Defining Italian Culture
Like most countries, Italian culture is distinctive, but because of the vast scale of Italian immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries, it's also one of the most recognizable of all European cultures.
Culture can be defined as the customs, mores, traditions and creative pursuits of a country or region that differentiate it from its neighbors. So the term Italian culture would include family life, community life, festivals and celebrations, as well as creative, economic and political factors.
Italian life is centered around the family unit, which includes a range of relatives from grandparents to aunts, uncles and cousins. Italians also form bonds with their neighbors and friends, and a person from the same area or region is referred to as a paisano. Because of Italy's tumultuous history and relatively recent unification, there is less emotional connection to the concept of being 'Italian' and answering to a central government in Rome, and more identification with a home town and/or region.
'Italian culture', in a more narrow sense, is a term used to describe Italy's creative achievements, many of which are interconnected with her economy:
Although Italian culture has been portrayed in a less than positive light in many films, especially stories about the Mafia, it is also one of the many reasons visitors enjoy coming to Italy. Italy is a land of contrasts – the innate friendliness of the people, their love of a good debate, their appreciation of the moment, as evidenced by their love affairs with food, wine, good company and beauty in all its forms, and their obsessive desire to strive for excellence in whatever they do.
The visual arts have always played a prominent role in Italian culture. The Italian peninsula has been the birthplace of some of the world's most renowned works of art, particularly the creations of its Renaissance painters. Italians have been putting brush to canvas – so to speak – since the early cavemen covered the walls of their habitations with drawings of their experiences.
Italian sculpture stands alongside painting and architecture as the country's most enduring art form.
For more on Italian art, visit our Italian Art page.
Another manifestation of the Italian preoccupation with beauty is its architecture. Whether it's the magnificence of Saint Peter's Square or the picturesque cliffside villages of the Amalfi coast, Italian architecture plays a huge role in giving Italy its distinctive 'look and feel'. As well as beautifying their homeland, Italian architects and artists have contributed to some of the world's finest buildings, from Moscow's Kremlin to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Italian Furniture And Interior Design
Unlike art, which is a purely pictorial representation of the artist's vision, design combines aesthetics with practicality. Italian furniture aims for comfort and usability, as well as looking decorative. Italian interior design strives for stylish yet practical living spaces.
Italy also produces fine glassware, cookware and cutlery.
Looking good is also a key aspect of Italian culture, especially in the more affluent levels of society. Milan is the fashion capital of Italy, reigning with Paris and New York as the top three fashion centers of the western world. Italian fashion is renowned for its style and sophistication, and shopping in Italy is one of the pleasures many tourists place high on their lists of priorities.
Related areas in which Italians excel include designer shoes, handbags, lingerie, jewelry and sunglasses.
For our list of the six most recognizable names in Italian fashion, click on Italian Fashion Designers.
Another enduring aspect of Italian culture is the Italian male's love affair with fast cars. Italy produces some of the world's most prestigious designer cars, including the Ferrari and the Lamborghini. Another combination of style and practicality – if you have the budget.
The professional motor racing circuits are filled with drivers bearing Italian surnames, no matter which country they represent.
Related areas include Italian scooters, bicycles and yachts.
For our list of the six top Italian automobile manufacturers, click on Italian Cars.
Food is always a large part of what makes a culture distinctive, and Italian food has been exported to many countries along with its immigrants. Pasta, pizza, tiramisu and gelato are just a few of the Italian dishes that are available across the globe. Many people consider Italian food among their favorite cuisines, as evidenced by the large numbers of Italian restaurants in so many countries.
Italy is also one of the world's largest producers of wine, which, along with Italian coffee, is the country's most popular beverage. You can read more about both on the Italian Wine and Italian Coffee pages.
To read more about the 20 Italian regional cuisines and their influences, click on Italian Cuisine.
You would imagine that a country that gave the world opera and invented so many musical instruments would place a high value on music. And it does. Music is as much a part of Italian life as art and food, and the best singers and musicians are not necessarily those on the stage. But many are, carving careers in classical music, opera, pop and folk.
And descendants of Italians who emigrated to other countries have also translated this affinity for music into local and international success. Italian-American singers are perhaps the most widely recognized members of this group.
For a brief look at the world of Italian music, click on Italian Music.
And if you're an opera fan, you can read more about this Italian art form on our Italian Opera page.
Orson Welles once remarked that the best Italian actors were not in Italian films – they were on the streets of Italy, gesticulating and dramatizing as they lived their lives. He may have been right, but a number of these theatrical Italians did make it onto the silver screen, whether in Italy or in the adopted homelands of their immigrant parents and grandparents. Al Pacino and Anne Bancroft are two prime examples. Our Italian Actors page features a longer list.
Others made their mark behind the camera – Fellini and Bertolucci in Italy and Scorsese and Coppola in America. These directors explored both sides of the Italian saga – life in Italy and the life of the Italian immigrant. To read more about the history of Italian cinema, please visit our Italian Film page.
To source Italian television series with English subtitles, please visit Italian TV Shows.
Renaissance writer Dante Alighieri is considered the father of modern Italian literature, as he popularized the Tuscan dialect in his Divine Comedy, paving the way for it to become the official Italian language. For more on Italian literature, visit Italian Literature.
In more recent times, there have been a number of English-language crime fiction novels (and series of novels) set in Italy. For a brief look at the most popular titles, visit Crime Novels Set in Italy.
With the exception of car racing, sport is not usually the first subject that comes to mind when discussing Italian culture. Yet at times it appears that the entire country is obsessed with soccer, and Italians have also distinguished themselves in a wide variety of sporting events.
Visit our Italian Sports page to learn more.
With such a volatile history, it's no surprise that Italian politics can be somewhat chaotic and unpredictable. But no matter which party is in power, the Italian people go about their daily lives as they have done for centuries: ignoring the government, complaining about it, or working around it to achieve their objectives.
And despite how it may look to outsiders, the system works. Italy has reversed the economic conditions that forced her people to emigrate in such numbers and now enjoys a position among the top 10 most economically successful countries.
Italian Family Life
The heart of Italian culture is the family. Perhaps it's less powerful than it was in previous times, with people changing locations in pursuit of economic advancement or new challenges. But the sense of family persists, even in transplanted populations where the more relaxed mores of the new culture are adopted.
For a nostalgic look at growing up in an Italian-American family, visit Growing Up Italian.