Italian history

Italy is a nation with a long and complex history involving centuries of military expansions and creative revolutions. What has been provided here is a history in brief.

Although there is evidence of pre-historic civilizations residing on the Italian peninsula this summary will begin with a key period of Italy’s past – the 5th century BC to the 5th century AD.

This was the infamous era of the Roman Empire. Legend decrees that in the heart of Etruscan Italy in 735 BC the brothers Romulus and Remus founded Rome. As the centuries progressed Rome acquired more and more territories and became the all powerful Roman Empire. The Romans referred to the Italian peninsular as ‘Italia’ and the area flourished. In 476 AD the emperor Romulus Augustus died and the Roman Empire collapsed but the Romans left behind a great legacy of architecture, innovation and military prowess. The Romans also greatly influenced contemporary languages. They spoke in Vulgar Latin and wrote in classical Latin and although Latin is no longer a common language it remains important as the root of languages like English, French and Italian.

Following the fall of Rome the Italian peninsula was divided into separate Kingdoms and did not become one nation again until 1861. Italy’s position made its trade routes coveted and during the Middle Ages the area experienced a lengthy series of invasions. An eastern Germanic tribe called the Ostrogoths were the first to conquer the peninsula in 493. Their actions led to the Gothic War and the establishment of one northern Italian and three southern Italian kingdoms by the Lombards, another Germanic tribe. As a result of this the popes began creating a separate state.

In 756 the Franks (French) quashed the Lombards and presented central Italy to the popes, granting them authority over what became known as the Papal States.

By 962 the Papal States were still under the control of the popes but the Germanic Holy Roman Empire controlled the northern states of Tuscany, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. The succession of invasions had all but ended by the close of the 11th century.

With acquisition and defence no longer the top priorities trade in the area began to thrive again and the Italian cities Venice, Pisa, Amalfi and Genoa came to be viewed as influential centres of political and commercial power.

By the twelfth century the Italian cities under the control of the Holy Roman Empire desired independence. Northern Italy then became a collection of autonomous city-states, kingdoms and republics. As the 14th century and the renaissance dawned the inequality existing between Italy’s various regions became painfully clear. While the states in the north prospered those located in the centre and south suffered through extreme periods of economic depression.

The cultural movement known as the Italian Renaissance began in Tuscany before spreading to Florence and Siena. It then reached Rome and inspired the Italian Popes to rebuild the once great city. The movement continued to spread, reaching Venice, Milan and northern Europe. During the Renaissance the areas of literature, art, science, politics, philosophy and religion all went through extensive development. The progressions made were heavily influenced by the patronage of the arts arranged by the Medici family as well as the Ottoman Turk invasion of Constantinople in 1453 which caused a resurgence of Greek scholars.  As well as famous artists and philosophical minds, like Leonardo Da Vinci, the era also ushered in the invention of the Printing Press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. This revolutionised publishing and the distribution of the written word. In time information would become more widely and readily available. Also during this period Tuscan culture became increasingly dominant. Eventually the Tuscan dialect became the official language of Italy.

Unfortunately this age of learning, progress and wonder was ended by another series of invasions. By 1494 many northern Italian city-states had collapsed following a French invasion and in 1527 Rome came under Spanish and German attack.

The so called ‘Italian Wars’ didn’t end until 1559. Habsburg Spain had gained complete control of Southern Tuscany, Sardinia, Naples, Milan and Sicily as well as partial control of some smaller Northern-Italian states and Genoa and Tuscany.  The republics Venice, Corsica-Genoa and Piedmont Savoy emerged from the fray independent but Spanish control in Italy didn’t end until 1713 – over 150 years later. After Spanish domination ended Habsburg Austrian authority took over and stayed in place until 1796.

During his time in power Napoleon briefly united Italy, renaming it first the Italian Republic and then the Kingdom of Italy – a client state of the French Republic. Once Napoleonic France was defeated in 1814 Italy was divided into eight primarily foreign ruled parts by the Congress of Vienna. Naples and Sicily were under French control, Parma, Modena and Tuscany were governed by the Hapsburgs, Austria ruled Venetia and Lombardy whilst the Papal States and Piedmont-Sardinia-Genoa were independent.

Finally, after growing resentment levelled towards the extent of Austrian control, under the complex Risorgimento process the various states of the Italian peninsula were united and became the modern nation of Italy. The process began in 1815 but the country was not officially united until 1861. In 1870 Latium and Rome were annexed followed by the Trieste region after the end of the First Word War.

Both World Wars badly affected Italy but over the decades which followed the nation gradually acquired stability and assumed a strong position in cultural and social affairs. It’s long history, natural beauty and rich traditions have made it one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations.