A Short History of Italy

The land we call Italy has probably the most incredible history of any European country, perhaps any country in the world. It has given to Western civilization a priceless treasure of art, architecture, literature, science, law, medicine, civic planning, engineering, music, religion. Over the millennia, with only a few sterile periods, it has been the center of style and fashion and taste, the place from which emanated most of the great ideas on which Europe was based. Italy has produced geniuses in virtually every area of human endeavor.

Italy had a great civilization, created by the Etruscans, long before the Romans. Thus, when the Romans conquered the Etruscans, they had at hand a reservoir of art and architecture and civic planning which they adopted, much as they adopted that of an even greater civilization, the ancient Greeks. The pre-Roman Greeks had established great cities on the coast of Southern Italy and Sicily, among them Neapolis, or "new town," known to us as Naples.

With the development of Rome and the Empire, Roman civilization was spread throughout the Western world and into the Near East and North Africa as well. It is a civilization that in many respects is still with us today.

The Western Roman Empire fell to the barbarian tribes in the middle of the 5th century but the empire itself lived on for another thousand years in its eastern manifestation, with its capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul), founded by the Emperor Constantine. Meanwhile, Italy proper, overrun by barbarians, lapsed along with the rest of Europe into the Dark Ages, the city of Rome laid waste by Vandal and Hun, the great monuments of the Romans falling into ruin.

From Dark Ages to what we call the Middle Ages and up to the present century, Italy was fragmented into many warring duchies, principalities, and city-states, never a nation but certainly an object of plunder. Various parts of the peninsula were ruled and despoiled at one time or another not only by Germanic barbarians, but also by Byzantines, Normans (descendants of the Vikings), Spaniards, Saracens, and Austrians. But the people in Italy retained a sense of their great past, a faint remembrance kept alive by the stupendous monuments and roads

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and aqueducts that were still visible despite a thousand years of plunder and neglect. Moreover, with few exceptions the conquerors were unable to impose their culture, such as it was, and eventually became Italians. Most of them assumed Italian ways willingly. Everyone, after all, had fought to get into Italy. It was the center of the world, the place they wanted to be. Even barbarians could recognize this.

The faint remembrance of their great past, awakened and reinforced by discoveries of ancient manuscripts, was instrumental in a profusion of human achievement the likes of which the world had never before seen. We call it the Renaissance, or rebirth. Begun in the 14th century mainly in Florence, the Renaissance spread over the Italian mainland and later throughout all of Europe. It has been described by Jacob Burckhardt in his classic Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. It was, he wrote, "the education of Europe." The Renaissance gave us immortals such as da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Palladio, Botticelli, Galileo, Machiavelli, Lorenzo de' Medici, Bernini, Vivaldi, and many more. Disunited as it was, Italy remained the fountainhead of European civilization as had Rome before it.

Notwithstanding this cultural supremacy, Italy remained under the heel of foreigners. Under Garibaldi and his redshirts, it was finally reunited in 1861 - when the United States was in the throes of the Civil War. Established as a kingdom under King Victor Emmanuel, who abdicated after World War Two, Italy has existed as a nation for not much more than 130 years.

Today Italy is prosperous. Industry thrives in the triangle formed by Milan, Turin, and Genoa. Craftsmen and artists throughout the land produce the "Italian look" that has become a yardstick of excellence and good taste both in consumer and industrial goods. Tourism booms everywhere, from the northernmost Alps to the southern shores of Sicily. Italy's storied sites await discovery by more than thirty million tourists each year. Italian food is popular everywhere in the Western World. Italy again is a world power, this time, however, not in a military sense but in a civilizing one.

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