The name "Italy" comes from Greek "italos", which means calf. It was originally given to the region of Calabria by Greek settlers in the 8th century BCE, and was extended to the whole peninsula under Roman emperor Augustus.
Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world, welcoming some 46 million foreign visitors annually.
There are 15 minority languages officially recognised in Italy, including native languages such as Sardinian and Friulian, and neighbouring countries' languages (Catalan, Occitan, French, Slovenian, Croatian, Albanian and Greek).
Italy now has one of the lowest birthrate and fertility rate in the world.
The OECD Better Life Index found that, as of 2022, Italy boasted the best work-life balance of any developed country.
Two of Europe's smallest countries, San Marino and the Vatican, are enclaved within Italy.
Europe's only three active volcanoes, the Etna, the Stromboli and the Vesuvius, are all in the South of Italy. Mount Etna also happens to be the world's most active volcano. It has been in quasi uninterrupted eruption for the past 3,500 years, and spewing lava on a daily basis since 1999.
Italy did not become a completely unified country until 1870. Italians have retained a strong attachment to their native region or province, and most still find it hard to identify with Italy as a single nation.
History, Heritage & Construction
Italy was the cradle of Etruscan then Roman civilisations, and the centre of the first and largest empire in Europe and North Africa.
The city of Syracuse in Sicily was once the largest Ancient Greek city in the world.
The Colosseum in Rome is the largest ancient building dedicated to entertainment. The second and third largest Roman amphitheatres in Italy are respectively those of Capua and Verona.
The catacombs of Rome are 13 km long and contain some 40,000 tombs. They lie 7 to 19 metres below the surface and extend for more than 13,000 square metres (140,000 sq ft). They also house the oldest image of the Virgin Mary on Earth (early 2nd century).
At its apex in the 1st century Rome had a population of approximately 1.5 million. By the early 15th century it had fallen to a mere 17,000, before being revived by Renaissance popes as one of Europe's great cities. In other words, 99% of the ancient population of Rome was lost by the end of the Middle Ages, meaning that modern Romans can hardly claim to descend from the ancient population of the city.
There are at least 200 Roman-age bridges surviving to this day in Italy. The three oldest proper, masonry bridges in Europe are all located in Rome: the Pons Aemilius (built between 179 and 142 BCE, but is broken and closed to traffic), the Pons Milvius (Milvian Bridge, built in 109 BCE), and the Pons Fabricius (built in 62 BCE, linking the Capitol to the Tiber Island).
The Republic of Venice was founded in 697 and was dissolved by Napoleon in 1797, exactly 1,100 years later. This makes it the longest lasting republic in human history as well as the longest lasting uninterrupted form of government that ever existed. In comparison the Roman Republic lasted just under 500 years.
The oldest European university in continuous operation is the University of Bologna, founded in 1088. 13 other Italian universities are over 500 years old.
Europe's first modern banks appeared in Genoa in the 12th century. The first recorded public bond (1150) and the earliest known foreign exchange contract (1156) are both from Genoa. The world's oldest bank still in business is the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, operating since 1472.
The European Renaissance started in Northern Italy in the 14th century.
In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Venetian Republic was one of the few states in Europe to openly tolerate the Jews. In 1516, the Jews were assigned to the foundry quarter of Venice, known as the 'ghèto' (slag) in Venetian. The was the very first Jewish Ghetto, the one after which all the others were named, and which ultimately became a general term to describe a part of a city in which members of a minority group live.
St Peter's Basilica in Rome is the largest Christian edifice in the world. Its construction took 120 years (1506-1626).
Florence Cathedral has the largest brick dome ever constructed. It was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1420's.
Tintoretto's Paradise in the Doge's Palace in Venice is the largest painting ever done on canvas. It measures 22.6 by 9.1 metres (74 ft by 30 ft).
The Neapolitan philosopher Antonio Genovesi (1712-1769) was history's first tenured professor of political economy.
Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831-1846) was a caricature of the obscurantism of the Catholic Church. He opposed democratic and modernising reforms throughout Europe and went as far as banning railway construction, street lighting and vaccination in the Papal States, which he all regarded as the work of the devil.
La Mandria Regional Park in Venaria Reale, near Turin, is Europe's largest walled urban park, covering 3,000 hectares (7,500 acres). Monza Park is the fourth largest (688 ha / 1700 acres).
The colour magenta was named after the Battle of Magenta in Lombardy in 1859, when the French troops of Napoleon III defeated the Austrians and paved the way for Italian unification. Three weeks later, the Battle of Solferino, also in Lombardy, prompted the Swiss businessman Henry Dunant to found the Red Cross, horrified by the suffering of wounded soldiers left on the battlefield. Dunant also set about a process that would lead to the Geneva Conventions in 1949.
There is evidence that some sort of pasta and pizza were already eaten in Ancient Rome. The world’s first true pizzeria, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, opened in Naples in 1830.
There are over 140 types of pasta (see list), and even more names. Some pasta varieties are only produced regionally, while others are known under a different name in various regions.
Each Italian consumes in average 25kg of pasta each year. However, pasta consumption is considerably higher in the centre and south of the country than in the north, where risotto and polenta are more common.
There are thousands of traditional and regional Italian desserts. However, the most famous one abroad, the tiramisù, was only invented in the 1970's. The name literally means "pick-me-up" (metaphorically, "make me happy"), due to two of its ingredients : coffee and cocoa.
Culture, Inventions & Sciences
Many of the world's most famous artists were Italian, with such names as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Bernini, Titian and Raphael, among many others.
The Italians invented the viol, violin, cello and piano, and were the greatest representative of Baroque music (Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi, Albinoni...).
The mechanical clock, the barometer, the thermometer, optical glasses and the telephone are all Italian inventions.
The Romans love cats so much that they are considered a bio-cultural asset of the city. A new law condemns any person killing a cat to a 10,000 euro fine, and up to 3 years in jail. There is an estimated 300,000 cats in Rome, and they are the only inhabitants allowed on the ruins.
In 1994, Italian gynecologist and embryologist Severino Antinori (1945-) assisted the oldest women in history (63 years old) to give birth.
The oldest film festival in the world, beginning in 1932, is the Venice Film Festival.
Italians have won more Academy Awards (Oscars) for Best Foreign Language Film than any other country (13 so far, as of 2013).
Economy & Technology
It is estimated that Italy has the biggest "black economy" in Western Europe.
Italy has more famous fashion designers than any other country, including Gucci, Prada, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, Gianfranco Ferré, Salvatore Ferragamo, Roberto Cavalli, Fendi, Valentino, Trussardi, Benetton...
Many of the world's most prestigious sports cars are Italian, such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Bugatti or De Tomaso.
The Scuderia Ferrari is the oldest and most successful team left in the Formula One championship. As of late 2012, it had won 16 Constructors' Championships and 15 Drivers' Championships since its start in F1 in 1948.
Rome's Cinecittà is the largest filmmaking facility in Europe. It served as the filming location to classic Hollywood movies like Ben-Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963), many of Federico Fellini' films, and more recently the film Gangs of New York and the HBO/BBC series Rome.
According to the World Bank's "World Trade Indicators 2008", Italy is the most diversified exporter in the world. Its top five export products amount to only 12.9% of all exports.
Politics & Legal System
The first government authority to adopt Modern French as its official language was the Aosta Valley in 1536, three years before France itself.
Italian Members of Parliament are the highest paid in Europe, receiving 11,000 € per month, more than twice the average in Western Europe. They receive many extra perks such as life pension, subsidised meals, chauffeured cars, and free mobile phones.
Italy is one of the most overlegislated countries on Earth. The country is estimated to have 5 to 12 times more laws than France or Germany.
In Italy divorced fathers must provide child support for their adult children still living with their mothers, even if they are over 30 years old. Considering that half of adult children in Italy still live with their parents, that may explained why the Italian divorce rate ranks among the lowest in Europe.
Italians around the world
Southern Italy has long been a land of emigration. There are now as many Italians living outside Italy as in Italy (about 60 million each). Italian immigrants to Western Europe, North and South America and Australia have generally adapted with great sucess. In addition to spreading Italian cuisine around the world, quite a few have become celebrities or managed to reach high positions in government, in the corporate world. Here are a few examples :
Rudolph Valentino (USA) : Hollywood's first sex symbol and the first "Latin Lover"
Frank Sinatra (USA) : singer and actor
Al Pacino (USA) : Hollywood actor
Robert De Niro (USA) : Hollywood actor
Sylvester Stallone (USA) : Hollywood actor
John Travolta (USA) : Hollywood actor
Leonardo DiCaprio (USA) : Hollywood actor
Madonna (USA) : singer & actress
Salvatore Adamo (Belgium) : singer
Natalie Imbruglia (Australia) : singer & actress
Lara Fabian (Belgium) : singer
Quentin Tarantino (USA) : screenwriter, film director and actor
Francis Ford Coppola (USA) : movie director
Rudolph Giuliani (USA) : former mayor of New York City
Elio Di Rupo (Belgium) : Prime Minister of Belgium.
Sam Palmisano (USA) : chairman and CEO of IBM
Carly Fiorina (USA) : former chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard
Richard Grasso (USA) : former chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange
Lee Iacocca (USA) : former chairman of the Chrysler Corporation
Patricia Russo (USA) : CEO of Alcatel-Lucent
Tommy Mottola (USA) : former head of Sony Music Entertainment
Mario Draghi (USA) : Former Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs International and President of the European Central Bank
Amadeo P. Giannini (USA) : founder in 1904 of Bank of Italy which later became Bank of America, the largest bank in the United States.
Bob Guccione (USA) : founder and former publisher of Penthouse Magazine
Leonard Riggio (USA) : owner of Barnes & Noble, the largest book retailer in the world
The Jacuzzi family. (USA) : inventors of the whirlpool bath of the same name.
Dennis Tito (USA) : the world's first space tourist
Manuel Belgrano (Argentina) : one of the leaders of the Argentine Wars of Independence
Juan Perón (Argentina) : three times President of Argentina (1946-55 and 1973-74)
Arturo Frondizi (Argentina) : President of Argentina (1958-62)
Arturo Umberto Illia (Argentina) : President of Argentina (1963-66)