Italian History - Best of Italy - Rick Steves

Best of Italy - Rick Steves (2016)

Italian History

Italy has a lot of history, so let’s get started.

Origins of Rome

(c. 753 B.C.-450 B.C.)

A she-wolf breastfed two human babies, Romulus and Remus, who grew to build the city of Rome in 753 b.c.—you buy that? Closer to fact, farmers and shepherds of the Latin tribe settled near the mouth of the Tiber River, a prime trading location. The crude settlement was sandwiched between two sophisticated civilizations—the Etruscans of Tuscany to the north, and Greek colonists to the south. Little Rome was both dominated and nourished by these societies.

In 509 b.c., the Romans drove out the Etruscan kings and replaced them with elected Roman senators and (eventually) a code of law (“Laws of the Twelve Tables,” 450 b.c.). The Roman Republic was born.

The Republic Expands

(c. 509 B.C.-A.D. 1)

Located in the center of the peninsula, Rome was ideally situated for trading salt and wine. Roman businessmen, backed by an army, expanded through the Italian peninsula, establishing an infrastructure as they went. Rome soon conquered its northern Etruscan neighbors.

Next, Rome overcame the Greek colonists (c. 275 b.c.). Rome now ruled a united federation stretching from Tuscany to the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, with a standard currency, a system of roads, and an army of a half-million soldiers ready for the next challenge: Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia). Carthage and Rome fought the Punic Wars for control of the Mediterranean (264-201 b.c. and 146 b.c.). Rome emerged victorious.

The well-tuned Roman legions easily subdued cultured Greece in the Macedonian Wars (215-146 b.c.). By the first century b.c., Rome was master of the Mediterranean. Booty, cheap grain, and thousands of captured slaves poured in, transforming the economic model from small farmers to unemployed city dwellers living off tribute from conquered lands.

Civil Wars and the Transition to Empire


With easy money streaming in and traditional roles obsolete, Romans bickered among themselves over their slice of the pie. Wealthy landowners wrangled with the middle and working classes and with the growing population of slaves, who demanded greater say-so in government.

Amid the chaos of class war and civil war, charismatic generals who could provide wealth and security became dictators—men such as Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.). He was a cunning politician, riveting speaker, conqueror of Gaul, author of The Gallic Wars, and lover of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. In his four-year reign, he reformed and centralized the government around himself. Disgruntled Republicans feared that he would make himself king. At his peak of power, they surrounded Caesar on the “Ides of March” (March 15, 44 b.c.) and killed him.

Julius Caesar died, but the concept of one-man rule lived on in his adopted son, who was proclaimed Emperor Augustus (27 b.c.). Augustus outwardly followed the traditions of the Republic, while in practice he acted as a dictator with the backing of Rome’s legions and the rubber-stamp approval of the Senate. He established his family to succeed him (making the family name “Caesar” a title), and set the pattern of rule by emperors for the next 500 years.

The Roman Empire

(c. A.D. 1-500)

In his 40-year reign, Augustus ended Rome’s civil wars and ushered in the Pax Romana: 200 years of prosperity and peace. Rome ruled an empire of 54 million people, stretching from Scotland to Africa, from Spain to the Middle East. Conquered peoples were welcomed into the fold of prosperity, linked by roads, common laws, common gods, education, and the Latin language. The city of Rome, with more than a million inhabitants, was decorated with statues and monumental structures faced with marble. Rome was the marvel of the known world, though it prospered on a (false) economy of booty, slaves, and cheap imports.

Decline and Fall

(A.D. 200-500)

Rome peaked in the second century a.d. under the capable emperors Trajan (r. 98-117), Hadrian (r. 117-138), and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180). For the next three centuries, the Roman Empire declined, shrinking in size and wealth, a victim of corruption, disease, an overextended army, a false economy, and the constant pressure of “barbarian” tribes pecking away at its borders.

Trying to stall the disintegration, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) split the empire into two administrative halves under two equal emperors. Constantine (r. 306-337) moved the capital of the empire from decaying Rome to the new city of Constantinople (330, present-day Istanbul). Almost instantly, the once-great city of Rome became a minor player in imperial affairs. (The eastern “Byzantine” half of the empire would thrive and live on for another thousand years.) Constantine also legalized Christianity (313), and the once-persecuted cult soon became virtually the state religion, the backbone of Rome’s fading hierarchy.

By 410, “Rome” had shrunk to just the city itself. Barbarian tribes from the north and east poured in to loot and plunder. The city was sacked by Visigoths (410) and vandalized by Vandals (455), and the pope had to plead with Attila the Hun for mercy (451). Peasants huddled near lords for protection from bandits, planting the seeds of medieval feudalism.

In 476, the last emperor sold his title for a comfy pension, and Rome fell, plunging Europe into a thousand years of darkness. For the next 13 centuries, there would be no “Italy,” just a patchwork of rural dukedoms and towns, victimized by foreign powers. Italy lay in shambles, helpless.


(A.D. 500-1000)

In 500 years, Italy suffered through a full paragraph of invasions: Lombards (568) and Byzantines (536) occupied the north. In the south, Muslim Saracens (827) and Christian Normans (1061) established thriving kingdoms. Charlemagne, King of the Franks (a Germanic tribe), defeated the Lombards, and on Christmas Day, a.d. 800, he knelt before the pope in St. Peter’s in Rome to be crowned “Holy Roman Emperor.” For the next thousand years, Italians would pledge nominal allegiance to weak, distant German kings as their “Holy Roman Emperor,” an empty title meant to resurrect the glory of ancient Rome united with medieval Christianity.

Through all of the invasions and chaos, the glory of ancient Rome was preserved in the pomp, knowledge, hierarchy, and wealth of the Christian Church. Strong popes (Leo I, 440-461, and Gregory the Great, 590-604) ruled like small-time emperors, governing territories in central Italy called the Papal States.

Prosperity and Politics

(A.D. 1000-1300)

Sea-trading cities like Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Naples, and Amalfi grew wealthy as middlemen between Europe and the Orient. During the Crusades (e.g., First Crusade 1097-1130), Italian ships ferried Europe’s Christian soldiers eastward, then returned laden with spices and highly marked-up luxury goods from the Orient. Trade spawned banking, and Italians became capitalists, loaning money at interest to Europe’s royalty. The medieval prosperity of the cities laid the foundation of the future Renaissance.

Politically, the Italian peninsula was dominated by two rulers—the pope in Rome and the German “Holy Roman Emperor” (with holdings in the north). This split Italy into two warring political parties: supporters of the popes (called Guelphs, centered in urban areas) and supporters of the emperors (Ghibellines, popular with the rural nobility).

The Unlucky 1300s

In 1309, the pope—enticed by Europe’s fast-rising power, France—moved from Rome to Avignon, France. At one point, two rival popes reigned, one in Avignon and the other in Rome, and they excommunicated each other. The papacy eventually returned to Rome (1377), but the schism had created a breakdown in central authority that was exacerbated by an outbreak of bubonic plague (Black Death, 1347-1348), which killed a third of the Italian population.

In the power vacuum, new powers emerged in the independent cities. Venice, Florence, Milan, and Naples were under the protection and leadership of local noble families, such as the Medici in Florence. Florence thrived in the wool and dyeing trade, which led to international banking, with branches in all of Europe’s capitals. A positive side effect of the terrible Black Death was that the now-smaller population got a bigger share of the land, jobs, and infrastructure. By century’s end, Italy was poised to enter its most glorious era since antiquity.

The Renaissance


The Renaissance—the “rebirth” of ancient Greek and Roman art styles, knowledge, and humanism—began in Italy (c. 1400), and spread through Europe over the next two centuries. Many of Europe’s most famous painters, sculptors, and thinkers—such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael—were Italian.

This cultural boom, financed by thriving trade and lucrative banking, changed people’s thinking about every aspect of life. In politics, it meant democracy. In religion, it meant a move away from Church dominance and toward the assertion of man (humanism) and a more personal faith. Science and secular learning were revived after centuries of superstition and ignorance. In architecture, there was a return to the balanced columns and domes of Greece and Rome. During the Renaissance, the peninsula once again became the trendsetting cultural center of Europe.

Influential Italians

Ancient Rome

Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.): After conquering Gaul (France), subduing Egypt, and winning Cleopatra’s heart, Caesar ruled Rome with king-like powers. In an attempt to preserve the Republic, senators killed him, but the concept of one-man rule lived on.

Augustus (born Octavian, 63 b.c.-a.d. 14): Julius’ adopted son became the first of the Caesars that ruled Rome during its 500 years as a Europe-wide power. He set the tone for emperors both good (Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius) and bad (Caligula, Nero, and dozens of others).

Constantine (c. 280-337 a.d.): Raised in a Christian home, this emperor legalized Christianity, almost instantly turning a persecuted sect into a Europe-wide religion. With the Fall of Rome, the Church was directed by strong popes and so guided Italians through the next thousand years of invasions, plagues, political decentralization, and darkness.

The Renaissance

Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492): Soldier, poet, lover, and ruler of Florence in the 1400s, this Renaissance Man embodied the “rebirth” of ancient enlightenment. Lorenzo’s wealthy Medici family funded Florentine artists who pioneered a realistic 3-D style.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564): His statue of David—slaying an ignorant brute—stands as a monumental symbol of Italian enlightenment. Along with fellow geniuses Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Michelangelo spread the Italian Renaissance (painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and ideas) to a worldwide audience.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680): The “Michelangelo of Baroque” kept Italy a major exporter of sophisticated trends. Bernini’s ornate statues and architecture decorated palaces of the rising power in France, even as Italy was reverting to a stagnant patchwork of foreign-ruled states.

Modern Italy

Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878): As the only Italian-born ruler on the peninsula, this King of Sardinia became the rallying point for Italian unification. Aided by the general Garibaldi, writer Mazzini, and politician Cavour (with a soundtrack by Verdi), he became the first ruler of a united, democratic Italy in 1870.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945): An inspiration for Hitler, he derailed Italy’s fledgling democracy, becoming dictator of a fascist state, leading the country into defeat in World War II. No public places honor Mussolini, but many streets and piazzas throughout Italy bear the name of Giacomo Matteotti (1885-1924), a politician whose outspoken opposition to Mussolini got him killed by Fascists.

Federico Fellini (1920-1993): Fellini’s films (La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8½) chronicle Italy’s postwar years in gritty black and white—the poverty, destruction, and disillusionment of the war followed by the optimism, decadence, and materialism of the economic boom. He captured the surreal chaos of Italy’s abrupt social change from traditional Catholic to a secular, urban world.

End of the Renaissance, France and Spain Invade


In May of 1498, Vasco da Gama of Portugal landed in India, having found a sea route around Africa. Italy’s monopoly on trade with the East was broken. Portugal, France, Spain, England, and Holland—nation-states under strong central rule—began to overtake decentralized Italy. Italy’s once-great maritime cities now traded in an economic backwater, as Italy’s bankers (such as the Medici in Florence) were going bankrupt. While the Italian Renaissance was all the rage throughout Europe, it declined in its birthplace. Italy—culturally sophisticated but weak and decentralized—was ripe for the picking by Europe’s rising powers.

France and Spain invaded (1494 and 1495)—initially invited by Italian lords to attack their rivals—and began divvying up territory for their noble families. Italy also became a battleground in religious conflicts between Catholics and the new Protestant movement. In the chaos, the city of Rome was brutally sacked by foreign mercenary warriors (1527).

Foreign Rule


For the next two centuries, most of Italy’s states were ruled by foreign nobles, serving as prizes for the winners of Europe’s dynastic wars. Italy ceased to be a major player in Europe, politically and economically. Italian intellectual life was often cropped short by a conservative Catholic Church trying to fight Protestantism. Galileo, for example, was forced by the Inquisition to renounce his belief that the Earth orbited the sun (1633). But Italy did export Baroque art (Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini) and the budding new medium of opera.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1713)—a war in which Italy did not participate—gave much of northern Italy to Austria’s ruling family, the Habsburgs (who now wore the crown of “Holy Roman Emperor”). In the south, Spain’s Bourbon family ruled the Kingdom of Naples (known after 1816 as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), making it a culturally sophisticated but economically backward area, preserving a medieval, feudal caste system.

In 1720, a minor war (the War of Austrian Succession) created a new state at the foot of the Alps, called the Kingdom of Sardinia (a.k.a. the Kingdom of Piedmont, or Savoy). Ruled by the Savoy family, this was the only major state on the peninsula that was actually ruled by Italians. It proved to be a toehold to the future.

Italy Unites—The Risorgimento


In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte swept through Italy and changed everything. He ousted Austrian and Spanish dukes, confiscated Church lands, united scattered states, and crowned himself “King of Italy” (1805). After his defeat (1815), Italy’s old ruling order (namely, Austria and Spain) was restored. But Napoleon had planted a seed: What if Italians could unite and rule themselves like Europe’s other modern nations?

For the next 50 years, a movement to unite Italy slowly grew. Called the Risorgimento (“rising again”), the movement promised a revival of Italy’s glory. It started as a revolutionary, liberal movement, but gradually, Italians of all stripes warmed to the idea of unification.

The movement coalesced around the Italian-ruled Kingdom of Sardinia and its king, Victor Emmanuel II. In 1859, Sardinia’s prime minister, Camillo Cavour, cleverly persuaded France to drive Austria out of northern Italy, leaving the region in Italian hands. A vote was held, and several central Italian states (including some of the pope’s) rejected their feudal lords and chose to join the growing Kingdom of Sardinia.

After victory in the north, General Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) steamed south with 1,000 of his best soldiers (I Mille) and marched on the Spanish-ruled city of Naples (1860). The old order simply collapsed. In two short months, Garibaldi had achieved a seemingly impossible victory against a far superior army. Garibaldi sent a one-word telegram to the king of Sardinia: “Obbedisco” (I obey). Victor Emmanuel II was crowned King of Italy. Only the pope in Rome held out, protected by French troops. When the city finally fell—easily—to unification forces on September 20, 1870, the Risorgimento was complete.

The Risorgimento was largely the work of four men: Garibaldi (the sword), Mazzini (the spark), Cavour (the diplomat), and Victor Emmanuel II (the rallying point). Today, street signs throughout Italy honor them and the dates of their great victories.

Mussolini and War


Italy—now a nation-state—entered the 20th century with a progressive government (a constitutional monarchy), a collection of colonies, a flourishing northern half of the country, and an economically backward south. After World War I (1915-1918), being on the winning Allied side, the Italians were granted possession of the alpine regions. But in the postwar cynicism and anarchy, many radical political parties rose up—Communist, Socialist, Popular, and Fascist.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), a writer for socialist newspapers, led the Fascists. In 1922, he seized the government and began his rule as dictator for the next two decades.

Mussolini struck an agreement with the pope (Concordato, 1929), giving Vatican City to the papacy, while Mussolini ruled Italy with the implied blessing of the Catholic Church.

Mussolini allied his country with Hitler’s Nazi regime, drawing an unprepared Italy into World War II (1940). Italy’s lame army was never a factor in the war, and when Allied forces landed in Sicily (1943), Italians welcomed them as liberators. The Italians toppled Mussolini’s government and surrendered to the Allies, but Nazi Germany sent troops to rescue Mussolini. The war raged on as Allied troops inched their way north against German resistance. Italians were reduced to poverty. In the last days of the war (April of 1945), Mussolini was killed by the Italian resistance.

Postwar Italy

At war’s end, Italy was ruined and poor. The nation rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s with Marshall Plan aid from the US. Italy regained its standing among nations, joining the United Nations, NATO, and what would later become the European Union.

However, the government remained weak, changing on average once a year, shifting from right to left to centrist coalitions (it’s had 63 governments since World War II). Afraid of another Mussolini, the authors of the postwar constitution created a feeble executive branch; without majorities in both houses of parliament, nothing could get done. All Italians acknowledged that the real power lay in the hands of backroom politicians and organized crime. The country remained strongly divided between the rich, industrial north and the poor, rural south.

Italian society changed greatly in the 1960s and 1970s, spurred by the liberal reforms of the Catholic Church at the Vatican II conference (1962-1965). The once-conservative Catholic country legalized divorce and contraception, and the birth rate plummeted. In the 1970s, the economy slowed due to inflation, strikes, organized crime, terrorist attacks, and the worldwide energy crisis. A series of coalition governments in the 1980s brought some stability to the economy.

Italy Today

In the early 1990s, the judiciary launched a campaign to rid politics of corruption and Mafia ties. Though still ongoing, the investigation sent a message that Italy would no longer tolerate evils that were considered normal just a generation earlier.

Over the last decade, the Great Recession hit the Italian economy hard. Like other European nations, Italy had run up big deficits by providing comfy social benefits without sufficient tax revenue, forcing the Italian government to tighten its belt. By the end of 2011, Italy’s debt load was the second worst in the euro zone, behind only Greece.

A caretaker government imposed severe austerity measures, leading to high rates of unemployment, particularly among youth. Italy wanted change, and got it when Matteo Renzi took over as prime minister in early 2014—at age 39, he’s the youngest prime minister in modern Italian history. Renzi, nicknamed Il Rottamatore (“The Scrapper”), wants to “scrap” most of Italy’s political establishment, starting with one of the houses of the Italian parliament. He forced the resignation of the CEOs of Italy’s biggest state-owned companies and appointed women to replace several of them. To stimulate the moribund economy, he is pushing for tax cuts and investments in job growth. While the Italian old guard is resisting, the dynamic Renzi is immensely popular; he has the highest approval rating of any politician in Italy.

As you travel through Italy today, you’ll encounter a fascinating country with a rich history and a per-capita income that comes close to its neighbors to the north. Despite its ups and downs, Italy remains committed to Europe...yet it’s as wonderfully Italian as ever.