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Last updated : Nov 2009
Italy History
Italy History - TravelPuppy.com
Italy has only been unified since 1861, the rich and the complex history of the peninsula has, perhaps more than that of any other country, influenced the course of European development, particularly in the areas of culture and political thought.

The most important and early settlers in the area were the Etruscans, who had established settlements in northern Italy by the sixth century BC. By the third century BC, the city state of Rome, having subdued most of the peninsula, was intent on extending its influence elsewhere. At its greatest extent, the Empire (so called after 30 BC) made the Mediterranean a Roman lake and for several centuries conferred on its inhabitants the benefits of the Pax Romana: culture (mainly Hellenic in origin), law, relative peace and comparative prosperity.

By the fifth century, the internal discord and external pressures resulted in the disintegration of the empires, and although the Germanic people assumed the rule of Italy, were more concerned with the continuity of the Roman way of life than has often been supposed. From AD 493, the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Theodoric maintained the unity of Italy, but then the region was reconquered by Justinian (AD 535-3). By the late sixth century, however, settlers from northern Europe had established a kingdom in Lombardy and Italy then fragmented into a dozen or so states.

During the next 1000 years, the exceedingly complex history of Italy can be seen in terms of a northern region which was dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy and the growing power of the city states and a southern region (dominated first by the vestiges of Byzantine power, later by the Muslims and then by the Normans and their successors, such as the Angevins, the Aragonese and the Bourbons). Charlemagne gained control of northern Italy in the late eighth century, and, for the rest of the Medieval period, his successors made repeated and largely unsuccessful attempts to recreate imperial power in the region. The 11th century saw the rise of the independent city states of Florence, Genoa, Milan and particularly Venice, all of which pursued an independent policy and soon began to wield a commercial and political influence out of all proportion to their size.

Sicily was taken by the Muslims in the ninth century, and then fell to the Normans in 1059 who soon established control over most of the southern part of the peninsula.

During the 12th century the kingdom was one of the greatest centres of culture in Europe, particularly under Roger II. Briefly reunited by marriage to the Hohenstaufen empire of Henry VI and Frederick II between 1189 and 1268, Naples and Sicily were then ruled respectively by the houses of Anjou and Aragon until the latter reunited the region in 1442.

The popes played leading roles in the tortuous diplomacy of 15th-century Italy. The period arguably witnessed the greatest ever flowering of art and culture (the Italian Renaissance), associated with writers such as Machiavelli, Aristio and Guicciardini and notable patrons such as the Medici family and several popes supporting a wealth of artists including Fra Angelico, Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Politically, the 16th century represented a victory for the Spanish over the French influence in Italy, and the Hapsburgs established themselves particularly strongly in Milan, Naples and Sicily. Many of the smaller states changed hands on numerous occasions during the following two centuries, and although the large city states maintained their independence, their power was, in general, on the wane.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century found particularly strong expression in the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily (which was by now ruled by the Bourbons) but centralised power was largely absent elsewhere. Opposition to Hapsburg rule was led by Garibaldi and the house of Savoy, and by 1861 the ruling princes of northern and central Italy had been deposed and Victor Emmanuel II became the first King of Italy, with Florence as the capital.

The full annexation of Venice and Rome was not completed for another 10 years. Italy’s colonial conquests were limited and the rulers enjoyed more success in their efforts to consolidate their own position at home, despite the considerable distractions of the various complex struggles in the Balkans. Despite being neutral in 1914, Italy joined the Allies in the following year and made some territorial gains in the peace which followed World War I.

The inter-war years were dominated by economic problems, further attempts at expansion and the rise of the Fascists under Mussolini. Italy supported Hitler’s Germany in 1939, but after the surrender of Italian forces and the arrest of Mussolini in 1943, the new Government backed the Allies for the remainder of World War II.

King Victor Emmanuel III abdicated in 1946 and a republic was proclaimed. Elections rarely produce dramatic changes in Italy. The Christian Democrat Party (DC) has been the dominant power in each of the 51 governments since the war, although during the 1980s the premiership was held by politicians from other smaller parties. However, the almost traditional instability of the Italian government seems to have little impact on the Italians as a nation. The Communist Party (PCI), the largest in Western Europe with just under 30 per cent of the Italian vote, has dominated the opposition. In 1992, the PCI underwent a major revision of its political strategy, renouncing Marxism before reconstituting itself as the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS). Hard-liners split off to form Rifondazione Comunista (Reconstructed Communists, although ‘unreconstructed’ might be a better description).

At the following general election, held in April 1992, Giuliano D’Amato of the centre-right Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) emerged as the country’s 51st post-war premier. D’Amato was one of the few senior PSI figures untainted by the latest corruption scandal to break over Italy, involving the payment of large bribes to politicians by construction companies in exchange for public works contracts. The scandal, substantial even by Italian standards, and the upsurge during the summer of 1992 of Mafia violence, brought Italy to something of a social and moral crisis. A breaking point had been reached: instead of the usual world-weary, cynical reaction, Italians reacted angrily.

The D’Amato government lasted just twelve months, its immediate successor even less. By January 1994, the centre-right was in deep crisis, with the Christian Democrats and the Socialists terminally damaged by scandal. Yet the left seemed unable to capitalise on their opponents’ disarray. At this point, a right-wing saviour appeared in the form of one of the country’s principal commercial magnates, Silvio Berlusconi. Making extensive use of his vast assets, especially his monopoly of Italy’s commercial broadcasting network, Berlusconi – self-styled as ‘Il Cavaliere’ – ran a highly effective, if vacuous, campaign, which overwhelmed the lacklustre efforts of the left. Joining with two other right-wing parties, Lega Nord (Northern League) and the Aleanza Nazionale, Forza Italia formed a new government in March 1994.

The Aleanza Nazionale was the offspring of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, which, in turn, was the inheritor of the fascist tradition in Italian politics. The regionalist Lega Nord was a new phenomenon, exploiting the resentment of northerners who felt that the poorer and less productive southern part of Italy was a drain on the country. It also drew on the pre-republic history of Italy and the distinct histories of the northern and southern parts of the country. (Lega Nord militants propose the division of Italy and the creation of a new sovereign state, Padania, in the north.)

Berlusconi’s victory was, in a way, even more extraordinary than what had transpired previously. Italy was now run by a tycoon for whom the distinction between the interests of the nation and those of his commercial empire were, to say the least, blurred. Berlusconi promised to act to deal with this blatant conflict of interest, but before he could do so, his coalition disintegrated and he was forced out of office.

Finally, the left took its chance. From April 1996, Italy experienced its first left-wing government, operating under the banner of the Ulivo alliance. It was dominated by the PDS and also supported by a number of smaller parties, including Rifondazione Comunista. The period until the fall of the left-wing coalition in 2000 was notable mostly for Italy’s key role in the Kosovo crisis. A number of domestic setbacks and a faltering economy meant, however, that the left was on the defensive when the next elections fell due in April 2001. Facing them was a newly resurgent Berlusconi, who once again relied on his unique media control and the old 1994 alliance (now termed Casa delle Libertà) with the Lega Nord and Aleanza Nazionale to secure a second term of office. The coalition has proved more stable than its 1994 predecessor and may, unusually for Italian governments, serve its full term.

The result caused widespread amazement, especially outside Italy where Berlusconi is widely considered unfit to hold office. As if to prove the point, he forced legislation through parliament allowing him to keep control of his business and media empire. He has been convicted of at least one of a number of outstanding corruption and bribery charges, but has exploited Italy’s slow and complex legal system to avoid any consequences. To cap these dubious achievements is a newly-passed law preventing the laying of any charges against any of Italy’s senior politicians.