| 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.
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
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.
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
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.