Italian is spoken by 87% of Italians and there are a number of additional Italian dialects including Sicilian (7.9%) Friulian (1%), and Venetian. Other languages include Sardinian (2.6%), German (0.4%, on the border of Switzerland and Austria) plus a few pockets of Albanian and even French on the border.
Italians are very proud people and their national and regional identities are important to them, from Sicilian and Calabrian in the south to Venetian and the German-speaking South Tyroleans in the north.
The Vatican City - the home of the Pope and centre and headquarters of the Catholic Church - is a city state that is surrounded by Rome. Catholicism is central to aspects of Italian life, from national holidays to shop opening times and social structures to laws, and approximately 85% of Italians identify as being Catholic.
June 2: Republic Day (commemorating the proclamation of the Italian Republic on June 2, 1946).
Note : So that you don’t get mixed up should you see any signs, is that a business day is a "feriale giorno", while a holiday is a "giorno festivo"
- January 1: First day of the year (Capodanno).
- January 6: Epiphany (Epifania); it is also the day of the Befana, a witch who punished naughty children and rewarded good children.
- In late March or early April: Sunday and Easter Monday (Pasquetta).
- April 25: Liberation Day (Liberazione del 1945).
- May 1: Labor Day (Festa del Lavoro).
- June 2: Republic Day (1946). National Holiday.
- August 15: Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Ferragosto).
- November 1: All Saints (Ognissanti).
- December 8: Immaculate Conception (Immacolata Concezione).
- December 25: Christmas (Natale).
- December 26: St. Stephen (San Stefano).
Besides the holiday dates here, every Italian city, town and village celebrates its patron saint.
Rome was originally a kingdom that was founded in 753 BC, but in 509 BC the monarchy was overthrown and a government was put it its place. Rome and the Roman Republic led the colonisation and spread of the empire across Western Europe, Northern Africa and more by conquering Gaul, Britain, Hispania, Lusitania, the Balkans, Dacia, Macedonia, parts of Germania, Egypt, Carthage, Mauretania, Numidia, Libya, Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Judea and parts of Arabia.
Caesar Augustus became the first Roman Emperor in 27 BC and the empire thrived until 476 AD. During this time there were numerous emperors, innovations and changes, including the start of Christianity from the Mediterranean. Diocletian (284-305) persecuted the Christians but Constantine (306-337) granted freedom of worship in 313 AD, and eventually Rome became the seat of the papacy; at the end of the century, Christianity is the state religion. Rome remains capital of Western Empire for a while longer but it falls with the West falling to Odoacer and the East becoming the Byzantine Empire.
Odoacer's rule of the Western Empire came to an end when Theodoric, leading the Ostrogoths, conquered Italy. This Gothic War against both the East and West had a huge impact on the country and during this weakness, the Germanic Lombards took over control of many regions, including Ravenna in 751, ultimately ending the Byzantine rule in central Italy. In the face of this new move and un-Catholic rule, the Papacy looked to France for support, and with this support, the Papacy took control over central Italy - creating the Papal States - in 756. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Saint Peter's Basilica by the Pope. However, after a 14-year rule, Charlemagne died in 814 AD and the empire started to fall with weak leadership.
With this lack of strong leadership, the country was vulnerable and the Arab Islamic forces took much of the south, including gaining total control of Sicily in 902 AD.
The country continued to go through some struggles but some regions - Venice in particular - started to become real hubs of civilisation with trade. Although there was a lack or law and order in some areas - actually forcing the Papacy to relocate to France at one point - and the Black Death devastated the country in the 14th century, the Renaissance gave the country a total rebirth and art, literature, science and more. This period gave birth to some of the greatest artists, architects and philosophers in European history, including Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Italian Wars were fought between France and Italy from 1494 to 1559 AD, when the countries came to a peace agreement. The following centuries are marked by foreign power over Italy, including France and Spain, and a weaker economy in the country. Many regions are ruled by their own figure and leader and there is unrest for quite some time, including the fight between Protestantism and Catholicism, the Spanish 30 Years War and the second coming of the Black Plague.
At the end of the 18th century the main foreign powers in Italy were France and Austria. In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy with the aim of pushing Austria out, and Napoleon conquered most of Italy in the name of the French Revolution in 1797 to 1799. The almost 20 years that the country was ruled by Napoleon, a lot of structure was put into place which improved the economy as well as day-to-day life in Italy.
When Napoleon was defeated in 1814, the Italian Unification - Risorgimento - brought the regions of the Italian peninsula into one country of Italy, and the idea of Italian nationalism grew and grew. There was a divide between the north and south, and there were still some issues over the control of both Venice and Rome. However, once Rome became a unified part of Italy, the capital was moved from Florence to Rome in 1870.
In World War I, Italy initially declared neutrality due to historical political ties with Germany and Australia, but eventually joined Britain, France and Russia in 1915 after signed the Treaty of London. The losses to Italy were severe and there was a growing resentment, which had a huge impact on the success of Mussollini’s pascist party getting power, and then to Italy’s political position supporting the Nazis in World War II.
The fallout after WWII was also difficult for Italy, with a destroyed economy and a divided society. Following Victor Emmanuel III's abdication, his son, the new king Umberto II, was pressured by the threat of another civil war to call a Constitutional Referendum to decide whether Italy should remain a monarchy or become a republic. On 2 June 1946, the republican side won 54% of the vote and Italy officially became a republic, and it remains so to this day.
Italy is a parliamentary republic. The President (elected for seven years by Parliament and 58 electoral votes) is a mostly representative figure, making the Prime Minister the real chief executive. The legislative power is held by Parliament, composed of two chambers: the Chamber of Deputies (630 members elected for five years by universal suffrage) and Senate (310 members elected for five years by universal suffrage plus five senators appointed for their life by the President of the Republic).
Italy is the birthplace of so many prominent people across different fields, from science to literature and art to fashion designers and chefs, so impossible to mention them all. Here are some of the best known:
Literature: Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli Nicolas, Carlo Goldoni, Giacomo Leopardi, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Curzio Malaparte, Italo Svevo, Pirandello, Elsa Morante, Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Dino Buzzati, Umberto Eco and Dario Fo (who won a Nobel prize for literature in 1997).
Music: Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni, Jean-Baptiste Pergolesi, Niccolò Paganini, Gioacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and Luigi Nono. Plus conductors Arturo Toscanini, Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado and Carlo Maria Giulini; and vocalists such as Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti.
Painters and sculptors: Giotto, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Caravaggio, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Canova Giorgio De Chirico, Lucio Fontana and Mario Merz.
Directors or actors: Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, the Taviani brothers, Ettore Scola, Marco Ferreri, Roberto Benigni, Nanni Moretti, Rudolph Valentino, Vittorio Gassman, Gina Lollobrigida, Monica Vitti, Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Giulietta Masina, Marcello Mastroianni, Alberto Sordi, Ugo Tognazzi, and so many others.
Other key Italian figures include: Caesar, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Galileo, Casanova, Enzo Ferrari, the Agnelli family, Fausto Coppi, Silvio Berlusconi, Romano Prodi, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Alessandro Benetton.
Tipping is not required, but some restaurants and bars may have an optional service charge, and you can give porters and hotel staff 1 euro per piece of luggage if you want. If you really loved your guide experience, you could tip 10 Euros per day, but either way it’s entirely up to you.
Proper dress of covered shoulders and long skirts or trousers are required to visit the churches (the staff will ask you to leave if they feel yours isn’t appropriate, or they may be able to offer your a covering).
If you want to buy yourself some Italian clothes or household items then the designer outlets offer great value for money, and they are on the outskirts of most major cities. However, Italy remains a country of great artisan tradition, where each region cultivates its specialties, so for something handmade or bespoke, you’re better off looking at boutiques or markets. Thus, in the Aosta Valley, you will find rustic furniture, wooden objects and wrought iron, and traditional lace.
Lombardy offers lovely silks, furniture and fine stringed musical instruments. Trentino and Alto Adige regions are known for their skill in carving wood and metalworking (tin, copper, brass, iron and more). Friuli and Venice are the places to go for ceramic and mosaic art, plus Murano glass, Burano lace and the ceramics of Bassano are some of the most famous items to be found in Venice.
In Liguria you will find squares of canvas, the mezzaris of Eastern origin. Tuscany on the other hand is, above all, a leather worker region, but you will also see lots of lovely examples of paper and embroidery, as well as ceramics and terracotta. Emilia-Romagna is famous for its pottery, inspired by Moorish ceramics, whereas in Umbria you can snap up some beautiful lace. Tin, bobbin lace and musical instruments are renowned Marche, then umbrellas and leather goods are easy to find in Lazio. In Abruzzo, wool dominates the artisan market but there are also wooden items and beautifully wrought iron. Terracotta was and still is the key output of Basilicata, whether that’s whistles, jars and amphorae.
Sicily is the region of the puppets and figurines, plus wrought iron, ceramic and coral. Sardinia has a reputation for its specialty woven baskets and wool tapestries decorated with traditional designs. Note: when purchasing items, please issue a receipt by the merchant and keep it. The Guardia di Finanza (financial police) may carry out checks.
Italian cuisine is some of the most popular in the world and the birthplace of some of the world’s favourite dishes. While there may be some dishes that are nationally-known, there are lots of lovely regional dishes - delicious seafood from the coast; pizza from Naples; Austrian-Italian alpine fusion dishes in Alto-adige.
Whether you’re in the north or south, here are some key terms to know: antipasti (appetisers), primi (first courses), secondi (main courses), contorni (side dishes), formaggi (cheese), frutte (fruit) and a wide selection of desserts, including dolci (cakes) and gelato (ice cream). Antipasti: meats, vegetables, pickled vegetables, marinated fish.
Primi: usually a pasta dish, or risotto, minestrone soup, polenta or gnocchi.
Secondi: meat or fish. The most common meat is veal (vitello), we also find offal, pork ribs (cotoletta or braciola), rabbit (coniglio) and the hare (lepre). The secondi are served without sides, but you’ll normally find plenty of contorni (side dishes) on the menu too.
Contorni: vegetables, potatoes, salads. Frutte: oranges, but also figs, pomegranates, grapes, apples and dates.
Dolci: the most famous cake is undoubtedly the tiramisu. In addition, many restaurants offer you the torta del nonno (homemade cake), or homemade gelato. You can either eat gelato at your restaurant or take a walk home and pass by a gelateria on the way, and they’ll often have dozens of flavours, including the traditional Italian flavours such as Bacio, milk chocolate, fior di latte, and stracciatella (similar to chocolate chic). If you prefer the pizza, head to a specialist pizzeria that cooks their pizzas in a woodfired oven.
Two other tips when it comes to food are:
- Eat local - Italian cuisine is best when it is simple so go to a trattoria where the locals go. It’s delicious food and normally much more reasonable prices.
- Don’t cut your pasta - usually only children have their pasta cut for them, so to eat like a local, scoop it onto your spoon or fork and do not cut it.
Most places will offer you mineral water, either "naturale" for the still water or "frizzante" for sparkling water. Italian coffee is an important part of the culture but there are some cultural rules around it too. A milk-based coffee drink - such as a cappuccino or cafe latte - should only be ordered before 10am. After 10am, it’s caffe lungo (black coffee with hot water), espresso (a single or double shot of coffee) or macchiato (a single or double shot with a small dollop of milk foam on top) only. If you order just a ‘latte’ then you will just get milk, so be sure to ask for a cafe latte.
Italian wine is very varied and you’ll have plenty of choice from all corners of the country no matter what your preference. Generally the best-known wine regions in Italy are Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna. As a quick guide to the wine lingo: IGT (indicazione geografica typica) denotes a good quality wine; DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) which does through rigorous rules to meet standards; andDOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata e guarantia) which is for really excellent wines that have gone through even more stringent and strict rules for quality.