Attempting to put together a brief history of Italy is a challenge, because, due to its location at the center of the Mediterranean trading routes, Italy has had a lengthy and tumultuous history.
Italy and the Mediterranean
Both the Mediterranean and overland trade routes were also used as military and expansionist conduits over the centuries, as well as channels for the dissemination of culture and knowledge. As a result, Italy was subject to the most brutal of invasions, as well as serving as a focal point for creativity and learning.
For the sake of simplicity we can divide our brief history of Italy into seven distinct eras:
The 20 Regions of Italy
Evidence of civilization has been found on the Italian peninsula dating far into pre-history. Thousands of rock drawings discovered in the Alpine regions of Lombardy date from around 8,000 BC. There were sizable settlements throughout the Copper Age (37th to 15th century BC), the Bronze Age (15th to 8th century BC) and the Iron Age (8th to 5th century BC). In the north of Italy, the Etruscan culture took hold around 800BC, while Greeks settled in southern Italy from 700 to 600BC, namely in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily (then known as Magna Graecia).
The Roman Empire (5th Century BC to 5th Century AD)
According to legend, Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus in the heart of Etruscan Italy in 735BC. Over the next several centuries, Rome expanded its territories into what became known as the Roman Empire. The Romans named the Italian peninsular “Italia”. The Italian states north of Emilia-Romagna were considered part of the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul.
Italia flourished under the Roman Empire, which ended in 476AD with the death of the emperor Augustus. The Italian peninsular was later divided into separate kingdoms, with reunification only achieved in 1861.
The Middle Ages (6th to 14th Century)
A brief history of Italy in the Middle Ages begins with a series of invasions. In 493, the Ostrogoths, an eastern Germanic tribe, conquered the Italian peninsula. The resulting Gothic War led to the Lombards, another Germanic tribe, establishing a kingdom in northern Italy and three regions in the South in 568. Subsequently, the popes began building an independent state. In 756, when the Franks (French) defeated the Lombards, they granted the popes authority over central Italy, and the Papal States were created. The northern states of Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany were ruled by the Germanic Holy Roman Empire from 962.
By the end of the 11th century, the worst of the invasions was over and trade began to flourish once again. Four Italian cities – Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi and Venice – became major commercial and political powers. In the twelfth century the Italian cities ruled by Holy Roman Empire campaigned for autonomy. The result was that northern Italy became a group of independent kingdoms, republics and city-states.
The Renaissance (14th to 16th Century)
At this point in our brief history of Italy, the disparity among the regions was extreme. In contrast to the prosperous northern states, central and southern Italy were economically depressed. The Papacy temporarily relocated to Avignon in France, returning to Rome in 1478. Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia were controlled by foreign powers.
The Italian Renaissance was a cultural movement that began in Tuscany in the 14th century, spreading from Florence to Siena. A number of factors contributed to its emergence, including the influx of Greek scholars following the second invasion of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The patronage of the arts afforded by the Medici family was another contributing factor. The era gave rise to a number of artistic giants – Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Sandro Botticelli, Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarch, to name a few. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440s also contributed to a freer flow of information.
Reaching southwards to Rome, the Renaissance inspired the Italian popes to rebuild their city and Rome flourished once again. The movement also spread to Milan, Venice, and further north into Europe, influencing art, literature, philosophy, politics, science, religion and other intellectual arenas. Within Italy, the dominance of Tuscan culture led to the Tuscan dialect later becoming the official Italian language.
Foreign Rule (1559 to 1814)
Once again in this brief history of Italy, a 'golden' era is followed by a dark one. In 1494, France invaded northern Italy and many of the city-states collapsed. In 1527 Spain and Germany attacked Rome. By the end of the “Italian Wars” in 1559, three Italian republics regained their independence – Piedmont Savoy, Corsica-Genoa and Venice. Both Savoy and Corsica were later sold to France – Corsica in 1764 and Savoy in 1860.
By 1559 Spain controlled Milan, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and southern Tuscany, and dominated the rulers of Tuscany, Genoa, and other smaller states in northern Italy. Spanish control of Italy lasted until 1713.
During the era of domination by Habsburg Spain (1559 to 1713) and Habsburg Austria (1713 to 1796), Italians enjoyed a long period of relative peace. During the Napoleonic era (1796 to 1814), Italy was briefly united by Napoleon as the Italian Republic and later the Kingdom of Italy, becoming a client state of the French Republic.
After the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1814, the Congress of Vienna divided Italy into eight parts, most under foreign rule: Parma, Modena and Tuscany were ruled by the Hapsburgs; Lombardy and Venetia were ruled by Austria; Piedmont-Sardinia-Genoa and the Papal States were independent; and Naples and Sicily were ruled by France. This abysmal condition was the impetus behind the Italian unification movement.
Unification (1814 to 1861)
Our brief history of Italy culminates in unification. The Risorgimento was a complex process that eventually unified the different states of the Italian peninsula into the modern nation of Italy. The movement began in 1815 with a growing resentment towards the peninsula's domination by Austria.
Two prominent figures in the unification movement were Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. A native of Genoa, Mazzini was imprisoned in 1830 for his role in the Carbonari secret society. From his exile in France and later England, he mounted a series of unsuccessful uprisings in Italy, but eventually worked with Garibaldi to achieve their dream of unification. His funeral in 1872 attracted 100,000 people.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was born in Nice (Nizza), and, like Mazzini, was a member of the Carbonari secret society. He fled Italy in 1834 after a failed insurrection, but returned in 1854 to continue his campaign. Italy was officially unified in 1861, with Rome and Latium annexed in 1870 and the Trieste region after World War 1.
Present Day Italy
Since unification, Italy has experienced a tumultuous period that saw a mass exodus of her people and the disastrous consequences of two World Wars. Yet over the past 60 years the country has reclaimed its position as a major social and cultural player in world affairs. Italian goods and services have excellent international reputations, and Italy remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. Italy was one of the founding members of the European Economic Community, and despite the turbulent nature of Italian politics, enjoys positive economic growth and a high standard of living.
The richness of its past and the 'live-life-to-the-fullest' attitude of its present combine to make Italy a must-see travel destination.
When A Brief History Of Italy Isn't Enough...
This brief history of Italy can't do justice to the many events that make up the story of a nation. If history is your passion, there are many online sources for books on Italy. Here are three of the best from Amazon Books:
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To understand Italy and the Italians, it's essential to take a look at history, even if it's simply a brief history of Italy. To learn more about Italy's story, visit A Brief History of Italy: Rome.