Greeks settled in the southern tip of the Italian Peninsula in the eighth
and seventh centuries B.C.; Etruscans, Romans, and others inhabited the
central and northern mainland. The peninsula subsequently was unified under
the Roman Republic. The neighboring islands also came under Roman control
by the third century B.C.; by the first century A.D., the Roman Empire
effectively dominated the Mediterranean world. After the collapse of the
Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century A.D., the peninsula and islands
were subjected to a series of invasions, and political unity was lost.
Italy became an oft-changing succession of small states, principalities,
and kingdoms, which fought among themselves and were subject to ambitions
of foreign powers. Popes of Rome ruled central Italy; rivalries between
the popes and the Holy Roman Emperors, who claimed Italy as their domain,
often made the peninsula a battleground.
The commercial prosperity of northern and central Italian cities, beginning
in the 11th century, and the influence of the Renaissance mitigated somewhat
the effects of these medieval political rivalries. Although Italy declined
after the 16th century, the Renaissance had strengthened the idea of a
single Italian nationality. By the early 19th century, a nationalist movement
developed and led to the reunification of Italy--except for Rome--in the
1860s. In 1861, Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy was proclaimed
King of Italy. Rome was incorporated in 1870. From 1870 until 1922, Italy
was a constitutional monarchy with a parliament elected under limited suffrage.
During World War I, Italy renounced its standing alliance with Germany
and Austria-Hungary and, in 1915, entered the war on the side of the Allies.
Under the postwar settlement, Italy received some former Austrian territory
along the northeast frontier. In 1922, Benito Mussolini came to power and,
over the next few years, eliminated political parties, curtailed personal
liberties, and installed a fascist dictatorship termed the Corporate State.
The king, with little or no effective power, remained titular head of state.
Italy allied with Germany and declared war on the United Kingdom and
France in 1940. In 1941, Italy--with the other Axis powers, Germany and
Japan--declared war on the United States and the Soviet Union. Following
the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, the King dismissed Mussolini and
appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio as Premier. The Badoglio government declared
war on Germany, which quickly occupied most of the country and freed Mussolini,
who led a brief-lived regime in the north. An anti-fascist popular resistance
movement grew during the last 2 years of the war, harassing German forces
before they were driven out in April 1945. A 1946 plebiscite ended the
monarchy, and a constituent assembly was elected to draw up plans for the
Under the 1947 peace treaty, minor adjustments were made in Italy's
frontier with France, the eastern border area was transferred to Yugoslavia,
and the area around the city of Trieste was designated a free territory.
In 1954, the free territory, which had remained under the administration
of U.S.-U.K. forces (Zone A, including the city of Trieste) and Yugoslav
forces (Zone B), was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia, principally
along the zonal boundary. This arrangement was made permanent by the Italian-Yugoslav
Treaty of Osimo, ratified in 1977 (currently being discussed by Italy,
Slovenia, and Croatia). Under the 1947 peace treaty, Italy also relinquished
its overseas territories and certain Mediterranean islands.
The Roman Catholic Church's status in Italy has been determined, since
its temporal powers ended in 1870, by a series of accords with the Italian
Government. Under the Lateran Pacts of 1929, which were confirmed by the
present constitution, the state of Vatican City is recognized by Italy
as an independent, sovereign entity. While preserving that recognition,
in 1984, Italy and the Vatican updated several provisions of the 1929 accords.
Included was the end of Roman Catholicism as Italy's formal state religion.
Until recently, there had been frequent government turnovers since 1945.
The dominance of the Christian Democratic (DC) party during much of the
postwar period lent continuity and comparative stability to Italy's political
From 1992 to 1997, Italy faced significant challenges as voters--disenchanted
with past political paralysis, massive government debt, extensive corruption,
and organized crime's considerable influence--demanded political, economic,
and ethical reforms. In 1993 referendums, voters approved substantial changes,
including moving from a proportional to a largely majoritarian electoral
system and the abolishment of some ministries.
Major political parties, beset by scandal and loss of voter confidence,
underwent far-reaching changes. New political forces and new alignments
of power emerged in March 1994 national elections. The election saw a major
turnover in the new parliament, with 452 out of 630 deputies and 213 out
of 315 senators elected for the first time. The 1994 elections also swept
media magnate Silvio Berlusconi--and his "Freedom Pole" coalition--into
office as Prime Minister. Berlusconi, however, was forced to step down
in January 1995 when one member of his coalition withdrew support. The
Berlusconi government was succeeded by a technical government headed by
Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, which fell in early 1996.
A series of center-left coalitions dominated Italy's political landscape
between 1996 and 2001. In April 1996, national elections led to the victory
of a center-left coalition (the Olive Tree) under the leadership of Romano
Prodi. Prodi's government became the second-longest to stay in power before
he narrowly lost a vote of confidence (by three votes) in October 1998.
A new government was formed by Democratic Party of the Left leader and
former-communist Massimo D'Alema. In April 2000, following a poor showing
by his coalition in regional elections, D'Alema resigned. The succeeding
center-left government, including most of the same parties, was headed
by Giuliano Amato, who previously served as Prime Minister in 1992-93.
National elections, held on May 13, 2001, returned Berlusconi to power
at the head of the five-party center-right "Freedom House" coalition, comprising
the prime minister's own party, Forza Italia, the National Alliance, the
Northern League, the Christian Democratic Center, and the United Christian
Democrats. Because the center-right coalition holds the majority of seats
in parliament, Berlusconi's government is expected to be longer lived than
its many predecessor governments, and could well last a full 5-year term.
In May 1999, the parliament selected Carlo Azeglio Ciampi as the Republic's
President. Ciampi, a former Prime Minister and Minister of the Treasury,
was elected on the first ballot with an easy margin over the required two-thirds
Italy's Cultural Contributions
Europe's Renaissance period began in Italy during the 14th and 15th
centuries. Literary achievements--such as the poetry of Petrarch, Tasso,
and Ariosto and the prose of Boccaccio, Machiavelli, and Castiglione--exerted
a tremendous and lasting influence on the subsequent development of Western
civilization, as did the painting, sculpture, and architecture contributed
by giants such as da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and Michelangelo.
The musical influence of Italian composers Monteverdi, Palestrina, and
Vivaldi proved epochal; in the 19th century, Italian romantic opera flourished
under composers Gioacchino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, and Giacomo Puccini.
Contemporary Italian artists, writers, filmmakers, architects, composers,
and designers contribute significantly to Western culture.