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A Short History of Italy

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Italy, formally referred to as the Italian Republic is a unitary parliamentary nation in Europe. It is situated at the center of the Mediterranean Sea. It shares land borders with the Vatican City, San Marino, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, and France. In numerous ways, Italy’s history is believed to be the history of not only Europe but also the present day world. The country’s history began roughly 850,000 years ago when the first hominins arrived and settled at Monte Poggiolo. Evidence of settlement by anatomically modern humans in Italy began at around 43,000 years ago. This was followed by the Neolithic Period between 6000-5500 BC and was characterized by Impressed ware and Cardium Pottery. Bronze Age in Italy began at around 1500 BC and it corresponded with the arrival of the Indo-European speakers whose ancestors later became the Italic people of the Iron Age.

The Domitius Ahenobarbus altar, 2nd century ACThe Latins who were part of the Italic peoples were initially located in the Latium territory and their language, Latin, later on, dominated the peninsula in the 3rd century when Italy was conquered by the Roman Empire. It is the Roman Empire that developed the civilization and culture of Western Europe, even the adoption and spread of Christianity as the nation’s religion towards the end of the 4th century. The end of the Late Antiquity was marked by the decline and collapse of the Western Empire towards the end of the 5th century. A Lombard Kingdom of Italy was later formed, but most regions of the peninsula remained under Byzantine influence and rule until the 11th century. The Kingdom was later integrated into Francia and eventually into the Holy Roman Empire. The rise of nation-states, more so the powerful maritime nations in the medieval period, however, resulted in political disintegration. The peninsula was eventually divided between the major powers of Austria, Spain and Early Modern Europe after the Italian Wars. The states were later seized by the French Empire under Napoleon I, and they were brought under the governorship of the Holy See.

In the 19th century, the concept of nationalism and nation-state was on the rise, and a result, the peninsula was unified. In 1861, a new Kingdom of Italy was formed and it modernized rapidly and established a huge colonial empire and colonized nations along the Mediterranean and some regions of Africa.

With this in mind, the history of Italy will be discussed in brief below.

Pre-History of Italy

Proof of civilization on the Italian peninsula has been found and it dates all the way back to pre-history. Numerous rock drawings have been found in the Alpine areas of Lombardy dating from roughly 8,000 BC. The 37th to the 15th century BC was the Copper Age period and it was characterized by sizable settlements in the region. The Bronze Age period was experienced from the 15th century to the 8th century and the Iron Age period from the 8th century to the 5th century. Around 8,000 BC, the Etruscan culture took hold of the northern region of Italy. The Greeks, on the other hand, occupied southern Italy from 700 to 600 BC. They settled in the cities of Calabria, Apulia, and Sicily formerly referred to as Magna Graecia.

The Roman Empire (5th Century BC to 5th Century AD)

There is no clear history of the Roman Kingdom but legend states that it was established by Romulus and Remus in the core of Etruscan Italy at around 735 BC. In the centuries that followed, Rome extended its boundaries into what came to be referred as the Roman Empire. The Italian peninsula was named “Italia” by the Romans and the Italians cities north of Emilia-Romagna were believed to be a section of Cisalpine Gaul which was a Roman province.

Under the Roman Empire, Italy was able to flourish. Roman rule, however, ended in 476 AD when Emperor Augustus died. After his death, the Italian Peninsula was divided into different kingdoms but was later reunified in 1861.

The Middle Ages (6th to 14th Century)

This period experienced a number of invasions. In 493, the Italian peninsula was seized by the Ostrogoths, a tribe from eastern German. This resulted in the Gothic War which led to another German tribe, the Lombards, creating a kingdom in the north of Italy and three territories in the South in 568. The Popes also started constructing a sovereign nation. In 756, the Franks (French) overpowered the Lombards and granted authority over central Italy to the Popes, thus leading to the creation of the Papal States. The northern cities of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont, and Lombardy were governed by the Holy Roman Empire from 962. Trade started to thrive again in Italy towards the end of the 11th century and the cities of Venice, Amalfi, Pisa, and Genoa became huge political and commercial powers.

The Final Judgement" by Michaelangelo, Sixteen Chapel, Vatican City The Italian Renaissance (14th to 16th Century)

In the 14th century, the Italian Renaissance began in Tuscany and spread to other cities such as Florence and Siena. Some of the factors that led to its emergence include the arrival of Greek scholars as a result of the second incursion of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Another factor was the benefaction of the arts paid for by the Medici family. This period led to the emergence of famous artists such as Francesco Petrarch, Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarotti just to mention a few. The Renaissance extended to Rome and motivated the Italian Popes to reconstruct their nation and once again Rome was able to flourish. This crusade also extended to Venice, Milan and into Europe and it had an influence on politics, art, science, literature, philosophy, religion, and other intellectual fields. In Italy, Tuscan culture was more dominant and as a result, Tuscan language became the official language in Italy.

Foreign Rule (1559 to 1814)

The Roman Colosseum, SourceIn 1491, France conquered the northern region of Italy and most of the city-states fell. Rome was then attacked by Germany and Spain in 1527. When the Italian Wars ended in 1559, three republics in Italy regained their independence – Venice, Corsica-Genoa, and Piedmont-Savoy. Later on, both Corsica and Savoy were sold to France – Corsica in 1764 and Savoy in 1860.

By 1559 Spain had control over Sardinia, Milan, southern Tuscany, and Naples, and also controlled the rulers of Genoa, Tuscany, and other smaller nations in the northern region of Italy. Spanish ruled Italy until 1713.

Habsburg Spain dominated the region from 1559 to 1713 and Habsburg Austria from 1713 to 1796. During this period, the Italians were able to experience a period of peace. From 1796 to 1814, Italy was unified though briefly by Napoleon as the Italian Republic and later on as the Kingdom of Italy and as a result, it became a client nation of the French Republic.

In 1814, France was defeated and the Congress of Vienna partitioned the country into eight regions, all under foreign governance: Venetia and Lombardy were governed by Austria; Tuscany, Modena and Parma were governed by the Hapsburgs; the Papal States and Piedmont-Sardinia-Genoa were independent; and Sicily and Naples were governed by France. It is this division that laid the foundation for the Italian unification crusade.

Unification of Italy (1814 to 1861)

The unification movement started in 1815 and the whole process was referred to as Risorgimento. This process is what led to the unification of the different nations of the Italian peninsula into the present day country of Italy. The most prominent figures in the unification crusade were Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini. Mazzini was from Genoa and was imprisoned in 1830 for the role he played in the Carbonari secret society. He went to exile in France and later England and he started a number of uprisings in Italy that were not successful, but he later collaborated with Garibaldi to realize their unification dream.

In 1861, Italy was officially united. Latium and Rome were annexed in 1870, and the Trieste area after the First World War.

Present Day Italy

After unification, Italy went through a tumultuous era that was characterized by a mass emigration of its people and the catastrophic outcomes of the two World Wars. It is, however, important to note that in the last 60 years Italy has been able to reclaim its position as a key cultural and social player in global affairs. Goods and services from Italy are of excellent global standards and reputation. The country is also one of the most common tourist destinations in Europe. Italy was among the founding states of the European Economic Community, which is currently known as the European Union. Italy is also a member of NATO, the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the G7. Italy also plays a very significant role in regional and international diplomatic, cultural, and military affairs.

Italian politics have had a very stormy nature. Despite this, the citizens and the country, in general, do enjoy a high standard of living and positive fiscal growth.

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