the liberal arts to virtually all Europe, especially for Greek language and literature. The educational influence of Italy continued through the 17th century, when its universities and academies were European centers of teaching and research in the sciences. After a decline during the 18th and 19th centuries, Italian education regained international notice in the 20th century, partly as a result of the method for teaching young children developed by Maria Montessori.

The modern educational system of Italy dates from 1859, when a law was enacted providing for a complete school system that extended from the elementary through the university levels. Improvements were introduced later in the 19th century. In 1923 the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, minister of public instruction under Benito Mussolini, promoted complete governmental control of education, and the control was reinforced by the School Charter of 1939. With the collapse of fascism in 1944, however, Italy undertook to organize the school system along democratic lines. The constitution of 1947 and later laws raised the general educational level and encouraged experimentation, such as televised adult education (telescuola).

Traditionally, the goal of the Italian educational system has been to establish a well-trained minority rather than a widely educated majority. Education is free and compulsory for all children aged 6 through 14. The compulsory term includes five years of elementary and three years of secondary education. From the ages of 14 to 18 students may attend a higher secondary school to gain specialized training or to prepare for university entrance. Higher secondary studies may be taken in classical, scientific, teacher-training, foreign language, technical, or business schools. A student may also enter an art institute or conservatory of music.

Elementary and Secondary Schools

In the 2006 school year about 20,361 primary schools with some 264,378 teachers were giving instruction to about 2.8 million pupils. Some 4.5 million students were enrolled in secondary schools.

Universities and Colleges

Much attention is given to higher education in Italy. Six Italian universities were founded in the 13th century and five in the 14th. The oldest is the University of Bologna, dating from the 11th century, and the largest is the University of Rome. Other notable institutions are those of Bari, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Padua, Perugia, Pisa, Siena, and Trieste. In addition to the state universities, there are also polytechnic institutes at Milan and Turin and several private universities. The largest private university is the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart at Milan. Some 2 million students were enrolled in higher education in Italy in 2006.

Culture of Italy

The cultural tradition of Italy is one of the richest in the world. In art, architecture, literature, music, and science, Italians have often stimulated cultural development far beyond Italy’s borders. Even before the great contributions of the ancient Romans (see Roman Art and Architecture), the Etruscans in Tuscany and the Greeks in the south of Italy created flourishing cultures. In the 14th century that great flowering of Italian culture known as the Renaissance began. The Renaissance lasted for almost three centuries, and during that period Italians led all Europe in learning and the arts (see Renaissance Art and Architecture). Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are among the most famous painters and sculptors in the history of art. Writers such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio developed new forms that influenced writing outside Italy for centuries.

Italian culture developed in many different centers because of the country’s long history of political fragmentation. From the Renaissance to recent times every large provincial city in Italy has been a cultural capital, on however modest a scale. Each center has its own history and distinctive culture. During the 20th century, cultural regionalism gave way to the effects of political unity, modern education, and mass communications, and Italian culture gained national and international scope. From opera to popular music, from painting to design, from cinema to fiction, Italians have continued to make outstanding contributions to contemporary culture.

Many of the great Italian painters, such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Amedeo Modigliani, are covered in separate articles in the encyclopedia, as are famous Italian composers, such as Antonio Vivaldi, Gaetano Donizetti, Giacomo Puccini, Gioacchino Rossini, and Giuseppe Verdi. Italian contributions to 20th-century culture came from motion-picture directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica, Federico Fellini, and Bernardo Bertolucci; artists such as Sandro Chia, Giorgio de Chirico, and Giacomo Manzù; writers such as Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, and Umberto Eco; and opera singers such as Enrico Caruso, Renate Tebaldi, and Luciano Pavarotti. See also Architecture; Italian Literature; Motion Pictures, History of; Music, Western; Opera; Painting; Sculpture.

Libraries and Museums

Italy is rich in important library collections. Among the largest and most valuable libraries are the national libraries in Florence, Naples, and Rome. Several universities also have large libraries. Smaller collections, rich in local manuscripts and incunabula (books printed before 1501), are found in most Italian cities.

World-famous art collections are housed in numerous Italian cities. Among the most important art museums are the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace in Florence, the National Museum in Naples, and, in Rome, the Capitoline Museums, the Galleria Borghese, and the Villa Giulia. Vatican City has important art collections in its museums and chapels, the most famous of which is the Sistine Chapel. An international biennial exhibition of visual arts in Venice is world renowned.


Italy’s industrial development began at the end of the 19th century, with relatively rapid expansion in the north before and during World War I (1914-1918). Fascist policies under Benito Mussolini and the world depression of the 1930s encouraged restructuring rather than expansion of the economy. By the end of World War II in 1945, nearly half the workforce was still employed in agriculture. After the war Italy developed a diversified industrial base, especially in the north, which contributes significantly to the economy. The rate of economic growth slowed in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1990s the government introduced reforms to deal with underlying inefficiencies in the economy. Privatization of public industries began so that Italy could reduce its large public debt and meet European Union (EU) requirements. Government spending also dropped, sparking protests. However, economic stagnation persisted into the early 2000s.

In 2007 Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $2.10 trillion, or about $35,396.20 per capita. GDP is a measure of the total value of the goods and services a country produces. Industry (including manufacturing, mining, and construction) contributed 27 percent to the GDP, services (including trade, banking, and government) 71 percent, and agriculture (including forestry and fishing) a scant 2 percent. Italy essentially has a private-enterprise economy, although the government formerly held a controlling interest in a number of large commercial and manufacturing enterprises, such as the oil industry (through the Italian state petroleum company) and the principal transportation and telecommunication systems. In the 1990s Italy began transferring government interest in many enterprises to private ownership. The government—at the national, regional, and local levels—remains a major employer in Italy.

An ongoing problem of the Italian economy has been the slow growth of industrialization in the south, which lags behind the north in most aspects of economic development. Lack of infrastructure and organized crime have hampered development in the south and discouraged large corporations from opening there. Government efforts to foster industrialization in the south through subsidies have met with mixed results. Although public spending in the south increased during the 1980s, efforts to reduce the public debt from the 1990s on meant that less funding was available. The government succeeded in reducing unemployment in the 1990s and early 2000s; however, the unemployment rate remained at about 6 percent of the working-age population. Unemployment remained much higher in the south than in the north.

A large national debt has plagued Italy’s economy: The national budget of Italy in 2007 included revenue of $796 billion and expenditure of $837 billion. In keeping with provisions of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union (EU), Italy reduced its budget deficit and its debt-to-GDP ratio during the 1990s. As a result Italy met the EU single-currency requirement and was able to adopt the euro in 1999. Although the annual deficit dropped below the EU goal of 3 percent, the accumulated debt remained large, at more than 100 percent of GDP, in the early 2000s.

Agriculture of Italy

Some 35 percent of the land area of Italy is cultivated or used for orchards; agriculture, with fishing and forestry, engages 4 percent of the labor force. Variations of climate, soil, and elevation allow the cultivation of many types of crops. Italy is one of the leading nations in the production of grapes and ranks among the world’s foremost wine producers. Italian wine production totaled about 5 million metric tons at the beginning of the 21st century. Italy also is one of the world’s leading producers of olives and olive oil. Chief field crops included sugar beets, maize (see Corn), wheat, and tomatoes. Other field crops are potatoes, rice, barley, lettuce, soybeans, and artichokes. Orchard crops, prominent in the Italian economy, include apples, oranges, peaches, pears, figs, dates, and nuts. Dairy farming is a major industry. About 50 kinds of cheese are produced, including Gorgonzola, pecorino, and Parmesan. Livestock included cattle, sheep, hogs, goats, horses, and poultry.

Forestry and Fishing in Italy

The forestry industry is limited in Italy, and much wood must be imported. Most of the old-growth forests were harvested, first by the Romans in antiquity and then in the 19th century. The main forest regions are in the mountainous or hilly areas of the Apennines, Alps, and Dolomites. Italy’s fishing catch is small. The fishing industry is mostly local and small scale. Mussels, anchovies, trout, and clams are among the chief species of seafood harvested.

Mining in Italy

Italy has few mineral resources, and mining contributes only a very small portion of the annual national product. Natural gas, produced in the Po Valley and offshore in the Adriatic Sea, is Italy’s main mineral fuel resource. Italy also has small petroleum resources, located mainly in Sicily and the south. Production of fossil fuels in 2004 included 35 million barrels of crude petroleum and 13.6 billion cubic meters (479 billion cubic feet) of natural gas. Other mineral resources include rock salt, talc, barites, lignite, fluorspar, and lead.

Manufacturing in Italy

After World War II, Italian industry expanded rapidly, and Italian products gained worldwide popularity for their fine design and quality. Small-scale and medium-sized industries dominate, with many firms employing fewer than 100 people. These industries tend to be concentrated by products in a particular region—for example, glassmaking in Murano, silk production in Como, tomato canning in Salerno. Smaller companies flourish in part because of the many regulations placed by the government on large industries. Among the internationally known companies in Italy are the automobile manufacturer Fiat, the telecommunications (formerly typewriter) firm Olivetti, and the tire and cable manufacturer Pirelli.

Italy’s major industries are metals and metal products; machinery and motor vehicles; food and beverages; chemicals; and textiles, footwear, and clothing. Italy has important steel, aluminum, zinc, and lead industries. It produces various kinds of machinery, including tractors and agricultural equipment, household appliances, passenger cars, trucks, and buses. The production of food includes pasta and tomatoes. Sulfuric acid, ammonia, petrochemicals, and pharmaceuticals are among its chemical products. Textiles and shoes are manufactured in a number of northern towns and cities. Milan is the center of Italy’s fashion industry. Italy’s trend-setting designs make it one of the leading furniture manufacturers in the world.

Energy in Italy

Italy generates only about a quarter of the energy it consumes, relying mostly on imported fossil fuels. Some 82.11 percent of Italy’s yearly output of electricity is generated in thermal plants burning petroleum products, natural gas, coal, or lignite, and most of the remainder is produced in hydroelectric facilities. The country’s nuclear energy program was abandoned because of public opposition following the 1986 accident at Chernobyl’ in Ukraine. In 2006 Italy’s annual output of electricity was 291 billion kilowatt-hours.

Currency and Banking of Italy

The monetary unit of Italy is the single currency of the European Union (EU), the euro (0.70 euros equal U.S. $1; 2007 average). Italy is among 12 EU member states to adopt the euro. The euro was introduced on January 1, 1999, for electronic transfers and accounting purposes only, and Italy’s national currency, the lira, was used for other purposes. On January 1, 2002, euro-denominated coins and bills went into circulation, and the lira ceased to be legal tender.

The Bank of Italy is the Italian national bank. A public institution, the Bank of Italy has branches in each provincial capital. In addition, Italy has many private banks. The 1990 Banking Act introduced a number of changes in the country’s banking system, reducing public ownership of banks and loosening regulations on external and foreign capital, as part of the move by the European Community (now the EU) toward currency union and free capital movement within Europe. Milan and Rome are major financial centers.

As a participant in the single currency, Italy must follow economic policies established by the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB is located in Frankfurt, Germany, and is responsible for all EU monetary policies, which include setting interest rates and regulating the money supply. On January 1, 1999, control over Italian monetary policy was transferred from the Bank of Italy to the ECB. The Bank of Italy joined the other EU countries that adopted the euro as part of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB).

Foreign Trade in Italy

Italy’s economy depends heavily on foreign trade. More than half of its trade is with other member countries of the European Union. The dependence of Italy on imported coal, petroleum, and other essential raw materials for many years yielded an unfavorable balance of trade, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. However, the tourism industry supplements export earnings, improving the trade balance. Exports increased in the early 1990s when the lira was devalued against other European currencies, making Italian manufactures less expensive to foreign buyers. Rising exports and trade surpluses helped pull Italy from a recession.

In 2007 Italian exports earned $488.2 billion per year and imports cost $501.1 billion. Italy’s exports include machinery, motor vehicles, chemicals, clothing and footwear, textile yarn and fabrics, food and wine, and furniture. Imports include machinery and transportation equipment, petroleum, chemicals, and food, especially meat. Principal markets for Italy’s products are Germany, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain. Chief sources for imports are Germany, France, Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States, Belgium, and Spain.

Tourism of Italy

Tourism’s importance to Italy’s economy has increased enormously in the last 50 years, and today tourism contributes a larger portion to the economy than agriculture. Italy offers both natural and cultural attractions to the tourist. As far back as the 16th century, the education of an English gentleman was incomplete until he had seen Italy as part of the so-called Grand Tour of European cities. Today, tourists visit Italy for its ancient Greek and Roman ruins in Sicily, Paestum, Pompeii, and Herculaneum; for the Byzantine and medieval art and architecture in Ravenna and Venice; and the major monuments of the Renaissance found in Tuscany, especially Florence, and regions nearby. A trip to Rome generally includes visits to the ancient forum, the Colosseum, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the museums and Sistine Chapel of the Vatican City.

Italy’s landscapes are diverse, and the scenery is magnificent in all regions of the country. Especially popular with tourists are the lakes of Lombardy in northern Italy and the hilltowns of Tuscany and Umbria. For outdoor enthusiasts beach resorts abound, including Rimini, on the Adriatic coast, Taormina in Sicily, Positano on the Bay of Sorrento, San Remo on the Italian Riviera, and the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) of Sardinia. The beaches of Calabria, in the south, have recently been developed for tourism but are still less frequented than those of other regions. Skiing and other winter sports are popular in the Dolomites and Italian Alps.

Transportation in Italy

The country’s chief seaports include Genoa, Trieste, Taranto, and Venice. Italy is served by 16,668 km (10,357 mi) of operated railroad track, much of which is electrified. The government operates most of the rail lines. The country has about 484,688 km (about 301,171 mi) of roads, including some 7,000 km (some 4,300 mi) of limited-access highways (autostrada). One of the longest automobile tunnels in the world, the Mont Blanc Tunnel, links Italy and France. The two countries also are linked via the Mount Frejus vehicular tunnel. Alitalia, the state airline, provides both domestic and international service. The country’s busiest airport is near Rome; the largest international airport is Malpensa Airport near Milan.

Communications in Italy

After the abolition in 1976 of the Italian government’s monopoly on broadcasting, the number of stations in the country increased. However, by the early 2000s the government broadcaster RAI and Mediaset, the company created by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, owned most of the country’s television stations. While the number of daily newspapers remains small relative to Italy’s population, total circulation was 8 million in 2004, or 137 copies for every 1,000 residents. Local and regional publications, including those produced by political parties and by the Roman Catholic church, have been an important part of Italy’s communications network. Influential dailies include Corriere della Sera and Il Giorno, in Milan; La Repubblica, in Rome; and La Stampa, in Turin. In 1997 Italy had 880 radios and 499 televisions for every 1,000 people.

Labor in Italy

Italy’s labor force in 2007 was 25 million; some 40 percent were women. Millions of workers belong to one of three major trade union federations: the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, or CGIL, formerly associated with the Communist Party and now with the Democratic Party of the Left; the centrist Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, or CISL; and the Unione Italiana del Lavoro, or UIL, associated with the socialists. Labor union contracts set wages and salaries in every major field.

The Mafia in Italy

A loosely affiliated network of criminal groups that first developed in Sicily during the late Middle Ages, the Mafia has historically been one of the most powerful economic and social forces in Italy. By the late 19th century, the Mafia, known for its familial structure, ruthless violence, and strong code of silence (omertà), controlled the Sicilian countryside, infiltrating or manipulating local authorities, extorting money, and terrorizing citizens. During the 20th century, except for a period of repression by Benito Mussolini from the 1920s until the end of World War II in 1945, the Mafia continued to expand its influence over both legal and illegal operations in Italy, especially in the south. The Mafia’s influence was exported to other countries by emigrants, and by the 1970s the Mafia controlled a large part of the world’s heroin trade. Renewed government prosecution of Mafia figures and activities beginning in the mid-1980s, and a series of political scandals linking many Italian politicians with the Mafia, gave rise to hopes that Mafia influence in Italy would eventually decline.


Italy has been a democratic republic since June 2, 1946, when the monarchy was abolished by popular referendum. It has a parliamentary system of government with many political parties, none of which commands a majority of popular votes. Italian society remains strongly divided politically, and Italian governments have often been weak and ineffective. Although Italy’s tumultuous politics have produced more than 50 different governments since the advent of the democratic system, order is maintained through a well-established bureaucracy that supports the elected offices.

Italy is governed by a constitution that came into effect on January 1, 1948. By the terms of the constitution, the reestablishment of the Fascist Party (see Fascism) is prohibited; direct male heirs of the house of Savoy (see Savoy, House of) are ineligible to vote or hold any public office; and recognition is no longer accorded to titles of nobility, although titles in existence prior to October 28, 1922, may be used as part of the bearer’s name.

Executive of Italy

The executive branch of Italy’s government is composed of the president, the council of ministers, and the civil service. The president of Italy is elected for a seven-year term by a joint session of parliament augmented by 58 regional representatives. The president must be at least 50 years old. Although head of the government, the president usually has little to do with the actual running of it. These duties are in the hands of the prime minister—who is chosen by the president and must have the confidence of parliament—and the Council of Ministers. The prime minister (sometimes called the premier, or, in Italy, president of the Council of Ministers) generally is the leader of the party that has the largest representation in the Chamber of Deputies.

Legislature of Italy

The Italian parliament consists of the Senate (upper house) and the Chamber of Deputies (lower house). Although both houses are legally equal, the Chamber of Deputies is politically more influential, and most leading politicians in Italy are members of it. In both houses, members are elected by popular suffrage (vote) to serve five-year terms of office. The Chamber of Deputies has 630 seats. The Senate has 315 seats for elected members, plus 10 seats reserved for “life members,” who include past presidents and their honorary nominees. Citizens must be 25 years of age or older to vote for senators; in all other elections, all citizens over age 18 are eligible to vote. Members of the Senate must be at least 40 years old; members of the Chamber of Deputies, at least 25.

For many years, Italian citizens voted for political parties, and individual representatives were named by party leaders in a proportional manner. But as a result of corruption scandals in the early 1990s, a number of public referendums were passed in 1993 that mandated a more direct electoral system. Under that system, 75 percent of all seats were filled by direct candidate ballot, and the remaining 25 percent were distributed among qualifying parties according to a system of proportional representation.

However, in December 2005 the parliament voted to reform the electoral law to reinstate full proportional representation. The revised election system introduced three separate thresholds for parties and coalitions to qualify for seats in parliament: Smaller parties that belong to a coalition must obtain at least 2 percent of the national vote, stand-alone parties must obtain at least 4 percent, and coalitions as a whole must obtain at least 10 percent.

Judiciary in Italy

Italy has a Supreme Court of Cassation (Corte Supreme di Cassazione), which is the highest court of appeal in all cases except those concerning the constitution. There is also a constitutional court, which is analogous in function to the Supreme Court of the United States, and is composed of 15 judges. Five of the judges are appointed by the president of the republic, five by the Senate and Chamber of Deputies jointly, and five by the supreme law courts. The criminal justice system includes district courts, tribunals, and courts of appeal.

Local Government of Italy

Italy is divided into 20 regions, which are subdivided into a total of 94 provinces. Each region is governed by an executive responsible to a popularly elected council. The regional governments have considerable authority. The chief executive of each of the provinces, the prefect, is appointed by, and answerable to, the central government and in fact has little power. An elected council and a provincial executive committee administer each province. Every part of Italy forms a portion of a commune, the basic unit of local government, which may range in size from a small village to a large city such as Naples. Each commune is governed by a communal council elected for a four-year term by universal suffrage. Each council elects a mayor.

Political Parties of Italy

During the first half of the 1990s, in the face of widespread political scandal, Italy moved from a coalition system of politics that had long been dominated by a single party to a more splintered system of powerful new parties and alliances. The centrist Christian Democratic Party, which had been part of 52 consecutive coalitions that had ruled Italy since 1948, dissolved in January 1994. Its members formed two separate parties, the Popular Party and the Christian Democratic Center Party.

A new party called Forza Italia (“Go, Italy”), led by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, emerged as the leading party of center-right coalitions that won national elections in 1994 and 2001. It allied with parties such as the far-right National Alliance, a successor of the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement, and the Northern League, which advocated increased regional autonomy. The major left-wing party became the Democratic Party of the Left, the new name adopted in 1991 by the Italian Communists, one of the largest Communist parties in Western Europe. The party renounced its Communist past and adopted more moderate policies, but a smaller splinter group, the Communist Refoundation, continued to espouse Marxist principles. The Democratic Party of the Left led center-left coalitions that won national elections in 1996 and 2006. Berlusconi’s new center-right People of Freedom Party (PDL), formed in 2007 as a merger between Forza Italia and the National Alliance, won national elections that were held three years early, in 2008.

Health and Welfare in Italy

A government-run national health service, created by legislation enacted in 1978, has the goal of providing free medical care for all citizens. In 2002 Italy had one hospital bed for every 227 people and one physician for every 270 people. Social-welfare insurance, funded largely by employers, is extended to the infirm and the aged, as well as to people pensioned by the state, farmers, unemployed agricultural workers, and apprentices. Life expectancy at birth was estimated at 83 years for women and 77 years for men in 2009; the infant mortality rate was 6 per 1,000 live births.

Defense of Italy

The armed forces of Italy have been greatly expanded since the country joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. In 2006 the Italian permanent armed forces totaled 191,152 people, with an army of 112,000, a navy of 34,000, an air force of 45,152, and a central staff. Compulsory military service for men extends for ten months. Italy planned to end peacetime conscription in 2006 and replace its defense force with a professional army.


For the history of Italy to the 5th century AD, see Ancient Rome and Roman Empire. For additional data on the development of modern Italy, see Etruscan Civilization; Florence; Genoa; Lombardy (Lombardia); Milan; Naples; Papal States; Savoy, House of; Sicily; Tuscany; Venice.

The Early Middle Ages

The End of Roman Italy

In AD 476 the last independent Roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the invading Germanic chieftain Odoacer. This date has traditionally marked the start of the so-called barbarian invasions that brought to a close the political, cultural, and economic greatness of imperial Rome. Modern historians, however, regard this view as much exaggerated. They see the Germanic invasion as the culmination of Rome’s internal decline over a long period. For more than a century Italy had come under attack from neighboring peoples and tribes—Goths, Visigoths, Huns, and Vandals—who were migrating westward from central and eastern Europe. Long before Odoacer became king, Italian rulers had called on neighboring warlords to fight their battles. At the time Odoacer became their ruler, people in Italy noticed no fundamental change, and Roman law and institutions remained in force.

After 476 AD Italy was to remain politically divided, however. The Gothic kings made Ravenna their capital. In Rome the Roman Catholic popes acquired new political importance. Roman emperors in Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, continued to rule most of coastal and southern Italy.

In 488 the Ostrogoth warlord Theodoric invaded Italy and defeated and killed Odoacer. Theodoric ruled until his death in 526, during which time Italy enjoyed relative peace. In 535, however, Justinian I, emperor of the Byzantine Empire, sent the great general Belisarius to drive the Gothic rulers out of Italy. The war ended in 553 with the death of Teias, the last of the Gothic kings, but Byzantine rule was short-lived. In 572 Italy was invaded by the Lombards, another Germanic tribe, whose king, Alboin, made Pavia his capital. The Lombards, unlike the Goths, were intent on settling the region. They gained control of northern Italy, leaving the Byzantine emperor most of the south and Ravenna.

Lombards and Franks

Alboin died in 572 and left no clear leader, enabling individual Lombard warlords known as duces to take power at a local level. The Lombards, like the Goths before them, held to the Arian creed (see Arianism) until Agiluf, a Lombard king who reigned from 590 to 615, was converted to orthodox Christianity. As the Lombards expanded their power in northern Italy, they began to encroach on papal territory. In 754 Pope Stephen II turned for help to the neighboring Franks, who had gained power in the former Roman colony of Gaul (later France). Frankish ruler Pepin the Short accepted the pope’s plea, and he and his son, Charlemagne, deposed the last Lombard king in 774. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the West on Christmas Day 800, the idea of the Western Roman Empire was reborn.

Italy Divided

In the 9th century the Carolingians, as the Frankish successors of Charlemagne were known, gained control over northern Italy. To the south, North African Muslims known as Saracens occupied Sicily, attacked towns on the Italian coast, and threatened Rome. Pope Leo IV appealed to Charlemagne’s great-grandson, King Louis II, to halt the invaders, but after Louis’s death the Muslims overran southern Italy and forced the popes to pay tribute to them. In northern Italy the political unity imposed by the Carolingians also proved short-lived and was followed by the rise and fall of numerous local rulers. The most prominent of these were Guido of Spoleto; Berengar I of Friuli, Holy Roman emperor; and Hugh of Provence. This period of anarchy ended in 962, when the Germanic leader Otto I conquered northern Italy and was crowned emperor by Pope John XII.

The Later Middle Ages

The Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire

Otto and his successors, known as Ottonians, followed Charlemagne in claiming the inheritance of the original Roman emperors. They had already built a strong state in Germany, but Otto II made Rome his principal residence. Soon, however, the German emperors encroached on the power and authority of the pope. The conflict over who had the right to appoint bishops came to a head during the papacy of Gregory VII in the 11th century (see Investiture Controversy).

The growing rivalry between the popes and the emperors gave the towns and local rulers in northern Italy opportunities to assert their own independence. During the 11th and 12th centuries many Italian cities began to develop extensive trade networks. The wealthiest were in northern Italy, in particular Venice and Milan. These and other northern cities became the distinctive feature of Italy’s history throughout the Middle Ages. They reflected the survival of the urban institutions of the Roman Empire and the relative weakness of feudalism in northern Italy.

Developments in the south were very different. In 982 Otto II attempted unsuccessfully to drive the Saracens out of Sicily. Early in the 11th century Christian rulers in the south recruited Norman warriors returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, who proved more effective. The Saracens surrendered Bari in 1071 and Catania and Palermo in the following year. The Norman conquests ended Byzantine, Lombard, and Arab rule in southern Italy. On Christmas Day 1130 Norman ruler Roger II was crowned king in Palermo, Sicily, with papal approval. His kingdom was known as the Two Sicilies because part of it was the island of Sicily and part was on the Italian peninsula.

The Normans based their rule in southern Italy on feudalism, as they also did in England. Although the feudal system survived in Sicily, the Normans were deposed in 1194 when Emperor Henry VI of the German Hohenstaufen family invaded their kingdom. Under his son Frederick II Sicily reached its greatest importance. Frederick II’s court in Palermo was the most important in Europe, and it became a meeting point for Christian, Byzantine, and Arab cultures. From Palermo, Frederick ruled his extensive Italian and German possessions, so that the imperial dream of ruling the whole of Italy came close to realization. But this was never to be.

After the death of Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen empire in southern Italy quickly unraveled. The popes, jealous of their powerful neighbor to the south, encouraged Charles of Anjou, brother of the king of France, to contest the throne. He became Charles I, king of Naples and Sicily, in 1265, briefly establishing the house of Anjou in Sicily. French rule was deeply resented in Sicily, and in 1282 a popular uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers forced the Angevin rulers to abandon Sicily. The throne was then offered to Spanish king Pedro III. The Angevins continued to rule in Naples until the next century.

The German emperors also faced opposition in northern Italy. When Frederick I, known as Frederick Barbarossa, attempted to force the northern cities into submission, they responded by forming the Lombard League, which in 1176 was victorious at the Battle of Legnano. Under the terms of the Peace of Constance (1183), the emperor granted the northern cities virtual autonomy. As the power of the emperors declined, many northern cities began to turn to the pope as protector.

During the 12th century the role of the pope as the supreme leader of all Catholics had been strengthened. The papal court, or Curia, in Rome was recognized throughout Catholic Europe as the principal court for resolving political as well as ecclesiastical disputes. Rome had also become a center for pilgrims from all over the Christian world, who brought wealth to the city. The 12th-century popes successfully challenged interference by political rulers, and at the Concordat of Worms in 1122 the emperor gave up the right to elect the pope. That right passed to the college of cardinals. Pope Innocent III convoked the Fourth Lateran Council, which was held in Rome in 1215 and attended by 1,200 bishops and abbots from all over Europe. It issued regulations regarding all aspects of Catholic life. Strengthening such initiatives were calls for greater emphasis on spiritual and institutional reform that came from Saint Francis of Assisi and led to the founding of the Franciscans and other mendicant orders.

The new emphasis on spirituality gave the popes and the church greater authority. In addition to heading the Christian church, the pope was ruler of the Papal States in central Italy. Most popes were also members of powerful political families. The papacy was thus involved in Italian political conflicts, and the popes found valuable allies in cities and rulers who opposed the emperor. Frederick II made a final attempt to crush the papacy and its allies, but he was unsuccessful. These struggles left the cities of northern and central Italy divided between supporters of the German emperors, known as Ghibellines, and supporters of the papacy, known as Guelphs (see Guelphs and Ghibellines).

The Rise of the City-States

The rise of many prosperous and independent cities in northern and central Italy constitutes the most distinctive feature of Italy’s history during the Middle Ages. As these cities grew more powerful, they came to control their surrounding territories, including smaller cities, and thereby became city-states. Trade was their principal source of wealth.

Venice was the first of the great Italian cities. From its participation in the Fourth Crusade, Venice gained territories from the Byzantine Empire, including Crete, other Greek islands, and portions of the Greek mainland. These possessions placed Venice at the center of a far-reaching commercial empire. Pisa, Genoa, Milan, and Florence also became powerful commercial centers. As their trading links expanded, so did the rivalry among the city-states. The struggles between Genoa and Venice were especially fierce until Venice emerged as the winner in the late 14th century.

As the cities won greater independence from the authority of the Holy Roman emperors, they also became the scenes of intense internal power struggles as prosperous merchants began to challenge the power exercised by the nobles. Gradually, the nobles were stripped of their power and forced to abandon their extensive landholdings. New forms of oligarchic government—government by small groups—emerged. As a result the politics of the city-states became increasingly factionalized (split into competing groups). Rival factions adopted the broader rival causes of the Guelphs and Ghibellines despite their own more localized objectives.

Civil strife was incessant, and the triumph of one party frequently resulted in the banishment of members of the other. On occasion, the banished party sought to regain power with the aid of other cities, so that city often warred against city, resulting in shifting alliances, conquests, and temporary truces. These disturbances interfered with commerce and industry, and in many towns new offices such as the podesta, or chief magistrate, were established to mediate the differences of the contending parties. This office proved ineffective, however, and the podesta came in time to be primarily a judicial officer. His place as head of the city was taken by a “captain of the people,” representing the dominant party. This position was usually held by a noble.

From these different experiments power within the cities became more concentrated, resulting in the emergence of individual rulers who were initially referred to as despots, or absolute rulers. The office of despot in many cases became hereditary in a noble family, such as the Scala at Verona, the Este at Ferrara, the Malatesta at Rimini, and the Visconti and later the Sforza at Milan. Under the rule of the despots, known as signoria in Italian, wealth increased, life became more luxurious, and literature and the arts flourished. The rise of the signoria was accompanied by the territorial expansion of the more powerful cities that became the centers of new city-states. The smaller cities gradually passed under the influence of the larger ones.

Italy’s lack of political unity encouraged competition between the city-states in politics and culture as well as commerce. The rise of the city-states and their worldly rulers was accompanied by new ideas of political independence and of the nobility of republican government—that is, government by chosen leaders. In reality, however, these ideas often served to legitimize the leadership of the wealthy families. Both the city-states and the wealthy families invested heavily in patronage of the arts, of artists, and of writers and intellectuals. This provided the background for the unprecedented artistic revival known as the Renaissance and for the birth of humanism.

Prosperity and Political Divisions

In the 14th century an epidemic of plague, known as the Black Death, wiped out one-quarter to one-third of Europe’s population, and seriously set back the commercial expansion of the previous century. Recovery was relatively rapid, however, and by the early 15th century cities in northern and central Italy were the centers of the most important commercial, manufacturing, and banking enterprises in Europe. In Florence modern accounting and banking was invented, and Italian textiles were sold throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds. The wealth thus created made possible artistic patronage and the extraordinary flourishing of art that began in the early 13th century with Giotto and Duccio and continued into the 16th century, the age of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. During the same period the Italian city-states nurtured the writers from whom much of later European literature developed. Florence, for example, was the home of both the poet Dante Alighieri and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. Siena, Pisa, Milan, Venice, and many small city-states such as Mantua were also major centers of artistic patronage.

The city-states achieved a remarkable degree of autonomy in the 14th and early 15th centuries because of the weakness of both the German emperors and the papacy. Between 1305 and 1377 the pope and his court resided in France, at Avignon, to avoid the turmoil in Rome. After the election of pope Urban VII in 1378 was declared invalid, rival popes claimed legitimacy, further weakening the papacy. This schism in the church lasted until the Council of Constance in 1420. The absence of the popes in Italy during the second half of the 14th century also weakened French rule in Italy, which had survived in Naples after Sicily came under Spanish control. In 1422 Alfonso V, king of Aragón and Sicily, gained control of Naples and reunited Sicily and the southern Italian mainland (Naples) under a single crown.

Under Aragónese leadership the southern kingdom again became a political power, and Naples emerged as a cultural center. The popes who came after the Council of Constance restored the influence of the papacy and began to extend papal authority in central Italy by exploiting rivalries between powerful city-states. The papacy, however, resented the power of the Aragónese monarchy, and in 1494 pope Alexander VI, in alliance with the rulers of Milan, invited the French king to invade Italy and claim the throne of Naples.

Foreign Invasion

Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 at the invitation of the pope. The French invasion marked the beginning of Italian Wars that continued with interruptions until 1559. Italy experienced many disasters in those years, including the sack of Rome in 1527 by the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Despite the invasions, however, Italy’s prosperity and its artistic and cultural vitality flourished until the end of the 16th century.

The Early Modern Age

Foreign Invasion

The invasions that started in 1494 resulted in large part from major changes in European politics. Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had united Spain and competed with Portugal and Venice for trade with Atlantic and Mediterranean centers. Southern Italy already belonged to Spain, but Venice began to view Spain as a valuable ally after Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople (now İstanbul)in 1453 and threatened Venetian trade. Charles I (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) inherited the Spanish throne in 1516. Three years later he inherited Habsburg territory in central Europe from his German grandfather. Spain’s ambition to extend its power in the Mediterranean derived from long-standing ambitions of the German emperors.

The invasions also stemmed from rivalries between and within the Italian states. In 1494 Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family, encouraged French king Charles VIII to invade Italy to contest the crown of Naples. The duke of Milan, a Sforza, supported the French invasion. Both wished to reduce the power of their rivals, the Medici of Florence. Although the Medici briefly lost power, the army of Charles VIII was defeated. The rivalry between Francis I of France and emperor Charles V led to a second unsuccessful French invasion of Italy in 1524.

At the Peace of Cambrai in 1529 the French monarchy renounced its claim to territory in Italy. In a final attempt to dislodge the Spanish from southern Italy, Pope Paul IV persuaded French king Henry II to invade in 1557. After Henry’s defeat the Spanish viceroy in Naples forced the pope to accept humiliating terms. The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 brought a temporary halt in the struggles between the French and the Habsburgs, and their Italian allies. The Habsburgs were the clear winners at this stage. Southern Italy was incorporated into the Spanish Habsburg empire, and when the last of Milan’s Sforza rulers died in 1535, Emperor Charles V added the duchy of Milan to Spain’s empire.

Both the southern kingdom of Naples and Sicily and the duchy of Milan remained Spanish possessions for almost 200 years. In Florence, Charles V restored the Medici family to power, and they ruled as grand dukes of Tuscany until the early 1700s. Venice, Genoa, and the Papal States remained independent, but the importance of the small Duchy of Savoy, which acted as a buffer between the two rivals, France and Habsburg Austria, began to increase.

Spanish Domination

Under Spanish domination the Italian states enjoyed a period of relative internal peace, in part because they directed their energies primarily against the threat of Ottoman invasion. In 1571 the Holy League—an alliance of the Papal States, Spain, Venice, and Genoa—defeated the Ottomans in the Battle of Lepanto. This victory brought Ottoman expansion to an end in the eastern Mediterranean, but not in the Balkans.

Spain championed the Counter Reformation, the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The Counter Reformation brought about reforms in the institutions and doctrine of the Catholic Church (see Council of Trent) and reasserted the spiritual power of the church. Baroque religious architecture, which reached its peak in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries, celebrated the glory of the church.

The Counter Reformation war on heresy brought to an end the artistic freedoms of earlier times. Many Italian freethinkers became victims of the Holy Office of the Inquisition; philosopher and poet Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned at the stake. The church also took the offensive against scientists, forcing Galileo Galilei to renounce the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. The intolerant religious and political climate of the Counter Reformation also encouraged political absolutism, although the republics of Venice and Genoa continued to be governed by patrician oligarchies.

Italy and the Great Discoveries

The great voyages of discovery that began with Christopher Columbus in 1492 had far-reaching economic and political consequences for Italy. The peninsula’s commercial and economic prosperity in the Middle Ages owed much to its geographical position at the intersection between the Christian and the Islamic worlds. After the voyages of Columbus the Mediterranean played a gradually smaller role. New commercial empires based in northern Europe—the Dutch, then the French and the English—outpaced the faltering commercial empires of Genoa and Venice. New products and manufactures from the northern countries challenged and undermined the Italian manufactures that had led the world in the 15th century.

Severe famines in many parts of Italy during the late 1500s indicated that population growth had begun to exceed resources. After 1600 the situation grew bleaker, particularly because an influx of gold and silver from Spanish colonies in South America caused massive price inflation. Plague struck the peninsula in 1630 and probably killed as many as a third of Italy’s population, which had reached about 11 million by 1600. It took a century for Italy to regain that population. Meantime, the Italian states became importers rather than exporters, and their economies depended increasingly on agriculture. The Italian cities ceased to expand, except for Naples and Rome. Those cities continued to attract impoverished immigrants from rural areas, especially in times of famine. Revolts against Spanish rule took place in the mid-1600s, largely because of commercial decline and ever-rising taxes.

The End of Spanish Domination

After the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), Spanish domination in Italy came to an end. A branch of the French Bourbon family ruled Spain, and Italy experienced another period of political unrest, warfare, and instability. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle in 1748 finally brought peace. It left the Austrian Habsburg monarchy firmly in control of Lombardy and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Habsburg relatives ruled in Parma. Venice and Genoa survived as independent republics until the end of the 1700s, but had little power or influence. The importance of the duchy of Savoy, however, grew immensely.

The dukes of Savoy had acquired Sicily, Piedmont, and Nice. In 1720 they traded Sicily for the island of Sardinia and henceforth called themselves kings of Sardinia (see Kingdom of Sardinia). The capital of the kingdom was, however, in Turin, a city in Piedmont. The expansion of the Piedmontese monarchy resulted from its geographical position between the warring monarchies of Austria and France. At every peace conference the European powers added more territories to strengthen the kingdom, whose independence was considered fundamental to the security of Europe. With growing confidence the Piedmontese rulers sought to expand their dynastic ties with the rulers of other northern and central Italian states.

The popes also retained their autonomy during the 1700s, although they had little political power. Throughout Europe, Catholic rulers reasserted their authority over the church. In southern Italy, a branch of the Spanish Bourbons came to the throne in 1734 and the kingdom of the Two Sicilies once again became an independent state.

Enlightenment Italy

The years between 1748 and the French Revolution (1789-1799) were a period of relative peace on the Italian peninsula. Peace was accompanied by signs of economic revival, especially because demand for agricultural products and industrial raw materials (particularly olive oil for making soap and raw silk) increased rapidly in Britain and France. During this period Italian rulers attempted to strengthen their power at the expense of the church and the feudal nobility. In Turin, Milan, Rome, and above all in Naples, the rulers built palaces, villas, theaters, and almshouses for the poor, making all of these cities once again centers of art. Wealthy and educated individuals from all over Europe, and from North America, set out to follow the Grand Tour, visiting the great artistic centers of Italy and the sites of antiquity.

As Italian rulers sought to reorganize their states, their efforts attracted the attention of writers, thinkers, and philosophers. Debates on politics and society brought Italy into the mainstream of the European intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. Taking their cue from France, Italian thinkers contributed to the search for more rational and constructive forms of political organization.

The Napoleonic Period

At first the French Revolution had little effect on Italy, but the situation changed after Austria formed a coalition against France in 1793. The first French armies invaded Italy that year, and in 1796 Napoleon Bonaparte, later emperor Napoleon I of France, led a major invasion into Italy. His victories over the Austrians led to the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797) and the establishment of the Cisalpine and Ligurian republics in Lombardy, with the former’s capital at Milan and the latter’s at Genoa. The French advance south helped establish republics in Rome in 1798 and Naples in 1799.

The Italian republics soon collapsed after Austria and its ally Russia drove the French armies out of Italy in 1799. But Napoleon again invaded northern Italy and defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800. The Cisalpine Republic became the Kingdom of Italy in 1805 and Napoleon was crowned king of Italy at Milan. In 1810 French forces occupied Rome and imprisoned the pope. By then the whole of Italy with the exception of the islands of Sicily and Sardinia was part of the French empire. The French introduced political changes and French civil law, the Code Napoléon. The function of the Italian territories was to provide raw materials for French industries as well as soldiers and money to sustain the emperor’s endless wars. As the French empire began to crumble following the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, the excessive burdens of conscription and taxation provoked protests throughout Italy. See also Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon’s hold on Italy was weakened by his defeat at Leipzig in 1813 as the Austrians invaded northern Italy and a British fleet occupied Genoa. The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) led to a restoration of Austrian domination of the peninsula, but Sardinia recovered Piedmont, Nice, and Savoy, and acquired Genoa.

The Restoration

After the collapse of Napoleon’s empire in 1814, the European powers met at the Congress of Vienna to redraw the political map of Europe. They placed the Italian states under the control of Austria. A new kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which included the former Venetian Republic, came under direct Austrian rule. Nearly all the other Italian rulers were cousins or clients of Austria’s Habsburg monarchy. As the leading Catholic power in Europe, Austria also was the protector of the papacy, and it could quickly dispatch troops from its fortresses in the Po Valley. Only the kings of Sardinia, who also ruled Piedmont, enjoyed some degree of autonomy after the restoration of 1815. The European powers still considered Piedmont to be an indispensable geographical barrier separating France and Austria. But fearful of future invasion by France, the restored rulers of Piedmont looked to Austria for protection until the 1840s. Austria’s power imposed unity on Italy’s otherwise untidy political geography.

Italy’s Struggle for Independence

The period of the Italian struggles for independence and the creation of unified Italian state is known as the Risorgimento. In Italian the word means “resurgence,” and it refers to the rediscovery of a sense of national identity. At the time Italians viewed the Risorgimento as a continuation of the earlier Renaissance, after the long interruption of foreign invasions and domination from the 1500s to the mid-1800s. Nationalism, however, was only one of many developments that brought Austrian rule in Italy to a close and led to the creation of a single Italian constitutional monarchy ruled by the king of Sardinia. See also Italian Unification.

The Italian Revolutions: 1820-1830

At first Italian opposition was directed against the autocratic regimes imposed by the Congress of Vienna, rather than against Austria. Revolt in Naples and Sicily in 1820 forced the Bourbon rulers to concede a constitution. Secret societies known as the Carbonari had organized the rebellion with that aim. Revolt in Piedmont followed, led by liberal army officers. Austria crushed these revolutions and in Lombardy imprisoned many advocates of political reform. In central Italy supporters of liberal reform staged a revolt against papal rule, but this too was savagely repressed by Austrian military intervention, and its leaders were executed.

Italy’s Nationalist Movement

The failure of the revolutions of 1820 and 1830 showed that Austria was the real obstacle to political change within the Italian states. This message lay at the heart of a new national, pan-Italian movement. The political thinker and revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini was its first and most tireless advocate. Born in Genoa (from 1814 part of the kingdom of Sardinia), Mazzini had the goal of creating a single Italian state, a republic of the Italian peoples. He called on Italians to abandon their secret societies and join instead his Young Italy (Giovine Italia). Mazzini had founded this revolutionary association committed to the cause of Italian nationalism while in exile in Marseilles in 1831. Shortly afterward Mazzini attempted to organize a revolution in Savoy, but it failed disastrously.

Historians continue to debate Mazzini’s influence on events in Italy. Except for brief periods, he remained permanently in exile. Although he was an inspirational figure for more radical nationalists, his insurrections always ended in failure, and he quarreled incessantly and bitterly with every other nationalist leader. However, by making the threat of revolution a reality in Italy, Mazzini did more than anyone else to mobilize more moderate political figures to address the dangers of political unrest in Italy.

A moderate program for Italian political reform and independence first took shape in the 1840s, at a time of recession and harvest failures in Europe. As unrest continued, moderates became convinced that revolution was unavoidable unless the Italian rulers adopted constitutional reform and Austria permitted the Italian states greater freedom. Piedmontese priest Vincenzo Gioberti proposed that the Italian rulers form an independent confederation under the leadership of the pope, reviving the idea of the medieval Guelphs. That proposal gained popularity after the 1846 election of Pope Pius IX, who was believed to favor political reform. Other moderates felt that the so-called neo-Guelph project was unrealistic and instead argued that the Piedmontese monarchy was best suited to lead an independent confederation of Italian princes. Count Cesare Balbo, an influential advocate of the claims of the Piedmontese rulers, also believed that a loose confederation could be achieved without war, by negotiation with Austria.

The Revolutions of 1848 and 1849

Revolutions swept through Italy and then Europe early in 1848. They had not been planned, unlike the revolutions of 1820 and 1830, although economic distress and popular unrest meant that they were widely expected. A revolt in Palermo, Sicily, in January 1848 marked the start. After the king of Naples, Ferdinand II, agreed to grant a constitution, other Italian rulers followed suit: the pope, the grand duke of Tuscany, and finally (and most reluctantly) Charles Albert of Piedmont. Vienna, the capital of Austria, became the site of revolution in March, setting off uprisings in Lombardy. After five days of bloody street fighting, Austrian forces withdrew from Milan. The Venetians also revolted against Austria and established a republic.

Conservatives initially hoped to stem the threat of revolution by making minimal political concessions. In Piedmont Camillo Cavour had advised the king, Charles Albert, that a constitution was the only means to avoid revolution. However, the king and his advisers understood that hostility to Austria and nationalist enthusiasm offered opportunities to realize their expansionist ambitions. War against Austria also offered a means of preserving unity among dangerously divided revolutionaries. In March 1848 Charles Albert, leading a Piedmontese army, invaded Lombardy and appealed to the Italians to rally to his cause.

Charles Albert’s aim was to rally Italian opponents of Austrian rule under his leadership, but the outcome was very different. In April 1848 Pius IX denounced the war against Austria, and in July the Austrians defeated the Piedmontese army at the Battle of Custozza. The initiative now swung to the radicals, who gained control in Tuscany and then in Rome, after Pius IX and his cardinals fled from the city in December. In January 1849 Mazzini and revolutionary leader Giuseppi Garibaldi took office in a republican government established in Rome.

By spring 1849 the tide had turned. In the south King Ferdinand II of Naples already had reversed himself and staged a coup against the constitutional government in May 1848. In the spring of 1849 his army suppressed revolts on the mainland and regained control of Sicily by bombarding its main cities. This action earned Ferdinand the title of King Bomba. In northern Italy, Austrian armies led by Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky crushed the revolutions in the Battle of Custoza. Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II, in April, after defeat by the Austrians in the Battle of Novara. Austrian troops restored the grand duke of Tuscany and began to besiege Venice. Meanwhile, the pope had appealed for help from Spain, Naples, and France, and they sent armies to destroy the republican government in Rome. Giuseppe Garibaldi directed the defense of Rome against overwhelming odds. In July, French troops entered the city to restore the papal government. But Garibaldi conducted a retreat that enabled most of the republic’s defenders to survive.

Garibaldi’s defense of the Roman Republic turned defeat into a moral victory, making him the most renowned figure among the Italian nationalists. Born in Nice and a sailor by profession, Garibaldi had initially followed Mazzini. His reputation before 1848 rested chiefly on the experience he had gained fighting for the Liberals in Uruguay. In 1848 his guerrilla tactics had proved effective against Austrian troops, and his defense of the Roman Republic enhanced his military prestige. After 1849 Garibaldi came to admire Victor Emanuel, which caused many nationalists to drop their republican sympathies and rally to the Piedmontese monarchy.

The Piedmontese Decade

Following the revolutions in 1848 and 1849, constitutional government in Italy survived only in Piedmont. Liberals from all over Italy flocked to Turin, capital of Piedmont, where the dominant figure in the new constitutional government was Count Camillo Benso di Cavour. Cavour was a skilled politician and diplomat who believed that progress and democracy, though not necessarily welcome, were unavoidable. His relations with Victor Emanuel were always tense. However, as prime minister he invested in roads, canals, and railways, attracting foreign capital and introducing measures that expanded Piedmont’s trade.

Despite opposition from conservative forces, Cavour began to take a closer interest in the national question. In 1855 Piedmont entered the Crimean War on the side of France and Britain, providing an opportunity for the kingdom later to seek French support. In 1858 Cavour met secretly with French emperor Napoleon III, who agreed to support Piedmont in the case of an Austrian attack. The next year Cavour provoked the Austrians into issuing a declaration of war, which triggered French intervention.

The Franco-Italian coalition won the battles of Magenta and Solferino in 1859, but the battles proved costly. Fearing the consequences of a long war, Napoleon III concluded a preliminary agreement with the Austrians in July 1859 without consulting the Italians. Victor Emanuel accepted the Treaty of Zürich by which Austria ceded most of Lombardy to France, which in turn transferred two Lombard cities to Piedmont. In the meantime Cavour’s allies in other northern Italian states had been busy staging revolutions to provide a pretext for plebiscites that would approve annexation to Piedmont. In 1860 the people of Romagna and the duchies of Parma and Modena voted for union with Piedmont. France, in return for its collaboration, obtained the regions of Nice and Savoy, although Napoleon III felt that he had been cheated and that France deserved greater reward. However, the British government warned France that any French territorial expansion in Italy would lead to war.

In April 1860 Palermo in Sicily rose against Francis II, king of the Two Sicilies. In May, Garibaldi, with Cavour’s secret support, led an expedition of 1,000 men from Genoa to aid the Sicilian revolt. Garibaldi’s landing triggered a general uprising, and the Bourbon military commanders soon abandoned Sicily. In August, Garibaldi attacked the Italian mainland. Cavour decided to intervene, fearing that control of the south would encourage Garibaldi to attack Rome and almost certainly lead to war with France, the protector of the pope. On the pretext of defending the pope, Cavour sent a Piedmontese army led by Victor Emanuel through the Papal States to cut off Garibaldi’s advance. Garibaldi loyally surrendered his command to Victor Emanuel. Trapped between Garibaldi’s forces and the Piedmontese army, Francis II requested an armistice.

The Bourbon dynasty had collapsed, and the largest of the Italian states, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, no longer existed. Hurriedly organized elections legitimized the annexation of the southern provinces and Sicily to the kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont). Similar elections in the former papal regions of Marche and Umbria also favored union with Sardinia. The pope was left with Rome and its immediate environs.

The Kingdom of Italy

On March 17, 1861, the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, with Victor Emmanuel II as its constitutional king and Cavour as prime minister. Italy, however, was not complete; the pope continued to govern in Rome and Venice remained under Austrian control. Cavour, who planned for their peaceful inclusion, died in June. The Italian government wished to move cautiously because the European powers, especially France, were prepared to guarantee the pope’s sovereignty over Rome. Garibaldi and other nationalists were impatient, and Garibaldi went to Sicily in 1862 to relaunch a march on Rome. Fearing French intervention, the Italian government denounced Garibaldi. After Garibaldi landed in Calabria, the troops of Victor Emmanuel blocked his advance. While trying to break through, Garibaldi was seriously wounded and compelled to surrender in August 1862.

In 1866 Italy became the ally of Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War against Austria. Following the Prussian victory, Italy acquired Venice. Rome still remained elusive. In 1867 Garibaldi and his followers attempted another attack, but this was repulsed with very heavy casualties by French and papal troops at Mentana. Italian troops were able to enter Rome only after the Prussians defeated Napoleon III at the Battle of Sedan in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. Pope Pius IX abandoned the city and crossed the Tiber River to the Vatican, where he remained a self-styled prisoner. In July 1871 Rome became the capital of a united Italy. In response Pius IX excommunicated Victor Emanuel, denounced the new state as the work of the devil, and instructed Catholics not to hold office or participate in politics.

The New Italy

The new Italian kingdom was far removed from the aspirations of the nationalists. It was a conservative constitutional monarchy ruled by a dynasty that was identified above all with Piedmont. Less than 2 percent of the population had the right to vote. Moreover, resistance in the south and in Sicily to occupation and rule by Piedmont challenged the integrity of the new state. The government attempted to hide the scale of the resistance by referring to it as brigandage (banditry), but much of the south and Sicily remained under military law until 1864, and more men died in the operations against the “brigands” than in the wars of independence. To add to the sense of unease, Italy suffered two humiliating defeats by the Austrians in 1866 during the Seven Weeks’ War. The wars against Austria and the wars of unification also left the new state with enormous debts. During its first two decades the new government imposed severe financial austerity and heavy taxes. The poorest Italians bore the burden of the financial difficulties, which caused frequent and often violent protests.

Following the principles of Cavour, Italy adopted free trade (trade unrestricted by tariffs). This policy encouraged the development of agricultural exports but seriously damaged the development of textile manufacturing and other industries in the north. In the south free trade destroyed all the industries that had developed earlier in the century. Italy thus became especially vulnerable to a European agricultural crisis caused by the arrival of cheap North American grain and South American beef in the 1870s and 1880s. The collapse in farm prices devastated small farms throughout Europe, and in Italy the scale of the damage was immense. The first major waves of Italian immigration to North and South America began at this time.

Italy responded to the crisis by imposing tariffs designed to protect agriculture and industry. From the early 1880s the government also intervened to develop industries such as steel making, shipbuilding, and railroads that were deemed to be of strategic importance. But Italy remained hampered by its lack of natural resources: It had no coal and few mineral ores. The situation began to change with the development of hydroelectric power at the end of the 1800s. Between 1896 and World War I (1914-1918) the Italian economy grew faster than any other in Europe. An industrial triangle formed by Milan, Turin, and Genoa emerged in the north. Textiles remained the most important product, but the chemical, hydroelectric, and machine industries expanded rapidly.

Politics and Society

Followers of Cavour dominated Italian politics from 1860 to the mid-1870s, primarily representing the north. In 1874 a new government took power that relied on the support of propertied classes in the south. Political unrest in those years resulted mainly from the poverty and the political exclusion of the masses. Industrial and agricultural workers formed powerful and militant unions, which were banned by law, leading to frequent clashes with the authorities. Anarchism received strong support in the 1870s, and in 1892 the Italian Socialist Party was founded at Genoa. It grew steadily for the rest of the century.

Extreme social and political tension in the 1890s nearly ended parliamentary government in Italy. In response to strikes by peasant farmers and agricultural workers in Sicily, Prime Minister Francesco Crispi decreed a state of emergency in 1894, and placed Sicily (and Lunigiana on the mainland) under military law. In 1898 Crispi’s successor ordered a military occupation of Milan to break a strike. The crisis reached its peak in 1900 with the assassination of King Humbert I, who had succeeded his father, Victor Emmanuel II, in 1878.

A new government headed by Giovanni Giolitti and Giuseppe Zanardelli adopted more conciliatory tactics and attempted to address popular grievances through social welfare and reform measures. Giolitti remained the dominant figure in Italian politics until World War I, during which time Italy experienced political, social, and economic modernization. During his term in office a number of reforms were introduced. The right of workers to strike for higher wages was recognized; changes in electoral law greatly increased male suffrage; Roman Catholics were drawn into Italy’s political life; and the first major legislation on behalf of the economically depressed south was passed. During the Giolitti era, Italy’s rate of industrial growth was 87 percent, and workers’ wages grew by more than 25 percent despite a shortened workday and the introduction of a guaranteed day of rest.

A downturn in the world economy after 1907 caused heavy unemployment in Italy and brought new waves of labor and political militancy. The moderates who had gained control of the Socialist Party at the turn of the century were ousted by more radical leaders. At the same time a new brand of nationalist politician began to challenge both the government and leftist leaders. The victory of the extremists in the Socialist Party encouraged Giolitti to end the government’s conflict with the papacy, which also wished to combat the growing influence of the socialists. In 1911 Giolitti introduced manhood suffrage, which gave the vote to the mainly Catholic peasantry. At the same time the church instructed Catholics to vote for the government slate. But the government also looked to colonial ventures to appease domestic unrest.

Foreign Policy and Expansion

After achieving both unity and independence in 1871, Italy found itself in a hostile and dangerous world. On several occasions Italy and France came close to war. In 1882 Italy had joined Prussia and its former oppressor, Austria, to form the Triple Alliance, and it remained a member until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The alliance outraged many nationalists who claimed that Italy would remain incomplete until it liberated Italian-speaking lands still under Austrian control: the Alto Adige, Trieste, and parts of Slovenia and Dalmatia. These lands were known as the Irreddenta (“Unredeemed”) territories.

To divert the nationalists, the government looked to expand Italy’s colonies in North Africa. The principal Italian settlement was in Tunis, but French Algeria blocked expansion there. In 1890 the Italians established a colony in Eritrea and then a protectorate on the Somali coast (see Somalia). In 1896, however, Italy suffered a disastrous defeat by Ethiopian troops at Ādwa . This defeat was seen in Italy as a national humiliation, and it gave rise to aggressive nationalist politics that denounced liberal democracy for its failure to turn Italy into a powerful colonial power (see Colonialism and Colonies).

After 1900 the influence of the nationalists steadily increased, and their principal target was the prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti. He argued that Italy should avoid costly overseas adventures and invest instead in modernization and welfare at home. The pope strongly supported the nationalists, claiming that Italy had a moral duty to bring the Christian faith to the nonbelievers of North Africa. The industrial and banking worlds also supported colonial expansion. In 1911 Giolitti reluctantly embarked on the invasion of the former Ottoman province of Libya in an effort to appease nationalist demands and the Vatican.

World War I: 1914-1918

When World War I began in August 1914, the Italian government brushed aside the Triple Alliance (with Germany and Austria) and declared its neutrality. After failing to gain satisfactory terms from the alliance, Italy signed the secret Treaty of London with the Allied powers. This treaty promised Italy Italian-speaking territories in Austria and a share of the German colonies in Africa for its participation on the Allied side. In May 1915 Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary.

The war proved difficult and arduous. The Italians won some early victories, but in May 1916 the Austrians wiped out many of those gains. A successful counterattack enabled the Italian army to occupy the important city of Gorizia, but the Italians made little progress thereafter. In October 1917 a combined Austro-German force attacked the Italian defenses, winning a dramatic victory at Caporetto in Venezia Giulia. The Italians retreated, eventually to the Piave River. There, they consolidated their defenses and were able to fight off an Austrian attack in June 1918. The Italians assumed the offensive, culminating in a victory in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (October 24-November 4, 1918).

On November 3, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian government and the Allies signed an armistice. Italian casualties during World War I totaled more than half a million. In the treaties that followed, Italy acquired the Trentino, Trieste, and the South Tyrol, but it did not get all the territory promised in the Treaty of London—notably Dalmatia and Fiume (now see Rijeka, Croatia). In November 1920 Italy and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later renamed Yugoslavia) signed the Treaty of Rapallo; Fiume was established as a free state, and Italy renounced its claims to Dalmatia.

The Postwar Years

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. The unions became militant, and fears of imminent revolution increased when the Socialist Party and the new Communist Party that was founded in 1922 adopted the programs of the Russian Bolsheviks. In response, armed bands with a strong nationalist bias, known as the Fascisti (see Fascism), fought the socialists and communists in Rome, Milan, Bologna, Trieste, Genoa, Parma, and elsewhere.

In an attempt to restore order, the aged Giolitti formed his final ministry from 1920 to 1921. It relied on a National Bloc of Liberals, Nationalists, and others, including Fascists. But the two largest political parties, the Socialists and the newly formed Catholic Popular Party, withheld their support, making parliament unworkable. Giolitti then resigned. His departure precipitated a period of uncertainty. Many landowners feared that their estates would be seized by the peasants; the middle class and the industrialists feared that Italy would become a Soviet-style republic; and conservative Roman Catholics worried that socialism, communism, and atheism threatened the religious order.

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. He threatened to seize power by force if his conditions were refused. As the Fascisti mobilized for a march on Rome, Prime Minister Luigi Facta resigned. On October 28 Victor Emmanuel III called on Mussolini to form a new government.

Fascist Dictatorship: 1922-1944

Although he was 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 the violence of the 1924 elections and the murder of the Socialist Party deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, Mussolini moved to suspend constitutional government. He proceeded in stages to establish a dictatorship by forbidding the parliament to initiate legislation; by making himself responsible to the king alone; by ordering parliament to authorize him to issue decrees having the force of law; by establishing absolute censorship of the press; and, in 1926, by suppressing all opposition parties.

In 1928 Mussolini took further measures to transform the nation into a Fascist state. The Grand Council of the Fascist Party, under Mussolini’s control, was given power to select candidates for the Chamber of Deputies, and it was to be consulted on all important business of the government, especially the choice of an heir to the throne and successor to Mussolini. Mussolini scored one of his greatest diplomatic triumphs in 1929, when he concluded the Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Roman Catholic Church. The treaty recognized the Vatican City as an independent sovereign state and compensated the papacy for its loss of territory. In return the pope recognized the kingdom of Italy. In 1934 Italy’s economic life was reorganized with the formation of 22 corporations, or guilds, representing workers and employers in all phases of the economy. Each corporation included Fascist Party members on its governing council and had Mussolini as its president. These councils were organized into a National Council.

Economic Measures

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. Near the end of 1933, Mussolini announced that the Italian Chamber of Deputies would be called upon to legislate itself out of existence and to transfer its functions to the National Council of Corporations. This step was finally taken in 1939. The Chamber of Deputies was replaced by a Chamber of Fasci and Corporations, composed of some 800 appointive members of the National Council of Corporations. In their respective industries the corporations were entrusted with regulating prices and wages, planning economic policies, and discharging other economic functions.

Relations with Germany

The appointment in 1933 of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany was greeted cautiously by the controlled Italian press. Hitler in turn expressed friendship for Italian fascism. A German-Italian axis was not immediately formed, however, and a temporary improvement in Franco-Italian relations resulted from German attempts to incorporate Austria into the Third Reich in 1934. Mussolini rushed 75,000 Italian troops to the Italo-Austrian frontier, announcing that he would intervene if Germany took overt action. Italy drew even closer to its allies of World War I in 1935. That year, along with France and Britain, it formed the Stresa Front, organized in protest against Germany’s repeated violations of the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty signed at the end of World War I.

The Ethiopian Campaign

The event that upset European alignments and brought the dictatorships of Italy and Germany into close accord was Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Generally regarded as within the Italian sphere of influence, Ethiopia was bound to the Fascist state by many commercial and diplomatic pacts, but Italy sought every opportunity to integrate it into the Italian colonial empire. The Ethiopian war was preceded in 1935 by a Franco-Italian accord, by which Italy agreed to support French opposition to German rearmament in exchange for French concessions in Africa. Britain regarded aggressive Italian expansion as a menace to British interests and vigorously opposed Mussolini’s plan.

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia began on October 3, 1935. Four days later the Council of the League of Nations declared Italy guilty of violating its obligations under the League Covenant and imposed economic sanctions against the aggressor. The league’s failure to enforce these sanctions, however, contributed largely to the Italian victory. On May 9, 1936, Mussolini formally annexed Ethiopia and proclaimed King Victor Emmanuel III emperor. Within a month, the country was incorporated, along with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland (see Somalia), into a single colony, Italian East Africa. In October 1936, after Germany had recognized the Italian conquest, Hitler and Mussolini concluded an agreement providing for joint action in support of their common goals. With this pact they formed the Rome-Berlin Axis (see Axis Powers).

The Spanish Civil War

New stresses on the Italian economy resulted from Mussolini’s active support for General Francisco Franco’s cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Italian troops played an important role at the battles of Málaga and Santander, the Italian air force participated in many engagements, and Italian submarines allegedly sank many neutral ships carrying oil, food, and other supplies for the Republican armies that opposed Franco.

The Berlin-Rome Axis

By 1937 cooperation between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had begun to produce results. Following Mussolini’s visit to Germany in September, Italy announced its adherence to the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan, and soon thereafter withdrew from the League of Nations. The first major consequence of Italian policy toward Germany was Mussolini’s refusal to aid Austria when that republic was absorbed by Germany in March 1938 (Anschluss). Meanwhile, the increasing influence of Nazi doctrines found expression in a series of Italian measures designed to curb the activities of Jews, including a law that excluded all Jews from civil and military administrations. During the negotiations for the Munich Pact in 1938 and the subsequent dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, Mussolini gave firm support to Hitler’s demands. The two dictators signed a military assistance pact in May 1939. This move followed the German seizure of Bohemia and Moravia and the Italian annexation of Albania.

World War II: 1939-1945

When World War II began in September 1939, Mussolini took the position that he was under no obligation to aid Germany militarily because he had made it clear to the Nazis that Italy would not be prepared for war until 1942.

Entry into the War

German successes during the first year of the war, however, led Mussolini to reverse his policy. In June 1940, when France lay prostrate in defeat and Britain alone faced the powerful German armies, Italy entered the war and granted France an armistice. In August 1940, Italian forces in East Africa occupied British Somaliland, and the following month Fascist armies in Libya and Italian East Africa began a gigantic pincers movement designed to overwhelm British defenses in Egypt. On October 28, 1940, Fascist forces in Albania invaded Greece, apparently to divert British forces from Egypt and to secure bases on the Greek peninsula. The invasion failed, however, as the Greeks drove the Italians from Greece and Albania. This debacle, followed by British victories in the Mediterranean and in Egypt, seriously weakened the Fascist regime. Mussolini had to ask Hitler for aid, and thereafter Italian policy in all fields fell increasingly under German control. Sweeping changes in the Fascist military hierarchy were instituted, but these and other reforms failed to restore the morale of the Italian people.

Occupation of the Balkans

In 1941 Italy suffered successive military and naval disasters and growing economic privation caused by an Allied blockade. A successful end of its Balkan campaign, as a result of German intervention, somewhat offset the Fascist reverses, however, and Italy acquired several new territories. By arrangement with Germany, almost all Greece was occupied by Italian troops. But Italy was forced to pay an increasingly high price for Hitler’s military assistance. Italian foodstuffs and other commodities ran low as large shipments were sent to the Third Reich in return for German coal and oil. Italy declared war on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on June 22, 1941, on the day Germany invaded the USSR, and five weeks later the first Italian division was sent to the Soviet front. As difficulties developed in the German offensive, Hitler became more pressing in his demands on Mussolini.

The United States Enters the War

At the same time, relations between the United States and Italy approached a showdown. Italian assets in the United States were impounded in June 1941, and similar measures were taken against U.S. assets in Italy. In December 1941, after Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Mussolini declared war on the United States.

The outlook for Fascist Italy in 1942 was gloomy. In North Africa, temporary Italo-German gains were liquidated by a vigorous British offensive. Axis forces, including the Italians, suffered serious reverses in the Soviet Union. Italian occupation troops in Albania, Yugoslavia, and Greece suffered heavy losses from guerrilla bands.

German Control

At home the Italian people endured a bitter winter of 1942-1943, with short rations of food and fuel. Corruption and inefficiency among Fascist officials and evasion of the rationing laws by the wealthy and influential contributed to demoralization. In October 1942 the British launched a series of bombing raids against the industrial cities of northern Italy. In February 1943, hoping to turn the tide, Mussolini assumed full responsibility for both political affairs and military operations. When the Axis forces in Tunisia collapsed in May, he established a council of defense to prepare for an Allied invasion of the Italian mainland.

Invasion of Italy

On July 10, 1943, Allied forces invaded Sicily. Six days later, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill addressed a joint radio message to the people of Italy urging their surrender to avoid greater devastation. The next day Allied planes dropped leaflets over Rome advising of a possible raid on military installations in its vicinity, but assuring that the utmost care would be taken to avoid destruction of residential buildings and cultural monuments. About 500 Allied bombers then attacked railroad yards, war factories, and airfields near the city.

During the raid Mussolini was at Verona, conferring with Hitler on measures to meet the next phase of the Allied invasion. On his return to Rome he was confronted with a demand for a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council to consider the Italian military crisis. After a stormy debate, the session concluded with a no-confidence vote against Mussolini. King Victor Emmanuel on July 25 asked for Mussolini’s resignation and placed him in military custody. He summoned Marshal Pietro Badoglio to form a new ministry. The Badoglio cabinet soon decreed the liquidation of all Fascist organizations.

Surrender and Armistice

The fall of Mussolini precipitated clamorous peace demonstrations throughout Italy. Meanwhile, the Allies continued their advance in Sicily. Churchill offered Italy the choice of breaking off its alliance with Germany or suffering destruction; General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied commander in chief, promised the Italian people an honorable peace and a benevolent occupation if they ended their aid to the German war effort. In mid-August, a representative of Prime Minister Badoglio arrived in Lisbon with an offer to join the Allies against Germany when the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland began. American and British staff officers were dispatched to negotiate with the Italian emissary on the basis of Italy’s unconditional surrender. The armistice was signed on September 8, the day the invasion of southern Italy began.

The Battle for Italy

The announcement of the armistice set off a furious race between the Allies and the Germans for possession of the territories, bases, arms and supplies, communications, and other war facilities formerly under Italian control. A large Anglo-American amphibious force landed on the beaches of Salerno just south of Naples, hoping to drive inland and trap the German units. The Germans, however, held off the invasion force long enough to enable German units in southern Italy to withdraw. In the meantime the Germans also seized the cities and strategic centers of northern and central Italy. On September 10 they occupied Rome, from which King Victor Emmanuel III and Badoglio had fled two days earlier.

The Germans retained the support of pro-Fascist Italians by announcing in September that a Fascist National Government had been established in opposition to the Badoglio government and was functioning in the name of Mussolini. The former dictator had been rescued from prison by German parachute troops, thus foiling Badoglio’s promise to deliver him to the Allies. The Germans installed Mussolini as the leader of a new fascist state in northern Italy.

War Declared on Germany

Prime Minister Badoglio declared war on Germany on October 13. He and the king had escaped to Bari in the south, where they established a new government. But the leaders of six political parties disbanded by Mussolini formed a National Liberation Front and demanded that Victor Emmanuel abdicate.

In April 1944 the king withdrew from public affairs and appointed his son Humbert, later King Humbert II, as lieutenant general of Italy. When the Allied armies liberated Rome on June 4, Victor Emmanuel transferred all royal authority to Humbert. The leaders of the Committee of National Liberation refused to serve in the Badoglio government, and the position of prime minister was given to Ivanoe Bonomi, who formed a coalition government. The new government’s actions were closely controlled by American and British officials, who were opposed to anything that might impede the Allied war effort. They vetoed all proposals for social and economic change. Allied authorities were suspicious of Italian anti-Fascist volunteers and resistance fighters, most of whom were radicals, and they believed that the communists were planning a revolution. For that reason the Allies preferred to rely on the monarchy and Badoglio, despite the fact that both had been ardent supporters of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

In September and October 1943 the Germans rushed troops and equipment into Italy to secure the so-called Gustav Line south of Rome, where the Allied advance was held at Monte Cassino through the winter. Italy north of the Gustav Line became a Nazi-occupied territory, and on October 16 thousands of Jews were rounded up in the Rome ghetto and deported to Nazi death camps. Mussolini’s puppet regime was under German control. Italy by late 1943 was the scene of civil war as well as military occupation. Many Italians rallied to Mussolini in the belief that they were defending their country.

The Liberation

The Allied troops liberated Florence in August 1944, but they were unable to pursue the retreating German armies over the Apennine mountains until the spring of 1945. The winter of 1944 to 1945 was a period of intense suffering, particularly in the ravaged areas left by the retreating Germans. Throughout the central provinces were burned villages, idle or flooded fields, and ruined factories, railroads, power plants, and bridges. Some 800,000 hectares (some 2 million acres) of arable land were uncultivated, and prices of necessities rose prohibitively. As a result of the widespread misery, Bonomi’s government was the target of political protests. Industrial stagnation, mass unemployment, and skyrocketing inflation continued to frustrate the government in its efforts to rehabilitate the national economy.

The final Allied offensive in Italy began in April 1945. After extremely heavy fighting, the collapse of Hitler’s regime forced the German armies to abandon northern Italy. While trying to escape, Mussolini, his mistress, and several of his high-ranking colleagues were captured by Italian partisans at a small town near Lake Como. They were summarily tried and, on April 28, executed. In reprisal for earlier murders carried out by the Fascists and their Nazi allies, brutal vengeance was inflicted on Mussolini’s followers after the German surrender on May 2. More than 1,000 Fascists were shot in Milan alone.

Rise of De Gasperi

Bonomi resigned after the liberation of northern Italy. A coalition government, representing the entire Committee of National Liberation, was then formed. The new government, headed by Ferruccio Parri, leader of the Action Party, proved unable to grapple effectively with the problems confronting Italy. In October, monarchists and leaders of the Liberal Party resigned. Serious rioting took place in southern Italy against the high cost of living. The Committee of National Liberation finally offered the premiership to Alcide De Gasperi, a Christian Democrat. He took office on December 9.

The year 1946 was one of unparalleled hardship for most of the Italian people. Although the privations provoked occasional civil unrest, the general mood of the populace was apathetic during the campaign preceding the national referendum and elections for a constituent assembly in June. But in April the convention of the Christian Democratic Party voted by a ratio of 3 to 1 in favor of a republic. King Victor Emmanuel III abdicated on May 9, and his son ascended the throne as Humbert II.

The Republic of Italy

In June 1946 elections were held for a constituent assembly to decide the constitutional form of the new Italian state. Nearly 25 million voters, about 89 percent of the eligible electorate, which for the first time included women, participated. Of the voters, 54.3 percent chose a republic. On June 10, Italy became a republic. Three days later King Humbert abdicated and left the country.

In the 1946 vote for the Constituent Assembly the Christian Democrats won a plurality of 207 seats and emerged as the dominant party in Italy. The Socialist Party won 115 seats, the Communists gained 104 seats, and four minor parties shared the remaining 117 seats. Enrico de Nicola, a member of the Liberal Party, was elected provisional president of the republic. De Gasperi remained as prime minister.

Irreconcilable disagreements between the Communists and Christian Democrats soon became evident. This friction was intensified by persistent food shortages and near famine and by the generally chaotic Italian economy. As the prestige of the De Gasperi government declined, the Socialist and Communist parties drew together. Municipal elections in November 1946 indicated a decline in Christian Democratic support and gains for the Communist, Socialist, and rightist parties.

A New Constitution

The Constituent Assembly drafted a constitution for Italy. Approved on December 22, 1947, by a vote of 453 to 62, the document became effective on January 1, 1948. The constitution introduced a system of proportional representation and restored the guarantees of civil liberties taken away by the fascist government. However, a court decision in 1948 deferred indefinitely many of the more radical innovations of the constitution. The Constitutional Court was not created until 1956, the Supreme Council of the Magistracy until 1958, while the measures of regional autonomy included in the constitution were only introduced in the 1970s. As a result the legal codes introduced by the fascist regime continued unchanged, as did the magistrates and law enforcement agencies. The constitution also confirmed the privileges that Mussolini had conceded to the papacy, established Catholicism as the official state religion, and made religious education compulsory. On family and marriage law the constitution also followed Catholic precepts.

Political Friction

The national election campaign of 1948 was one of the most bitter and dramatic in Italian history. Displays of force became a central feature in the strategy of many parties. The Communist-led coalition frequently used labor strikes as a political weapon. In reprisals against the left, the government confiscated arms and ammunition and conducted intimidatory military demonstrations in various urban areas. Pius XII approved anti-Communist activity by the Italian clergy. In April the Christian Democratic Party won overwhelmingly. It received nearly 49 percent of the vote, giving it 307 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 151 in the Senate. The Popular Front, the coalition of Communists and radical Socialists, won 182 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 31 in the Senate. The moderate Socialists elected 33 deputies; the remaining 52 seats went to minor parties.

The mandate to the Christian Democrats enabled De Gasperi to oust the Communists from government, but the continued strength of the Communists made reconciliation of the differences that had divided the nation unlikely. Luigi Einaudi, the candidate of the Christian Democrats and moderate Socialists, was elected president of the Italian republic. De Gasperi was reappointed prime minister.

The exclusion of the Communists from government qualified Italy for support under the Marshall Plan (see European Recovery Program). The supplies and credits that as a result began to flow into Italy created favorable conditions for reconstruction of the national economy. The Communists opposed the Marshall Plan and promoted a widespread strike for higher wages, culminating in July in a general 12-hour walkout. Within two weeks Italy was plunged into another grave crisis as the result of the attempted assassination of Palmiro Togliatti, head of the Italian Communist Party. The General Confederation of Labor, charging the government with political responsibility, immediately called a nationwide general strike to force its resignation. During the next two days riots took place in practically every city of Italy. Order was restored only by the mobilization of more than 300,000 troops and police.

Fall of De Gasperi

In an attempt to improve the effectiveness of the executive branch of the government, the Christian Democrats and their allies secured passage, in 1953, of an electoral reform bill ensuring the party in power of a working majority in parliament. The bill provided that a party or coalition polling 50 percent or more of the popular vote would receive 65 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Parliamentary elections were held in June 1953. The Christian Democrats emerged again as the strongest party, this time with 40 percent of the votes. The Communists were second (22.6 percent), and the parties of the right, which registered the biggest gains (12.7 percent as compared with 4.2 percent in 1948), were third. De Gasperi was succeeded as prime minister by Giuseppe Pella, former minister of the treasury, who won the neutrality of the Socialists and the support of the monarchists. Intraparty differences, however, brought about the collapse of several governments in the following two years.

Late in 1953 the status of the Free Territory of Trieste brought Italy and Yugoslavia to the verge of war, but tensions abated after the United States, Britain, and France agreed to work out a formula acceptable to both sides. The subsequent settlement in 1954 allocated a zone including the city of Trieste to Italy; Yugoslavia received the rest of the Trieste region. Italy became a member of the United Nations in 1955.

The Economic Miracle

After the painful years of postwar recession and reconstruction, Italy’s economy moved into a new phase of expansion between 1953 and 1963. This phase is generally referred to as “the economic miracle.” Thanks to low wages and U.S. financial support, Italy became a major manufacturer and exporter of consumer goods, which ranged from domestic appliances to motor scooters and popular Fiat cars. Government expenditure on housing and highways supported the expansion, as did massive investment to create economic growth in Southern Italy. During these years Italians once again emigrated, emptying the poorer rural areas, especially those in the south. Some crossed the Atlantic or moved to other European countries, but others migrated to the rapidly expanding northern cities such as Milan and Turin, where Italy’s principal industries were located.

Christian Democratic Governments

In 1955 the government of new premier Antonio Segni played an active role in the negotiations leading to the signing of the European Common Market treaty. But by early 1957 the Segni government was hampered by the same characteristics of immobilismo (“do-nothingism”) that had become characteristic of Italian governments. The elections held in 1958 confirmed a slight but steady drift toward the Socialist left, reflecting a widespread desire for social and economic reform. The Socialists and the Christian Democrats were the main gainers, and the parties of the extreme right the chief losers.

In the 1960s the hopes of the Christian Democrats and Socialists to make gains at the expense of the Communists were disappointed. Although a government measure nationalizing the electrical industry pleased the left, differences between Christian Democrats and Socialists over the creation of new regional governments led to government crises. The moderate Socialists, however, entered the coalition government late in 1963. It was the first time the Socialists had agreed to enter a center-left coalition since 1947. Christian Democrat Aldo Moro became prime minister.

The Vatican strongly urged the Christian Democrats to put their house in order and, in addition, cracked down on left-wing Catholics interested in carrying on a “dialogue” with the Communists. Meanwhile, the Communists were shaken by the Socialist Party’s entrance into the government.

During 1964 the conservative and left-wing elements in the government persistently and fundamentally disagreed. The situation was rendered more serious by signs that a six-year economic boom would be ending because the factions were unable to agree on a policy to counter the threatened downturn. In 1965, however, the four parties in the coalition government agreed to set aside their political differences in order to take unified action against the economic slump. Throughout 1965 and 1966 the government headed by Moro maintained the confidence of the coalition parties. By 1966 the various factions of the Christian Democratic Party began to pull together under pressure from the church.

Social Upheavals

By the late 1960s the continued postponement of major reforms gave rise to widespread protests by labor unions demanding better wages, better housing, and welfare provisions. In 1968 students demanding educational reforms joined the workers. The student and labor protests that year led to violent clashes with the police in many cities, and workers called general strikes to urge an overhaul of the social security system. The demands for reform indicated profound changes within Italian culture and a widespread revolt, particularly among younger people, against the conservative and authoritarian climate of the 1950s and 1960s and against the power exercised by the Catholic Church over censorship, family law, and reproductive issues. The protests forced the government to hold referendums that resulted in the legalization of divorce in 1973 and abortion in 1978.

An international economic depression, triggered by the rise in petroleum prices in 1973, added to Italy’s tensions, causing severe inflation, unemployment, and currency outflows. Government deficits rose rapidly, and massive international loans were needed to avert bankruptcy. As Italy’s economic problems worsened, public confidence in the government declined. For a short period in 1974 the country was without a government altogether. Support for the Communist Party, led by Enrico Berlinguer, increased.

In 1975 regional elections the Communists won 33 percent of the vote and pressed the government to support a long-term alliance between the Communists and the Christian Democrats. In parliamentary elections in 1976 the Communists made more gains, winning 35 percent of the vote; the Christian Democrats won 39 percent. The Christian Democrat leader Giulio Andreotti formed a new government with Communist support. Although barred from cabinet positions, the Communists stopped abstaining and began voting with the government. The eventual loss of Communist support led to Andreotti’s resignation in early 1979.

Urban Terrorism

Starting in 1969 and continuing through the 1970s extremist political violence became a feature of Italian life. The first random bombings were carried out by neo-Fascist terrorists, whose aim was to destabilize the democratic process and open the way for an authoritarian coup. In response, left-wing extremists organized paramilitary terrorist cells and began to target public and labor union officials in the hope of encouraging a mass popular insurrection. At first these actions had widespread support, and the decision of Communist leader Berlinguer to support the Christian Democrat government in efforts to restore public order infuriated many on the left. The violence of the opposing terrorist organizations began to spiral out of control as politicians, police, journalists, and businessmen became terrorist targets.

The wave of political assassinations culminated in March 1978 when former prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by a fanatical left-wing group, the Red Brigades, which made Moro’s release contingent on the freeing of other terrorists from Italian jails. The government refused to deal with Moro’s captors, and he was subsequently found murdered. But revulsion at Moro’s assassination deprived the terrorists of the popular support they had enjoyed earlier in the decade, and their organizations quickly unraveled.

Later inquiries revealed that the extreme right had been the first to resort to terrorist action, although their attacks were often deliberately disguised as the work of the left. Indiscriminate right-wing terrorist acts culminated in a bombing at the Bologna train station in August 1980 that killed 84 people. Through the 1980s evidence mounted of close ties between the extreme right and elements within Italy’s secret services.

Shifting Alignments

During the 1970s and 1980s Italy’s Christian Democratic establishment was shaken by a series of scandals. In 1978 President Giovanni Leone resigned after he was accused of involvement in a bribery scandal. Other scandals brought down the government of prime minister Arnaldo Forlani in 1981. Afterward, Giovanni Spadolini, leader of the small Republican Party, became the first prime minister since 1945 who was not a Christian Democrat.

In 1983 Bettino Craxi became Italy’s first Socialist prime minister since the war. A flamboyant and effective political leader, Craxi dominated the politics of the 1980s. He served until March 1987, the longest tenure of any postwar leader, and reorganized the Socialist Party. The Craxi era was one of economic recovery and the rapid expansion of the consumer economy. In particular, Italy became the principal exporter of a wide range of consumer goods noted for their design. Family-based concerns such as Benetton played a major role. The Craxi era was followed by a period of short-lived coalition governments.

Organized Crime

An uncontrolled expansion of organized crime, especially in the South, marked the 1980s in Italy. In 1982 the police chief who had masterminded the operations against the Red Brigades was sent to Sicily to bring to an end a wave of mafia killings. Six months later he and his wife were gunned down by mafia killers in downtown Palermo. In response, the government established a massive judicial investigation that resulted in the arrest and mass trials of hundreds suspected of links with the Mafia. Many Mafiosi testified for the prosecution, but their families were vulnerable to reprisals, and many of the convictions were overturned on appeal. In 1992 the Mafia carried out its most flagrant defiance of the government, killing the two judges who were leading the anti-Mafia investigations. In Naples, the Camorra was the equivalent of the Mafia in Sicily, and it became extremely powerful in the 1980s. Like the Mafia it owed its rise to political favors that gave access to lucrative public contracts.


The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe precipitated changes in Italy, as well. In 1991 the Italian Communists renamed themselves the Democratic Party of the Left, downplaying their former atheism and emphasis on class conflict in favor of issues such as the environment, feminism, and the economic disparity between the country’s industrial north and the poverty-ridden south. The Socialist Party, still led by Craxi, tried to unify the left and renamed itself the Party of Socialist Unity. Meanwhile, the separatist Northern League gained popularity by criticizing central government waste and advocating a federal system that would grant more regional autonomy.

Voters showed their lack of confidence in all established parties and their desire for change in elections held in 1992. The once-dominant Christian Democrats received 29.7 percent of the vote, an all-time low. The Democratic Party of the Left (formerly the Communist Party), in second place, drew 16.1 percent, down from 26.6 percent in 1987; the Socialists were third, with 13.6 percent.

The voter backlash resulted from a combination of factors, including a poor economy and high unemployment. The dominant feeling, however, was shock at the revelations of widespread political corruption and Mafia influence at high levels of the government. The collapse of the former political parties left the judges free for the first time to pursue corruption charges. In the years that followed, thousands of individuals, including hundreds of politicians as well as judicial and business leaders, were investigated or arrested on charges that included taking bribes and granting political and economic favors. The murders of the anti-Mafia judges in Palermo in 1992 heightened the sense of revulsion with the old political parties and strengthened the pressure for political reform. The corruption charges and political scandal forced Craxi to resign as head of the Socialist Party in early 1993. In 1994, facing arrest for accepting bribes, he fled to Tunisia, where he remained in self-imposed exile until his death in 2000.

In 1993 Italian voters approved eight governmental reform referendums, which revised the country’s electoral system and ended state funding of political parties. The reforms resulted in much greater political autonomy for regional and city governments, which profoundly changed what had been a highly centralized structure in Italian politics and public administration. Soon after the elections Socialist Prime Minister Giuliano Amato resigned and was replaced by the head of the Bank of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who created a cross-party government of technocrats.

In March 1994 a newly formed right-wing coalition called the Freedom Alliance was voted into power, winning 58 percent of the vote; the left-wing coalition received 34 percent of the vote, and the once-dominant centrist parties drew only 7 percent. The Freedom Alliance was composed of the new Forza Italia (“Go Italy”) party, a creation of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi; the far-right National Alliance; and the Northern League. With 25 percent of the vote, Forza Italia was the election leader, and Berlusconi was named prime minister, with the Freedom Alliance holding a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and forming the strongest force in the Senate. But Berlusconi’s coalition collapsed in December 1994 when the Northern League withdrew from the alliance. Berlusconi, who was also facing investigation on bribery charges, resigned as prime minister.

In January 1995 Lamberto Dini, Berlusconi’s treasury minister, was appointed prime minister to lead a politically neutral, transitional government. Uncontrolled public expenditure on lavish pension and welfare schemes, the massive scale of political corruption in the past, and an overlarge and unproductive public sector all contributed to soaring deficits and dangerous levels of national debt. Dini’s government passed an austerity budget to deal with Italy’s worsening economy. It also attempted to reform the regional electoral system and state pension system and to enact rules governing political access to television. Dini resigned in January 1996, but continued in office until elections were held in April.

Center-Left Coalition Governments

The April 1996 elections brought the most profound change in Italian politics since 1947. The largest component of the winning center-left coalition, which was known as the Olive Tree, was the Democratic Party of the Left, the former Communists who until that point had been excluded from government. The coalition also included former Christian Democrats and Dini’s newly formed Italian Renewal Party. The Olive Tree gained control of the Senate and a plurality, 284 seats, in the Chamber of Deputies. Romano Prodi, an economics professor, was sworn in as Italy’s 55th postwar prime minister, pledging to cut spending and reduce unemployment.

The corruption scandals continued, engulfing prominent politicians as well as business leaders and others. Former Prime Minister Andreotti was charged with selling favors to the Sicilian Mafia in exchange for votes and political support. In 1996 Berlusconi went on trial on charges of bribing tax police to gain favorable treatment for one of his media companies. In 1997 the yearlong trial was declared null and void when the presiding judge resigned after being accused of bias against the defendant. A new trial began for Berlusconi a month later, though he continued to lead the opposition Forza Italia party. Berlusconi was accused of falsifying the price of a film company bought by one of his companies in 1989. He was found guilty in December 1997 and given a 16-month suspended sentence. He was also convicted of bribery and corruption by a Milan court in 1998.

Economic Reforms

The great success story of the 1990s was the austerity program adopted by Prodi’s government. It produced sufficient economies in public expenditure to qualify Italy in November 1996 to reenter the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM), which the lira had been forced to abandon in 1992. After heated debate, Prime Minister Prodi won parliamentary approval the following month for a stringent budget. The budget aimed at reducing the budget deficit to 3 percent by the end of 1997 in accordance with EU requirements for participating in a common European currency. The measures taken by Prodi’s government ultimately paid off, as Italy met the requirements to join the common currency. In May 1998 Italy officially agreed to adopt the euro, the new currency, and it replaced the lira in January 2001.

The requirements for achieving European monetary union provided Italy’s political leaders with a clear agenda of monetary and financial reforms that would otherwise have been difficult to implement. The desire to play a major role in what has become the European Union has also dominated Italy’s foreign policy from the 1960s on.

In October 1998 Prodi’s government was brought down when the Democratic Party of the Left withdrew its support. Massimo D’Alema, a former Communist and head of the Democratic Party of the Left, put together a broad center-left coalition and replaced Prodi as prime minister. D’Alema resigned in December 1999 in the face of widening cracks in his ten-party ruling coalition. But he was back in office two days later, after President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi asked him to form a new government. The new government was short-lived, and D’Alema resigned for good after his center-left coalition was defeated by the center-right opposition in regional elections in April 2000. He was replaced by former prime minister Giuliano Amato, who had served as treasury minister in D’Alema’s cabinet.

Berlusconi’s Return to Power

The center-left’s control of government came to an end in national elections in May 2001. The conservative Freedom Alliance led by Silvio Berlusconi captured a comfortable majority of seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament. Berlusconi’s winning alliance included his own Forza Italia party, which emerged from the elections as the nation’s largest single party; the neo-Fascist National Alliance; and four smaller conservative groups. The conservative groups included the Northern League, whose major agenda was stricter controls on immigration and immigrants.

Berlusconi pledged to lower taxes, streamline the state bureaucracy, and modernize Italy’s sluggish economy. However, he made little progress on those promises, and economic stagnation steadily eroded support for his government. The coalition failed to reach agreement on most of the economic reforms, and attempts to reduce the independence of the judiciary and to reform labor laws met with strong resistance. Berlusconi succeeded in pushing through a criminal justice reform bill that his critics said was deliberately engineered so that Berlusconi could avoid facing corruption charges regarding the bribery of judges. In 2004 judges applied a statue of limitations to the charges against Berlusconi, effectively acquitting him.

During Berlusconi’s term in office, Italy’s national deficit remained close to the ceiling permitted under European Union regulations, and the country’s ratio of national debt to GDP remained among the highest in the EU. Berlusconi’s decision to send about 2,700 Italian troops to Iraq in support of the United States-led occupation, launched in 2003, proved controversial and sparked protests (see U.S.-Iraq War).

In 2005 Berlusconi’s coalition suffered losses in regional elections, and several parties defected from the coalition. The move forced the prime minister to dissolve his government and form a new ruling coalition. Despite these difficulties, Berlusconi became the first prime minister since World War II to remain in office for a full term.

Recent Elections

The April 2006 general elections were highly contested. Former prime minister Romano Prodi led a center-left coalition, l’Unione (the Union), to win a narrow victory in the voting. Berlusconi disputed the outcome, however, leading to a court review of about 5,000 contested ballots. The Supreme Court of Cassation subsequently confirmed Prodi’s victory, announcing a final margin in the lower house of parliament of fewer than 25,000 votes out of more than 38 million cast. The Union coalition, comprising nine parties, took 348 of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The coalition also claimed a razor-thin victory in the Senate, winning two more seats than the center-right coalition led by Berlusconi. Prodi formed a coalition government and was officially confirmed as prime minister in May.

Prodi and his center-left coalition strongly opposed sweeping reforms to the 1948 constitution that had gained parliamentary approval under Berlusconi. In a referendum held in June 2006, voters resoundingly rejected the proposed reforms, which would have greatly increased the powers of the prime minister and given more autonomy to the country’s 20 regions. After taking office, Prodi accelerated the pullout of Italian troops from Iraq, completed in September 2006. However, his foreign policy program lost support of some coalition members for its plan to keep Italian troops in Afghanistan. This loss of support led Prodi to submit his resignation in February 2007, but he subsequently survived confidence votes in both houses of parliament and remained in office. However, his position remained tenuous as he tried to balance the interests of his broad coalition government. After a minor party withdrew from the coalition in early 2008, Prodi lost a vote of confidence in the Senate, forcing his resignation.

The parliament was dissolved following unsuccessful talks to form an interim government, and elections were held in April 2008. The center-right alliance of former prime minister Berlusconi won commanding majorities in both houses of parliament, and Berlusconi became prime minister a third time.

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