POPULATION: 57 million
LANGUAGE: Italian; French; Slovene; German; Fruilian
RELIGION: Roman Catholicsim; small amounts of Protestantism, Judaism, and Greek Orthodoxy
The twenty regions that make up Italy were united into a single country in 1870. The country and its people have been a profound political and cultural influence on the world since the days of ancient Rome. Each year millions of tourists visit Italy to see the country's cultural and historical landmarks such as the Colosseum in Rome and the Greek ruins in Sicily. Italy is a modern industrial nation and a leading member of the European Community (EC). In the 1950s economic growth was so fast that its economy was called the "Italian miracle."
Located in southern Europe, Italy is divided into three major regions: the north Italian Plain and the Italian Alps (continental); the peninsula south of the plain (peninsular); and Sardinia, Sicily, and numerous smaller islands (insular). Italy's only major river, the Po, flows from west to east before it empties into the Adriatic sea. The mainland is a boot-shaped peninsula, with the Mediterranean Sea to the southwest, and the Adriatic to the east and northeast.
There is a sharp division in temperament, traditions, and economic conditions between Italians living in northern and central regions, and those living in the south. The city of Rome marks the boundaries between the two parts of the mainland. The wealthier northern region is considered to be more "European." The poorer, historically neglected south is considered to be more "Mediterranean." There has even been a movement among northerners to create an independent country.
Italian is the official language and is spoken by the vast majority of the population. Other languages spoken in Italy include French, Slovene, German, and Fruilian, which is related to the Romansch language spoken in Switzerland.
According to myth, the city of Rome was founded by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, in 753 BC . Their father was Mars, the god of war. They were set adrift in the Tiber River. Instead of drowning as was planned, they floated to the future site of the city of Rome. They were raised by a wolf and later found by a herdsman. After the founding of Rome, Romulus killed Remus and took over his power. After his death, Remus was worshiped as the god Quirinus.
Italy is an overwhelmingly Catholic country: 99 percent of Italians describe themselves as Roman Catholics. Only about one-third of Italian Catholics, however, attend Mass regularly. Catholicism plays an important role in everyday life, even for those who do not attend church regularly.
Before a 1984 law ended compulsory religious education, priests were the primary teachers in the schools. The Catholic Church's position on abortion and divorce has had a major impact on marriage and family life.
Italy is also the home of the Vatican, a tiny, independent country within Rome. For centuries, the Vatican has been the head-quarters of the Catholic Church and is where the Pope lives. For centuries, almost every Pope has been Italian. Becoming Pope in 1978, the Polish-born John Paul II is a notable exception.
There are about 150,000 Protestants living in Italy. Most of them belong to a sect known as Waldensians. Italy is also home to about 35,000 Jews and a small number of members of the Greek Orthodox church.
In additon to the standard holidays of the Christian calendar, legal holidays in Italy are New Year's Day, Liberation Day on April twenty-fifth, and Labor Day on May first. Cities and towns also celebrate the feast days of their individual patron saints. Colorful traditions mark many celebrations of religious holidays.
In Florence, Easter (in March or April) is the occasion for the reenactment of a medieval tradition called scoppio del carro, which means "explosion of the cart." It is the eruption of a cartful of fireworks set off by a mechanical dove released from the altar during Mass. On Ascension Day children take part in a "cricket hunt" in the city's largest park.
The annual summer Palio horse race, held in Siena, is a colorful, bareback horse race with racers competing for the banner, the palio.
Italy is a modern, industrialized, Roman Catholic country. Many rites of passage that young people experience are religious sacraments such as baptism, first communion, and confirmation. In many families, a student's progress through the education system is celebrated with parties.
Italians are characteristically friendly, outgoing, and generous. They love to talk and are easily immersed in conversation. Like people of other Mediterranean nations, they often use body language to illustrate or emphasize what they are saying.
The standard form of greeting among peers is the handshake. Italian people are very affectionate in public. It is common for two grown men to greet by kissing each other on both cheeks, and for either men or women to walk down the street arm in arm. These very informal manners, however, are blended with a deep and traditional respect for the elderly. Young people often stand up when an older relative or friend enters the room.
Throughout the country there are differences in living conditions between large cities and the smaller towns that dot the Italian landscape. In the cities, people live in apartments and condominiums. In most towns, the average family lives in two-story homes. The standard of living is comparable to industrialized countries such as France, England, and the United States.
Thousands of middle-class Italians who live in large cities also own summer homes in the country, in coastal areas, or in the mountains. They spend weekends there to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. They also use these retreats during the traditional two weeks of vacation in August called ferragosto (August holy days).
The family is the backbone of Italian society. Choice of marriage partner, type of employment, business relationships, and often political affiliation are all influenced by family ties. Officially, the father is the authority figure in the family, although mothers have great power. This is especially true in the raising of sons. Italian men are said to have an unusually strong lifetime attachment to their mothers.
Many aspects of Italian family life have been influenced by the Catholic Church, by its own doctrine and the influence it has had on government policy. Until 1971, the sale and purchase of birth control devices were illegal. Abortion was legalized in 1978. Although divorce became legal in 1970, Italy's divorce rate of one in every fifteen new marriages is still much lower than that of other industrialized nations such as France, England, and the United States. Southern Italy has an even lower rate of divorce.
Italian fashions are known all over the world. Italy earns more money from selling its clothing, fabrics, and shoes than from any other export. These industries are Italy's largest employers. Designs by such names as Versace, Armani, and Nino Cerruti are among the fashion industry's most expensive and elite. Benetton clothing is marketed throughout the world. Leather goods, from handbags to gloves to jackets, are excellent buys. "Made in Italy" has become synonymous with style, quality, and craftsmanship.
Maintaining a good appearance is very important to Italians. Even their casual clothing is of high quality. Jeans are popular, but not if they are torn. Dress wear includes fashionable silk ties and well-cut suits for men, and elegant dresses and skirts and blouses for women.
Italy's national food is pasta. It is served in many varieties: ravioli in the north of the country, lasagne and tortellini in Bologna, cannelloni in Sicily, spaghetti with tomato or clam sauce in Naples. Northern Italians eat much less pasta. They prefer rice and polenta, a mush made with corn, barley, or chestnut flour. Pasta has been manufactured in the south since the nineteenth century and pasta dishes are often prepared with such vegetables as zucchini and eggplants.
Favorite Italian dishes include fegato alla veneziana (liver and onions); cotoletta alla milanese (veal cutlets); bagna cauda (a garlic-anchovy sauce for dipping vegetables); and pesto (a basil-and-garlic sauce now popular in the United States). One regional dish that has become particularly well known is pizza , which originated in Naples.
Espresso , a very strong coffee drink, is popular throughout Italy. It can be ordered as lungo (diluted), macchiato (with milk), or freddo (iced). Italy is also the world's largest wine producer, and wine is served with most meals. Tap water is safe in most areas, although most people order bottled acqua minerale (mineral water) in restaurants. A ristorante (restaurant) usually posts its menu in the window so one can see what is available before going inside.
In 1990 Italy had a literacy rate of about 97 percent. Schools in some rural areas and in the south, however, lag behind those in the rest of the country. Elementary education in Italy is regarded as the most progressive and innovative in the world.
Education is free and required between the ages of six and fourteen. Secondary education is offered in the sciences or humanities, as well as in technical and teacher training schools. A small percentage of students follow their secondary education with study at one of Italy's forty-one state or fifteen private universities and colleges. The oldest is the University of Bologna, founded approximately in A.D. 1060. It is also Europe's first university.
Italy's importance in the history of world culture cannot be overstated. Its contributions to culture are as important as any civilization's, including Persian, Chinese and Greek.
In the visual arts, Italy's legacy dates back to the sculpture and architecture of ancient Rome, the city in which Nero fiddled and Mark Antony praised Caesar. The Renaissance, beginning in fifteenth-century Florence, was a movement in art, literature, and philosophy that combined new realism with classical antiquity, especially seen in paintings. It saw the creation of such works as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo's painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Other great Italian Renaissance artists included Donatello, Boticelli, Raphael, and Titian.
In music, Italy is known for its glorious operatic tradition, from the early works of Monteverdi, the "father of opera," to the great nineteenth-century achievements of Rossini and Verdi. Verdi is considered the greatest composer of opera. Italy is also known for the music of the composer Vivaldi.
Italy's great masterpieces of literature include the Aeniad by the Roman writer Virgil (70 B.C. to A.D. 19). The fourteenth-century works of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, including Dante's Divine Comedy, are considered some of the greatest works in literature. In the twentieth century, six Italians have won the Nobel Prize for literature. The modern Italian writer who is probably best known internationally is Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose.
In the last half of the twentieth century, employment in Italy's service sector increased rapidly. By 1992, services employed 60 percent of the nation's work force. About 30 percent worked in industry and less than 10 percent in agriculture. Italian industry expanded quickly after World War II (1939–45), especially between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. The Piedmont region in the north is one of Europe's major auto manufacturing centers.
Southern Italy is less developed economically and has a higher rate of unemployment. Many Sicilians work abroad, and their earnings are important to the island's economy. Labor strikes are common among workers in many areas of the service sector, including the post office, railroads, hospitals, schools, banks, and the media.
Soccer (called calcio ) is by far Italy's most popular sport. Nearly all large and mediumsize cities have a team in one of the three professional divisions. Totocalcio is a very popular betting pool connected with soccer. In addition to its popularity as a spectator sport, soccer is played by most Italians. Games at the village, city, and district levels are accompanied by intense competition.
Italians also enjoy bicycle and motorcycle racing, basketball, boxing, tennis, and downhill skiing. A type of bowling played on clay court called bocce is popular in small towns.
Like many Europeans, Italians are passionate soccer fans. The fanaticism surrounding this sport has caused major riots in which people have died. Some fans have had heart attacks while watching games at home. Mammoth traffic jams are common on Sunday afternoons, which is when the games are played.
Many Italians like to spend leisure time visiting with friends at cafes. Cafes are also popular spots for solitary pursuits like reading or writing letters. Even daily meals are a form of recreation in Italy: Italians normally spend up to two hours eating their midday meal. Meals are times for families to get together for food, wine, and conversation.
Beaches are popular recreation areas, especially with young people, who also enjoy "hanging out" at the local piazza , or town square.
Italy's handcrafted products include fine laces, linens, glass, pottery, carved marble, leather, and gold and silver work. The sale of these products is important to the Italian economy, and the government subsidizes the artisans who create them.
A problem that has long troubled Italy is organized crime, especially in the southern part of the country. Mafia violence may involve rivalry among competing gangs, kidnapping of wealthy persons or their relatives, and drug-related activities. Italian mob trafficking in drugs has resulted in a drug problem worse than that in most other European countries.
Barzini, Luigi. The Italians: A Full-Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals. New York: Atheneum, 1965.
Bell, Brian, ed. Italy. Insight Guides. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: UXL, 1996.
Hofmann, Paul. That Fine Italian Hand. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: Western Europeans. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Sproule, Anna. Italy: The Land and Its People. Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1987.
Travis, David. The Land and People of Italy. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Winwar, Frances. The Land and People of Italy. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.