Both the internal and external facets of Western culture were born on the Italian peninsula, whether one looks at the history of the Christian faith, civil institutions (such as the Senate), philosophy, law, art, science, or social customs and culture.
Italy was home to many well-known and influential civilizations, including the Etruscans, Samnites and the Romans, while also hosting colonies from important foreign civilizations like the Phoenicians and Greeks, whose influence and culture had a large impact through the peninsula. Etruscan and Samnite cultures flourished in Italy before the emergence of the Roman Republic, which conquered and incorporated them. Phoenicians and Greeks established settlements in Italy beginning several centuries before the birth of Christ, and the Greek settlements in particular developed into thriving classical civilizations. The Greek ruins in southern Italy are perhaps the most spectacular and best preserved anywhere.
For more than 2,000 years Italy experienced migrations, invasions and was divided into many independent states until 1861 when it became a nation-state. Due to this comparatively late unification, and the historical autonomy of the regions that comprise the Italian peninsula, many traditions and customs that are now recognized as distinctly Italian can be identified by their regions of origin. Despite the political and social isolation of these regions, Italy’s contributions to the cultural and historical heritage of Europe and the world remain immense.
The famous elements of Italian culture are its art, music, fashion, and iconic food. Italy was the birthplace of opera, and for generations the language of opera was Italian, irrespective of the nationality of the composer. Popular tastes in drama in Italy have long favored comedy; the improvisational style known as the Commedia dell’arte began in Italy in the mid-16th century and is still performed today. Before being exported to France, the famous Ballet dance genre also originated in Italy.
The country boasts several world-famous cities. Rome was the ancient capital of the Roman Empire and seat of the pope of the Catholic Church. Florence was the heart of the Renaissance, a period of great achievements in the arts that ended the Dark Ages. Other important cities include Turin, which used to be the capital of Italy, and is now one of the world’s great centers of automobile engineering. Milan is the industrial, financial and fashion capital of Italy. Venice, with its intricate canal system, attracts tourists from all over the world especially during the Venetian Carnival and the Biennale.
Italy is home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (51) to date, and according to one estimate the country is home to half the world’s great art treasures. The nation has, overall, an estimated 100,000 monuments of any sort (churches, cathedrals, archaeological sites, houses and statues).
Architectural ruins from antiquity throughout Italy testify to the greatness of cultures past. The history of architecture in Italy is one that begins with the ancient styles of the Etruscans and Greeks, progressing to classical Roman, then to the revival of the classical Roman era during the Renaissance and evolving into the Baroque era. During the period of the Italian Renaissance it had been customary for students of architecture to travel to Rome to study the ancient ruins and buildings as an essential part of their education.
Fashion and design
The Italian fashion industry is one of the country’s most important manufacturing sectors. The majority of the older Italian couturiers are based in Rome. However, Milan is seen as the fashion capital of Italy because many well-known designers are based there and it is the venue for the Italian designer collections.
Italian literature began after the founding of Rome in 753 BC. Roman, or Latin literature, was and still is highly influential in the world, with numerous writers, poets, philosophers, and historians, such as Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Ovid and Livy. The Romans were also famous for their oral tradition, poetry, drama and epigrams. Even though most of these were inspired from the Ancient Greeks, Roman epigrams were usually far more satyrical, sometimes using obscene language to give them an exciting effect. Most of the Roman epigrams were inscriptions or graffiti.
The Italian film industry was born between 1903 and 1908 with three companies: the Roman Società Italiana Cines, the Ambrosio Film and the Itala Film in Turin. Other companies soon followed in Milan and in Naples.
Music writing began in Italy. Therefore, Italian words are used to tell us how music is played. Consequently, all countries have adopted technical terms in their Italian form — a demonstration of the crucial role played by Italy, and in particular Florence, in the history of music.
Science and technology
The still-standing aqueducts, bathhouses, and other public works of both ancient republic and empire testify to the engineering and architectural skills of the Romans. The rebirth of science during the Renaissance brought the daring speculations of Leonardo da Vinci (including discoveries in anatomy, meteorology, geology and hydrology) advances in physics and astronomy by Galileo Galilei, and the development of the barometer by Evangelista Torricelli.
The art of sculpture in the Italian peninsula has its roots in ancient times. In the archaic period, when Etruscan cities dominated central Italy and the adjacent sea, Etruscan sculpture flourished. The name of an individual artist, Vulca, who worked at Veii, has been identified. He has left a terracotta Apollo and other figures, and can perhaps claim the distinction of being the most ancient master in the long history of Italian art.
Italian theatre can be traced back into the Roman which was heavily influenced by the Greek tradition, and, as with many other literary genres, Roman dramatists tended to adapt and translate from the Greek. For example, Seneca’s Phaedra was based on that of Euripides, and many of the comedies of Plautus were direct translations of works by Menander.
The history and development of art in Western culture is grounded in hundreds of years of Italian history. In Ancient Rome, Italy was the centre for art and architecture. There were many Italian artists during the Gothic and Medieval periods, and the arts flourished during the Italian Renaissance. Later styles in Italy included Mannerism, Baroque, and Macchiaioli. Futurism developed in Italy in the 20th century. Florence, Venice and Rome, in particular, are brimming with art treasures in museums, churches, and public buildings.
Few would doubt the importance of food to Italian national and cultural identity. Food is widely recognized to be a fundamental part of what it means to be Italian. National signature dishes — which actually originated in the Italian cities, regions, or localities — provide many proud Italians with a cause for national celebration. Italian food also constitutes a key feature of global food culture. The development of international food chains selling pizza or pasta ensures that people across the globe recognize Italy as one of the world’s great food nations.
Italy’s public education is free and compulsory from 6–14 years of age. It has a five-year primary stage and an eight-year secondary stage, divided into first-grade secondary school (middle school) and second-grade secondary school (or high school). Italy has both public and private education systems.
Italy is the wellspring of Western civilization and has been a world crossroads for over 2,000 years. Continuous learning, creativity, and technological advancement on the Italian peninsula have shaped virtually every aspect of Western culture.
The great Romantic English poet, Lord Byron, described Italian as a language that sounds “as if it should be writ on satin.” Byron’s description is not an isolated expression of poetic fancy but, in fact, a popular view of the Italian language across the world, often called the language of “love,” “poetry,” and “song.”
Roman Catholicism is by far the largest religion in the country. Although the Roman Catholic Church has been separated from the state, it still plays a role in the nation’s political affairs partly due to Holy See’s location in Vatican City, within Rome itself. Some 98% of Italians are Roman Catholic of which one-third are active members. Most baptisms, weddings, and funeral services are held in church.
Football is a popular spectator and participation sport. The Italian national team is among the very best in the world and has won the World Cup on four different occasions: 1934, 1938, 1982, and 2006. Only Brazil has a better record. Major Italian clubs frequently compete at a high level of European competitions.