The History of Italy

Tuscany landscape view

When visiting Italy, you need only to step off the plane to see how integral a role history plays in Italian society. From the Pantheon to the Coliseum, remnants of the ancient world are everywhere you look. Now these things are valued for their photo opportunities and gift shops, but before Italy became a tourist utopia, it was one of the world’s premiere centres of culture and thought. Let’s explore some aspects of this Romance country’s richly storied past.

The Roman Empire

Pompeii runis

The ghostly ruins of Pompeii serve as a reminder of ancient Italy.

The city of Rome is so old that it has been dubbed ‘the eternal empire’. It was founded sometime around 625 B.C. and quickly became the center of the Roman Empire. At first, it was a monarchy, governed by kings, but soon Rome became a republic and remained that way for about five hundred years.

Perhaps the most famous segment of early Roman history is immortalized in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar: if the phrase “Et tu, Brute?” rings a bell, you’re probably familiar with the story! Caesar’s rise to power, betrayal, and assassination marked the end of the Roman Republic; after that, emperors assumed full control.

Some key names you might recognize: Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor; Nero, the insane emperor who may or may not have set the city on fire; and Constantine, founder of Constantinople (apparently he was slightly egotistical when it came to naming things).

The Fall of Rome

After conquering much of western and southern Europe in its pursuit of territory, the Roman Empire was stretched thin, giving their enemies a perfect opportunity to strike. In 410, Rome was invaded and sacked by the Goths—and then again, in 455, by the Vandals. The empire never managed to make a full recovery, and its golden age of conquest was over.

Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1482

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus painting from 1482 is a beautiful example of renaissance art.

The Renaissance

Even though its central location was Italy, the word “Renaissance” is actually French! Its translation is “re-birth”, and that’s exactly what it was—an emergence of new art, music, literature, and general cultural development coming from the shadow of the Dark Ages that preceded it. Massive advancement was made in several notable areas.

Art: This time period birthed some of the greats that we know today, such as da Vinci and Michelangelo. The Italian upper class grew enamored with art and financed its creation, which helped the artists rise to fame. The general theme of Renaissance art was humans as individuals: their perceptions, actions, and accomplishments.

Education: Knowledge was valued so highly that many universities were established during the Renaissance so that more people could dedicate themselves to intellectual pursuits. Academia flourished and the scholars it produced would go on to influence other fields.

Literature: The printing press was invented just as the Renaissance began, so during this time, the common people started to be able to actually read books for themselves. This led to greater literacy and an increase in the numbers of authors and writers.

Philosophy: Humanism was one of the metaphysical highlights of the Renaissance. This was a worldview that celebrated human ambition and achievement, and led to an explosion of creation and discovery in the 14th-16th centuries.

Science: Perhaps the most important advancements were the ones that changed people’s understandings of the physical world. The scientific method emerged, encouraging experimentation and observation, and was vastly successful. Backwards ideas of medicine were replaced by medical concepts gathered from science; astronomers re-evaluated their assumptions about the universe, and chemistry, physics, mathematics, and engineering all experienced epiphanies of their own.

Italy capital city

Italy’s capital, Rome, features the immense Roman Colosseum Amphitheatre.

Notable Cities of Italy

Italy is home to so many beautiful places that it would be difficult to limit yourself to visiting only one. Each of these following cities is deeply historical yet still stunning in the modern day.

Venice: Famous for its waterways and gondolas, Venice is known as the “Floating City”. Its hundred islands are connected by four hundred bridges, and the city radiates charm. At one time it was a republic of its own, but now it’s governed by Italy. It’s unclear exactly when Venice was founded, but it was developed into a city state in the 9th-12th centuries, so when you walk on those islands, you’re probably touching the same structures people built a thousand years ago.

Florence: This city was one of the central locations of Renaissance impetus. Gorgeous art and architecture saturates Florence, and today it’s a perfect visitation spot for artists and historians who want to spend a week or two stepping back in time. Unofficially it is the capital of Tuscany, lying at the heart of this beautiful and very popular region of Italy that has inspired so many artists and poets over the years.

Rome: The ruins of the Coliseum stand as a testament to Roman achievement: they are timeworn yet still standing strong. Ancient buildings and monuments are around every corner, yet modern life folds itself seamlessly into the echoes of the thousands of years this city has seen.

The Vatican

Vatican City, established in 1929, is one of only a handful of sovereign city-states in the world. All in all, it measures about 110 acres and its permanent population is roughly 840, making it the smallest independent country to ever be internationally recognized. The Vatican is actually inside Rome, separated from the rest of the city by high walls, but is not subject to Italian rule. Technically it is governed as an absolute monarchy, with the Pope acting as head.

Despite its tiny size, the Vatican operates much like any other country, minting its own money, issuing passports—it even has its own flag and national anthem. Its economy is almost entirely driven by tourists, though; it relies on sales from museum admissions and souvenirs for the majority of its revenue.

Famous People of Italy

Italians have made amazing contributions to mankind in numerous fields. Here are just a few who left their marks on the world.

Dante Aligheri (1265-1361): Poet known as the “Father of the Italian Language”. His poetic masterpiece, Divine Comedy, was the first book to ever be written and published in Italian.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Influential physicist known as the “Father of Science”. He invented the telescope and thermometer, and is especially famous for his revolutionary advocacy of the idea that the earth revolved around the sun.

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506): Explorer credited with the European discovery of the New World. Although his voyage was sponsored by the Spanish crown, the man himself had an Italian heritage.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): Inventor and artist who painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and spearheaded breakthroughs in anatomy and engineering. The Guild of St. Luke classified him as a master artist at the age of only 20!

Michelangelo (1475-1564): Incredible sculptor and painter who created the statue David and painted the famous Sistine Chapel ceiling mural.

Andreus Vesalius: Medical scientist who published the first largely accurate anatomy text, based on his own study of human cadavers. This proved invaluable to the advancement of medicine.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): One of the greatest Baroque composers and violinists of his time. As a young man he originally studied to be a priest, and his red hair earned him the nickname of “The Red Priest”. Eventually he decided it wasn’t for him, and went on to write over 500 concertos.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910): Founder of modern nursing. In 1860 she started the first nursing school of its kind at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.

Of course, it’s impossible to learn everything about a country in just a couple of paragraphs. To really get a feel for Italy’s history and culture, why not pay it a visit yourself? It’s worth a trip just for the delicious gelato. And while you are waiting for your holiday, take a read through our handy guides for Italy – we have an ever-growing selection of useful articles on all aspects of this wonderful country at Italy in View.