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Date: 2017
Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life
From: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life(Vol. 5: Europe. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Culture overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 255




POPULATION: 61,855,120 (2015 estimate)

LANGUAGE: Italian, German, French, Slovene, Friulian

RELIGION: Christianity (predominantly Roman Catholic), Islam

RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Italian Americans. Vol. 5: Slovenes; Tyrolese


Unified Italy is a latecomer among the nations of Europe, as its twenty regions did not unify as a single country until 1870. However, its people have wielded great political and cultural influence since the days of ancient Rome. Each year, millions of tourists visit the country's cultural and historical legacy dating back to Rome's Colosseum, the Greek ruins of Sicily, and the beautiful Italian landscapes, which range from Alpine peaks to picturesque hill towns to sandy beaches. In the twenty-first century, Italy is a modern industrial nation and a leading member of the European Union (EU). In the 1950s, economic growth was so rapid that it was called the “Italian miracle.” Continuing problems for the country include illegal immigration, organized crime, corruption, high unemployment, slow economic growth, and the low incomes and technical standards of southern Italy compared with the more prosperous north. Modern Italy has also had a turbulent political life: in 2013 it elected its sixty-third government since World War II.


Italy is a peninsula located in southern Europe. The mainland extends into the Mediterranean Sea north of Tunisia and is also bordered by the Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian Seas. Italy includes a number of nearby islands, the largest of which are Sicily and Sardinia. The mainland is bordered by France to the west; Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria to the north; and Slovenia to the east. The Holy See (Vatican City) is wholly contained within Italy outside the capital city of Rome.

Italy's total area, including Sicily and Sardinia, is 116,348 square miles (301,340 square kilometers). The country is geographically divided into three major regions: the north Italian Plain and the Italian Alps (“continental”); the peninsula south of the plain (“peninsular”); and Sardinia, Sicily, and numerous smaller islands (“insular”). Italy's only major river, the Po, flows from west to east before it empties into the Adriatic Sea.

The country is the site of significant volcanic activity. Mount Etna, on Sicily, is Europe's most active volcano, and has been in eruption since 2010. Mount Vesuvius, located in the Bay of Naples, is famed for its eruption in 79 CE that buried and destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii and other nearby settlements. Mount Vesuvius continues to be a threat in the twenty-first century, as it demonstrates nearly continuous, though moderate, volcanic activity. Other historically active volcanoes in the region include Campi Flegrei, Ischia, Larderello, Pantelleria, Vulcano, and Vulsini.

In Italy, a sharp divide exists in temperament, traditions, and socioeconomic conditions between Italians living in the northern and central regions, and those living in the south. The city of Rome marks the boundaries between these two divisions of the country. The more prosperous northern and central regions are economically stronger and more “European,” while the south is poorer and less economically driven. The southern half of the country (also called the Mezzogiorno) is considered more “Mediterranean.”


Italian is the official language of the country and is spoken by the vast majority of the population. Nearly every region has its own dialect, but dialect speakers are rapidly declining—except in Naples and Sicily—due to social mobility, radio, television, and other mass media that use only the standard language. Present-day Italian originated as the regional language of Tuscany. Other languages spoken in Italy include French, Slovene, German, and Friulian, which is related to the Romansch spoken in Switzerland.



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According to a myth that probably originated in the fourth century BCE, Rome was founded by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who were born to Mars, the Roman god of war. Set adrift to drown in the Tiber River, they came to rest at the future site of the city, where they were suckled by a wolf and later found by a herdsman. After the founding of Rome, Romulus killed Remus and consolidated his power. After his death, Romulus was worshipped as the Roman god Quirinus.


Italy is an overwhelmingly Catholic country: a full 80 percent of Italians describe themselves as Christians, mostly Roman Catholic. It is estimated, however, that only about one-third of Italian Catholics attend mass regularly. Catholicism is closely intertwined with many aspects of Italian life, from education to family life. Priests have traditionally taught in Italian schools, although fewer do so since a 1984 law abolishing compulsory religious education. The church's position on such matters as abortion and divorce has profoundly impacted Italian marital and family practices. Italy is also the home to the Vatican, which has been the international center of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries, and acts as an independent political entity. A great number of popes throughout the centuries have been Italian, although this has changed in recent years. The last Italian-born pope was Pope John Paul I, who served the papacy for only thirty-three days in 1978 before dying unexpectedly.

A small group of Protestants also live in Italy. Their numbers are estimated at about five hundred thousand; about thirty thousand belong to a sect known as Waldensians. Concentrated in the Piedmont region, Waldensians practice a French-based form of Calvinism (Reformed Protestantism) and, until the late nineteenth century, held most of their services in French. There are also small groups of Jehovah's Witnesses and Greek Orthodox Christians.

About eight hundred thousand to one million Italians, or about 3.7 percent of the population, are Muslim. The Muslim population is diverse, with the largest group coming from Morocco. Others come from elsewhere in North Africa, South Asia, Albania, and the Middle East. Most Muslims arrived in Italy after the 1980s, many of them as students. Due to concerns about Islamic terrorist extremists in the twenty-first century, the Italian view of Muslims tends to be adversarial. A 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that nearly 70 percent of Italians held negative views of Muslims.

Additionally, about 20 percent of the Italian population is said to be agnostic or atheistic.


Aside from the standard holidays of the Christian calendar, legal holidays in Italy include New Year's Day (January 1), Liberation Day (April 25), and Labor Day (May 1). Cities and towns also celebrate the feast days of their patron saints. Colorful traditions mark many observances of religious holidays. In Florence, Easter is the occasion for the reenactment of a medieval tradition called scoppio del carro, and on Ascension Day children take part in a “cricket hunt” in the city's largest park. A ritualized secular event is the Palio, a famous annual horse race in Siena in which competing equestrian teams represent the seventeen neighborhoods of that city.


Italy is a modern, industrialized, primarily Roman Catholic country. Many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are religious rituals, such as baptism, confession, First Communion, confirmation, and marriage. In addition, a student's progress through the education system is marked by many families with graduation parties.

American influence in Italian society is reflected most conspicuously in the lifestyle of young people, who share the same taste in clothing, music, and entertainment as American teenagers. The factors that motivate such influence are Hollywood films, American programs dubbed and shown on Italian television, the Internet, and the tens of thousands of students and young tourists who visit Italy every year.


The nineteenth-century French author Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) remarked that “one quickly reaches a note of intimacy in Italy, and speaks about personal matters.” Italians are characteristically open, friendly, outgoing, and easily engaged in conversation. Like the people of other Mediterranean nations, they often use a variety of hand gestures and facial expressions to illustrate or emphasize their words.

The standard form of greeting among acquaintances is the handshake. Italians have fewer inhibitions about personal space than people in some other parts of western Europe or the United States. It is common for two grown men to greet by kissing each other on both cheeks, or for either men or women to walk down the street arm in arm. This element of informality, however, is coupled with a traditional respect for the elderly; for instance, young people often stand up when older relatives or friends enter a room.


In all Italian regions, there is a marked difference in living conditions between large cities and the towns that dot the Italian landscape. In cities, people live in apartments and condominiums; in most towns, the average family lives in two-storyPage 257  |  Top of Articlehomes. The standard of living is comparable to industrialized countries such as France, Great Britain, and the United States. Homes in both north and south include basic comforts such as refrigerators, air-conditioning, color television, computers, and the like. In northern and central Italy, the standards of living tend to be higher than the south. Thousands of middleclass Italians living in large cities own summer homes in the countryside, in coastal areas, or in the mountains. They spend weekends there to avoid the hustle and bustle of city life, as well as the traditional two weeks of vacation in August called ferra-gosto (August holy days).

Italian cities are numerous, historical, and attractive. Generally they have a centro storico (historical center) that corresponds to the center of the town. Here one finds churches, museums, and buildings of aesthetic and architectural significance. Southern towns are typically situated on a hilltop with a church or square (piazza) at the center.

Most Italian hospitals are run by regional governments, although some are run by Catholic religious orders. Since 1980 Italy has had a national health plan that covers health care costs for most of its citizens, but facilities in some rural areas are still inadequate. Average life expectancy in 2015 was 82.12 years, with women outliving men (84.92 years to 79.48 years). The infant mortality rate was 3.29 per 1,000 live births, below the average of many other European countries.

Italy's highway system is one of the most modern in the world. The Autostrada del Sole (Highway of the Sun) links Milan, Rome, and Naples to the southernmost tip of the Italian “boot.” High-speed modern train service is provided between major cities; bus service is generally regional, connecting towns to cities. However, public transportation is often halted by strikes. Italy's only natural inland water route is the Po River. Its national airline is Alitalia.


The family is the backbone of Italian society. The late journalist Luigi Barzini called family loyalty “the true patriotism” of Italians. Marriage choices, employment opportunities, business relationships, and political affiliations all tend to be strongly influenced by family ties.

Many aspects of Italian family life have been impacted by the Catholic Church, through its dogma as well as its influence on government policy. Due to the church's historical opposition to birth control, the sale and purchase of contraceptive devices were illegal until 1971, meaning Italian families tended to be large. Additionally, abortion was not legalized in Italy until 1978. However, with the availability of contraceptive options, the birth rate steadily declined through the twenty-first century, to 8.74 births per 1,000 population in 2015. Women also began delaying the birth of their first child to an average of 30.3 years of age, and, on average, gave birth to 1.43 children in their lifetimes.

Divorce was legalized in 1970, and two-thirds of the voters upheld this policy four years later in a referendum. The divorce rate in Italy jumped 74 percent between 1995 and 2005 and then increased at a steady rate (.7 percent) through 2014. Separations increased 57 percent during the same period. In 2011 there were 88,797 separations and 53,806 divorces. The separation and divorce rate correlated to 311 separations and 80 divorces per 1,000 population, up significantly from 158 separations and 80 divorces per 1,000 population in 1995. Historically, the divorce process in Italy was long and complicated, and imposed a mandatory five-year separation period before the marriage could be dissolved. In 1984 this was lowered to a three-year period, which was still difficult for couples trying to end their union. Additionally, if the split was nonconsensual (undesired by one of the parties), the mandatory separation period could last up to ten years. In 2015 the Italian parliament sought to simplify the divorce process. It overwhelmingly voted to decrease the mandatory separation period from three years to six months.


Italian fashion had its beginnings more than 150 years ago, when the national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi, bought a surplus shipment of bright-red butchers' tunics for his thousand-man revolutionary army. From 1922 to 1942, the black shirt became the official uniform—and the symbol—of Fascist forces headed by dictator Benito Mussolini. In modern times, Italy earns more money from clothing, textiles, and footwear than from any other export, bringing in about 52.6 billion euros in 2015. Additionally, these industries are Italy's largest employers. Designers such as Versace, Armani, and Nino Cerruti are among the fashion industry's elite, and the Benetton Group mass-markets its fashion products throughout the world.

Maintaining one's appearance is very important to Italians. Even casual clothing is generally of high quality; denim jeans are popular, but generally not if they are tattered or frayed. Dress wear includes fashionable silk ties and exquisitely cut suits for men, and elegant dresses or skirts and blouses for women.


Italy's national food is pasta, in all its varieties: ravioli in the north of the country, lasagna and tortellini in Bologna, cannelloni in Sicily, and spaghetti with tomato or clam sauce in Naples. In general, northern Italians eat much less pasta, preferring rice prepared in various ways, and polenta, a mush made with corn, barley, or chestnut flour. In the north, people tend to use more butter and margarine; in the south, more olive oil. Pasta has been manufactured in the south since the nineteenth century, and pasta dishes are often prepared with vegetables such as zucchini and eggplant. Altogether, Italy has twenty regional cuisines, all at least partially determined by locally available produce. The range of typical dishes includes fegato alla veneziana (liver and onions) in Venice; cotoletta alla milanese (veal cutlets) in the Lombard city of Milan; bagna cauda (a garlicanchovy sauce for dipping vegetables) in the Piedmont region; and pesto (a basil and garlic sauce now popular in the United States) in Genoa and throughout the Liguria region. The Emilia-Romagna region, in central Italy, and the city of Bologna are famous for their cuisine. One regional dish that has become particularly well known worldwide is pizza, which originated in Naples.

Espresso is a standard beverage throughout Italy. Customers at the country's numerous espresso bars can often be heard ordering customized versions such as lungo (diluted), macchiato (with milk), or freddo (iced). Italy is also the world's largest wine producer, and wine accompanies most meals.

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A man harvests olives in an olive grove in Tuscany. Tuscany is renowned for its natural beauty and agricultural products. A man harvests olives in an olive grove in Tuscany. Tuscany is renowned for its natural beauty and agricultural products. © AGF SRL/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO. © AGF SRL/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO.


In 2015 Italy had a literacy rate of around 99.2 percent, a substantial improvement over the 1930s, when some 20 percent of the population was illiterate. The rate varied very slightly between men and women, with male literacy at 99.4 percent and female literacy at 99 percent. However, schools in some rural areas, and in the south, generally lag behind those in the rest of the country. The Italian school system is compulsory from ages six through sixteen and is divided into preschool, elementary, secondary, and higher education. Elementary school begins at age six and lasts for five years. Next, students move to the scuola media for three years; this is similar to American middle school. Satisfactory performance leads to a Diploma di Licenza di Scuola Media and entry to a scuola superior (similar to an American high school), where studies are continued until at least age sixteen.

Higher education has been available in Italy since the Middle Ages, and major universities are located in Bologna (the University of Bologna, the world's oldest institution of higher education, founded in 1088), Turin, Rome, Florence, Ferrara, Naples, and Modena. Higher education was significantly revamped in the last two decades of the twentieth century from a desire to standardize the academic framework and raise educational standards across the board. Italy participated in the Bologna Declaration of 1999 with other members of the European Union. Its reforms called for a move away from historical diploma programs (in Italy, these took three years) and toward three-cycle academics. These cycles involve undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate studies—resulting in bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees—similar to the higher education system of the United States.


In the visual arts, Italy's cultural legacy dates back to the sculpture and architecture of ancient Rome. The Renaissance, beginning in fifteenth-century Florence, was the golden age of painting, which saw the production of such works as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, as well as Michelangelo's famed ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Other great Italian Renaissance artists included Donatello, Botticelli, Raphael, and Titian.

In music, Italy is known for its glorious operatic tradition, from the early works of Monteverdi, the “father of opera,” to the great nineteenth-century achievements of Rossini, Puccini, and Verdi. Italy is also known for the compositions of the baroque masters, including Vivaldi, and the makers of great violins such as the Stradivarius. In literature, Italy's great masterpieces include The Aeneid by the Roman writer Virgil and the fourteenth-century works of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, including Dante's Divine Comedy, the first great work published in the Italian language. Since 1901, there have been six Italian Page 259  |  Top of Articleauthors who have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, the most recent of which was conferred in 1997.


In recent years, employment in Italy's service sector has expanded rapidly. In 2015 it accounted for 74.2 percent of the nation's workforce, compared to 23.6 percent in industry and 2.2 percent in agriculture (compared to 2001 numbers: 63 percent services, 32 percent industry, and 5 percent agriculture).

Italian industry expanded rapidly after World War II, especially from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. The Piedmont region in the north is one of Europe's major auto manufacturing centers and figures in the “industrial triangle” of Turin, Milan, and Genoa, where most of the country's major industries are concentrated.

Economically, Italy is divided nearly in half, with the northern half of the country growing slightly in 2015 while the southern half of the country continued to atrophy after the global recession of 2008. Southern Italy is less developed economically and has a higher rate of unemployment (21.7 percent in the south compared to 13.6 percent nationally in 2014). Of the nearly 950,000 Italians who became unemployed between 2007 and 2014, 70 percent were from the south. Additionally, the southern workforce contracted at a higher rate than the nation as a whole, 10.7 percent to 4 percent.

People enjoy aperitivi in Piazza Campo de Fiori in Rome, Italy. People enjoy aperitivi in Piazza Campo de Fiori in Rome, Italy. © MATEJ KASTELIC/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM. © MATEJ KASTELIC/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM.

Sicily demonstrated one of the highest unemployment rates in Italy (21 percent in 2013) affecting mainly women and younger people, the latter were unemployed at a rate of 41.7 percent in 2012 and 46 percent in 2013. For this reason, many Sicilians now work abroad, and their earnings figure significantly in the island's economy.


Football (American soccer) known as calcio in Italy, is by far the country's most popular sport. The country's national team has won four World Cup titles and ranked tenth in the world in 2016. Nearly all large- and medium-size cities have a team in one of the three professional divisions. Totocalcio is a very popular betting pool connected with the scores of the football games in the three divisions. In addition to its popularity as a spectator sport, football is played by many Italians, and games at the village, city, and district level tend to be highly competitive. Italians also enjoy bicycle racing, motorcycle racing, basketball, boxing, tennis, and downhill skiing, especially in the Italian Alps. A type of bowling played on clay courts called bocce is popular in small towns.


Like many Europeans, Italians are passionate football fans (called tifosi), watching games in stadiums, in bars, and at home on television. The fanaticism surrounding this sport has caused Page 260  |  Top of Articlemajor riots (in which people have died), as well as heart attacks during games (even by fans watching at home). Mammoth traffic jams are commonplace on Sunday afternoons, when games are played. Italians are also avid followers of automobile and bicycle racing. Many bicycle races are sponsored by cities and corporations, and crowds congregate at the finish line regardless of the weather.

Many Italians like to spend their leisure hours with friends at cafes, where they can stay as long as they like. Cafes are also popular spots for such solitary pursuits as reading or letter writing. Even daily meals are a form of recreation in Italy: Italians commonly spend up to two hours eating their midday meal, generally joining their families for food, wine, and conversation. On Sundays, the whole family may gather at an outdoor restaurant for this extended meal and spend the entire afternoon there. Even a night on the town in a sophisticated city like Rome generally means dining late at a trattoria (small restaurant) and lingering over wine as the wait staff is closing up for the night.

Beaches are popular recreational spots, especially with young people, who also enjoy “hanging out” at the local piazza, or square.


Italy's handcrafted products include fine lace linens, glass, pottery, carved marble, and gold and silver filigree work. The sale of these products is important to the Italian economy, and the government provides assistance to the artisans who produce them.


Bureaucratic red tape and administrative inefficiency affect many aspects of daily life in Italy, including transportation, mail and telephone service, health care, and banking. The resulting delays and inconveniences experienced regularly as a result are exacerbated by frequent service-sector strikes. Another traditional problem that still plagues Italy is organized crime, especially in the south of the country. Mafia violence may involve feuds between competing gangs, the kidnapping of wealthy persons or their relatives, or drug-related activities. Mob trafficking in narcotics and other drugs has produced a very serious drug problem among the Italian population.

Immigration is a serious problem for Italy, as hundreds of migrants arrive in the country daily by boat. In 2013–2015, an estimated three hundred thousand migrants arrived on the shores of Italy from the Middle East and Africa. “People smugglers” charge desperate refugees hundreds of dollars for passage to Europe, often in boats that are barely seaworthy. Many of these ships sink off the coast, and their occupants drown. The Italian government estimated that more than three thousand migrants drowned at sea in 2015 alone. Italy, however, is not equipped to deal with the number of migrants coming to its shores, leading to crises in food and housing, and the specter of turning back boats full of desperate people.


Officially, the father is the authority figure in the family, although women wield great power within the domestic sphere, especially in terms of the influence exercised on their sons. Italian men are said to have an unusually strong lifetime attachment to their mothers. Although many Italian women continue to fulfill traditional roles, more and more work outside the home and pursue professional careers.

Italy, as the home of the Catholic Church, has negative attitudes toward same-sex relationships in general. In the poorer south, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals are more stigmatized or discriminated against than in the more cosmopolitan north, especially in the larger cities of Milan and Bologna, where there is more tolerance and acceptance. Rome and Naples are two exceptions to this rule, and both cities have large LGBT communities.

The Italian parliament passed a bill to legally recognize civil unions between two people of the same sex in May 2016, after pressure from the European Union along with a July 2015 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Italy's failure to recognize same-sex unions violated the European Convention on Human Rights. Italy had long been the most prominent holdout in recognizing same-sex unions, in part due to continued pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, which continued to oppose such unions through 2016. Although passage of the bill was viewed as a hopeful sign in the fight for LGBT rights, critics pointed out that the measure did not go far enough, as it only recognized same-sex civil unions and not same-sex marriage. It also did not include provisions allowing individuals in same-sex unions to legally adopt their partner's biological children.


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3648200511