Italy is a country with an extremely rich cultural heritage. The love of music, art and good food is in the blood of every Italian, born out of an ancient tradition of enjoyment. The beauty of the landscape and the history is woven into the culture and Italians are immensely proud of their past.
The earliest settlements in Italy date back to prehistoric times and the Italian peninsula became one of the first centres of civilisation in Europe with Rome becoming a major city-state. The Romans left a great legacy of ruins and architecture and the Italian Renaissance saw the birth of artists including Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. In the Middle Ages Italy was frequently under threat from invaders and the papacy even had to flee to France in 1348 when the Black Death killed a third of the population. Powerful city-states developed and the artistic centres of Florence, Venice and Naples thrived.
Italians are also renowned for their fashion industry and the high-end names of Giorgio Armani, Gucci and Versace are synonymous with style. In the world of cuisine, Italy is also famous for its pizza and pasta, with regional variations in both recipes and taste. A good example is risotto, which tends to be lighter in the north where the climate and Germanic influences lend themselves to heavier sauces, whereas spaghetti with a meaty tomato-based ragù is popular in the south.
A small breakfast and a large lunch is typical of the Italian diet with a heavy emphasis on quality and freshness. The famous phrase ‘fa bella figura’, meaning beautiful figure, is a cultural concept that relates not just to appearance but to a person’s attitude and demeanour as well. People who carry themselves with grace, confidence and elegance are considered to have a good figure.
Politics in Italy is a parliamentary republic with a head of government – the prime minister – appointed by Parliament and a head of state – the president – who has mostly ceremonial duties. The country is divided into 20 regions and 5 of these have a special autonomous status, which allows them to pass legislation on some local issues.
Religion plays a big part in Italian life and around 90% of the population is Roman Catholic. The remainder are either Eastern Orthodox or a non-believer. There is also a significant minority of Jewish and Muslim citizens. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right and Italy has a long history of tolerance towards other faiths, though in the 16th century this declined with the introduction of the Inquisition, which brutally persecuted Protestants and burned an astronomer called Giordano Bruno.