The Republic of Italy is bordered to the N by the Alps which overlook the N plains, Italy's most fertile and densely populated region, drained by the Po River. The Apennines (Appennini), which form the backbone of S Italy, reach their highest peaks (3,000m [9,800ft]), in the Gran Sasso Range overlooking the the central Adriatic Sea, near Pescara. Limestones are the most common rocks. Between the mountains are long, narrow basins, some with lakes.
s Italy contains a string of volcanoes, stretching from Vesuvius, near Naples (Nápoli), through the Lipari Islands, to Mount Etna on Sicily. Traces of volcanic activity are found throughout Italy. Ancient lava flows cover large areas and produce fertile soils. Italy is still subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. Sardinia is more isolated from the mainland and its rugged, windswept terrain and lack of resources have set it apart.
The N has cold, snowy winters, but warm and sunny summer months. Rainfall is plentiful, with brief but powerful thunderstorms in summer. Southern Italy has mild, moist winters and warm, dry summers.
By tradition Romulus and Remus founded ancient Rome in 753 bc. The Etruscans were overthrown by the Romans, who established a republic (509 bc). Rome gained a Mediterranean empire from the Punic Wars. Pompey was defeated by Julius Caesar, whose assassination led to the formation (27 bc) of the Roman Empire under Augustus. The empire reached its peak in the ad 100s, then began to decline. Diocletian divided the Empire into Eastern (Byzantine Empire) and Western sections. The western empire collapsed in the 400s. The papacy ensured the continuation of Rome's influence. Pepin III (the Short) expelled the Lombards, and enabled the creation of the Papal States. His son Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the West (800).
In 962, Otto I conquered Italy and established the Holy Roman Empire. Central and N Italy were controlled by powerful city-states, while the S established a feudal system under the Hohenstaufen and Angevin dynasties. The 13th-century battle between imperial and papal power divided the cities and nobles into the Guelph and Ghibelline factions. The 15th-century Renaissance profoundly affected western civilization. Italian art and architecture was an informing force across Europe.
In the 16th century, Spain gained Sicily, Naples and Milan. The French Revolutionary Wars failed to bring reunification. Nationalist groups, such as the Risorgimento, emerged. Little progress was made until an alliance between France and Piedmont (then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia) drove Austria from Lombardy in 1859. Mazzini's republicans were defeated by monarchists led by Garibaldi and the Kingdom of Italy was unified under Victor Emmanuel II (1861). Venetia was acquired from Austria in 1866 and Rome was finally annexed in 1871. Since then, Italy has been a unified state, though the pope and his successors disputed the takeover of the Papal States. This dispute was resolved in 1929, when Vatican City was established as a fully independent state.
Since unification, the population has doubled, though the rate of increase is notoriously slow today. The rapid growth of population, in a poor country attempting to develop its resources, forced millions of Italians to emigrate during the first quarter of the 20th century. Large numbers settled in the United States, South America and Australia. More recently, large numbers of Italians have moved into northern Europe for similar reasons.
Victor Emmanuel III's reign (1900-46) saw Italy enter World War 1 on the Allied side (1915). After the war, Italy was given nearly 23,000sq km [9,000sq mi] of territory that had belonged to Austria-Hungary. Italian discontent at the post-war settlement culminated in D'Annunzio's seizure of Trieste, and the emergence of fascism. Benito Mussolini became prime minister in 1922 and assumed dictatorial powers. His aggressive foreign policies included entering into an alliance with Hitler, sending forces to support General Franco in Spain (1936) and the seizure of Ethiopia (1936) and Albania (1939). During World War 2, Italy fought on the Axis side, but after losing its North African empire, Mussolini was dismissed and Italy surrendered (1943). Germany invaded and Italy declared war. Rome fell to the Allies in 1944. Mussolini was captured and shot by partisans in 1945, during an attempted escape to escape to Switzerland. Allied troops left in 1947.
The Christian Democrat Party emerged as the dominant post-war political force, with Alcide De Gasperi as prime minister (1945-53). In 1948 Italy became a republic and was a founder member of NATO (1949) and the European Economic Community (1958). After the establishment of the EEC, Italy's economy began to expand. Much of the economic development took place in the industrialized north. Central Italy is less developed and represents a transition zone between the developed north and the poor agrarian south known as the Mezzogiorno. Italy has been riven by political instability (50 governments since 1947), endemic corruption (often linked to the Mafia), social unrest and the wealth gap between N and S.
In 1992, the old political establishment was driven from office with several prominent leaders accused of links to organized crime and some imprisoned. In 1996, the left-wing Olive Tree alliance led by Romano Prodi took office, but Prodi was forced to resign in 1998 following his rejection of demands made by his Communist allies. He was replaced by Massimo D'Alemo, the first former Communist to become prime minister. His attempts to create a two-party system in Italy failed in 1999.
By the late 1990s, it had the world's sixth largest economy and, on 1 January 2002, the euro became its currency. In 2001, Italy moved towards the political right when a coalition of centre-right parties won a substantial majority in parliament. Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi became prime minister. Accusations of corruption continued throughout his premierhsip and he was narrowly defeated by Prodi in 2006.
Fifty years ago, Italy was a mainly agricultural society. Today it is a major industrial power. It imports most of the raw materials used in industry. Manufactures include cars, chemicals, processed food, machinery, textiles. Major crops include grapes for wine-making, and olives, citrus fruits, sugar beet and vegetables. Cattle, pigs, poultry and sheep are raised.
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