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While Italy's status as a single political entity is relatively recent (1861), its strategic Mediterranean position made it a target for colonisers and opportunists fairly early on in human history. The Etruscans were the first people to rule the peninsula, arriving somewhere between the 12th and 8th century BC. They were eventually subsumed within the mighty Roman Empire, leaving little cultural evidence, other than the odd tomb. The ancient Greeks, their contemporaries, set up a few colonies along the southern coast that became known as Magna Graecia and developed into independent city states. Thus the greater glory that was Rome was itself the offspring of Etruscan and Greek cultures.

The first Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, setting in motion the dogma of democracy, the linguistic nightmare of Latin and one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. The Republic's defeat of Carthage (near present-day Tunis) and Hellenic Macedonia during the three Punic Wars cleared the way for ultimate expansion into Spain, Britain, North Africa and present-day Iraq. Meanwhile, relative peace at home enabled the infrastructure of civilisation to spread - roads, aqueducts, cites. A slave-driven lifestyle and economy triumphed over the concept of people power, and the reins of the Republic were increasingly taken in hand by the military and, ultimately, the dictatorship.

The empire grew so large, it was eventually divided into eastern and western sectors. Already, however, the bloodthirsty theatrics of regicide and intrigue were planting the seeds of its eventual destruction. Christianity was embraced by Constantine in 313, and the empire's capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The western arm of the empire was undone by plague, famine and tribal incursions from the north, and was officially declared null and void in 476 when Odovacar, a German warrior, dubbed himself ruler. The Eastern Roman Empire clung on, even prospered in fits and starts, until overrun by the Turks in 1453.

Italy entered a period peopled by Goths and forever ostracised as the 'Dark Ages.' Successive waves of Lombards, Franks, Saracens, Germans and Normans invaded the peninsula and claimed in various degrees the lost title of empire and emperor, culminating in Frankish Charlemagne's crowning as emperor in 800. The south was dominated by Muslim Arabs until usurped by Normans. This ethnic cocktail began to settle in the 12th century, just when the next big chapter in textbook history was taking shape. Powerfully combative and competitive city states arose in the north, supporting either the pope (power within the peninsula vested in the papal states) or the emperor (usually a foreign power). The rise of cities and a merchant class culminated in the Renaissance of the 15th century. Painters, architects, poets, philosophers and sculptors produced unsurpassed works of genius, despite the turmoil of intercity warfare and invasion by countries to the north. First Spain and then Austria controlled the peninsula during the ensuing centuries, followed briefly by Napoleon's imperial flourish.

The post-Napoleon shake-up led directly to the drive for unification of the 19th century, led by Garibaldi, Cavour and Mazzini. The Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861, although Venice was not prised away from Austria until 1866 and papal claims remained an issue until 1870, when Rome officially joined the young nation. No label of unity, however, could hide the huge cultural and social differences that split the industrialised north from the poverty-stricken south. Economic crisis and fickle politics dogged the new nation in the ensuing decades, as Italy muddled through WW I and became riddled with industrial unrest in the early 1920s. In a memorably unwise employment decision, the king asked one Benito Mussolini to take the reins of government under the auspices of his Fascist Party. Il Fusto soon became head of state, outlawed the opposition, controlled the press and trade unions and cut franchise by two-thirds. His relationship with Hitler soured after a series of military disasters and an Allied invasion, eventually culminating in a fatal dose of rough justice at the hands of partisans in April 1945.

The postwar years have been coloured by extremism: the extreme violence of terrorists such as the Brigatte Rosse, extreme centre-right politics, extreme economic boom and economic crisis, extreme corruption and bribery in extremely high places - and an extremely cynical and fatigued public. Italy's parliament has a reputation for scandal and resignation, and at times it has left Italy virtually ungoverned and utterly chaotic. The 1998 election of Massimo D'Alema, who formed a center-left coalition that included Communists for the first time in half a century, was seen as a shot in the arm for left-wing politics. However, in April 2000 he resigned; his replacement, Giuliano Amato, lasted only a little over a year before one of Italy's richest and most powerful men, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, got the job. It goes without saying that Berlusconi's leadership is shrouded by bribery charges.


Dubbed the world's 'living art gallery,' Italy has more culture than you can shake a baton, paintbrush, quill or chisel at. Whether it's a broken pillar rising up through the linoleum floor of a train station or a baroque church overlooking a cracked antique pediment in the Forum, history and culture surround you. Outside there are Etruscan tombs, Greek temples, cat-infested Roman ruins, Moorish architecture and statue-filled baroque fountains to gawp at; inside, you can swoon to Roman sculptures, Byzantine mosaics, beatific Madonnas from Giotto to Titian, gargantuan baroque tombs and trompe l'oeil ceilings.

Writers from Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Livy and Cicero to Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ficino, Mirandola and Vasari all sprang from Italian loins. The Italians were no slouches when it came to music, either, as they invented both the piano and our system of musical notation, as well as producing Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Verdi, Puccini, Bellini and Rossini. Cinema would not be the same without Italy's Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and directors Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Frederico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Modern literary Italian appeared in the 13th and 14th centuries, developing out of its Latin heritage, the country's many dialects and the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, who wrote chiefly in the Florentine dialect. Though over 80% of the population profess to be Catholic, the number of people who actually practise the religion is surprisingly low: an average of only 25% attend Mass regularly. However, saints' days, first communions and religious festivals never fail to attract large crowds.

Italy's many regional cucine, while remaining distinctive to their regions of origin, have undergone a pan-Italian fusion in the hands of chefs both popular and pricey, evolving into a unique cuisine that is justifiably world famous. Cooking styles vary notably, from the rich and creamy dishes of the north to the hot and spicy specialities of the south. Northern Emilia-Romagna has produced the best known dishes - spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and tortellini - and is also home to the best prosciutto and mortadella. Liguria is the home of pesto, that mainstay of caf├ęs worldwide. Spectacular vegetable and pasta dishes feature just as predominantly as seafood and exotic meats - anyone for frog rissotto, donkey steak or entrail pudding? Desserts - cassata, cannoli, zabaglione, granita and marzipan - come into their own in Sicily, while Sardinia is famous for its spit-roasted piglet. Coffee, beer and wine are of course magnificent countrywide.

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