- The name Italy comes from the word italia, meaning “calf land,” perhaps because the bull was a symbol of the Southern Italian tribes.
- Italy is approximately 116,400 square miles (including Sicily and Sardinia), which is slightly larger than Arizona.
- Italy is one of the most crowded nations in Europe. Its population is estimated to reach 58,126,212 by July 2009. The population of United States is estimated to reach 307,212,123 by that same date.
- The official name of Italy is the Italian Republic (Repubblica Italiana).
- Italy is said to have more masterpieces per square mile than any other country in the world.
- Almost four-fifths of Italy is either mountainous or hilly.
- In 2007, a dog named Rocco discovered a truffle in Tuscany that weighed 3.3 pounds. It sold at auction for $333,000 (USD), a world record for a truffle.
Italians take their food very seriously
- Italians claim to have taught the rest of Europe how to cook. Italy is responsible for introducing the world to ice cream (via the Chinese), coffee, and fruit pies. In addition to Belgium and France, Italy also claims to have made the first French fries. The first Italian cookbook was written in 1474 by Bartolomeo Sicci.
- The Italian wolf is Italy’s unofficial national animal and plays a large role in the legend of the founding of Rome.
- When McDonald's opened in 1986 in Rome, food purists outside the restaurant gave away free spaghetti to remind people of their culinary heritage.
- Parmesan cheese originated in the area around Parma, Italy. Italians also created many other cheeses, including gorgonzola, mozzarella, provolone, and ricotta. No one knows when the pizza was invented, but the people of Naples made it popular.
- The University of Rome is one of the world’s oldest universities and was founded by the Catholic Church in A.D. 1303. Often called La Sapienza (“knowledge”), the University of Rome is also Europe’s largest university with 150,000 students.
- There are two independent states within Italy: the Republic of San Marino (25 square miles) and the Vatican City (just 108.7 acres).
- Italy’s San Marino is the world’s oldest republic (A.D. 301), has fewer than 30,000 citizens, and holds the world’s oldest continuous constitution. Its citizens are called the Sammarinese.
- Vatican City is the only nation in the world that can lock its own gates at night. It has its own phone company, radio, T.V. stations, money, and stamps. It even has its own army, the historic Swiss Guard.
- Most of Italy’s natural flora and fauna has disappeared due to centuries of cultivation. Most of its natural wildlife has also disappeared due to over-hunting.
The name Pinocchio means "pine nut”
- The author of “Pinocchio” (“pine nut”), Carlo Collodi (1826-1890), was Italian.
- Italians suffer more earthquakes than any other Europeans. In 1693, an estimated 100,000 people died in an earthquake in Sicily. The most deadly recent quake in Italy occurred in Naples in 1980, killing 3,000 people.
- No other country in Europe has as many volcanoes as Italy. This is because the Italian peninsula stands on a fault line. Three major volcanoes (Etna, Stromboli, and Vesuvius) have erupted in the last hundred years.
- By the year 2000 B.C., Italic tribes (Oscans, Umbrians, Latins) had established themselves in Italy. They were followed by the Etruscans in 800 B.C. and the Greeks, who established colonies known as Magna Graeca in southern Italy (present-day Apulia). Rome was founded in 753 B.C., and soon thereafter the Romans began conquering the peninsula.
- At its height in A.D. 117, the Roman Empire stretched from Portugal in the West to Syria in the east, and from Britain in the North to the North African deserts across the Mediterranean. It covered 2.3 million miles (two-thirds the size of the U.S.) and had a population of 120 million people. During the Middle Ages, Rome had perhaps no more than 13,000 residents.
- Like most of Europe, Italy was ravaged in the middle of the fourteenth century by the Black Death, a combination of plagues (chiefly the bubonic) that were carried to Genoa by Italian merchants returning from the Middle East. The recovery stimulated growth and helped spawn humanism and the Renaissance.
- Two Italians in particular contributed to the eighteenth-century's Enlightenment: Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), whose essays on Crime and Punishment led to broad reforms in the treatment of prisoners and criminals, and Giambattista Vico (1668-1774), a philosopher, rhetorician, and historian who is often thought to have ushered in a modern philosophy of history.
A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority.
- Samuel Johnson
- From 1861 to 1985, more than 26 million people left Italy (mostly from the overcrowded south) to seek a better life. Only one in four came home again.
- The highest peak in Europe is in Italy. Monte Bianco (White Mountain) is 15,771 feet high and is part of the Alps.
- In northern Italy, last names tend to end in “i”, while those from the south often end in “o.” The most common Italian surname is Russo.
- Though Italy’s economy lagged behind the rest of Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, currently it is the world’s seventh largest economy.
- Italian is a Romance language descended from Vulgar Latin, the dialect spoken by the people living during the last years of the Roman Empire. Italian has more Latin words than any other Romance languages, and its grammatical system remains similar to Latin. Latin is still the official language of the Vatican City in Rome.
- The capital of Italy is Rome (also known as the Eternal City) and is almost 3,000 years old. It has been the capital since 1871 and is home to the Dome of St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum, and the famous Trevi Fountain.
Ancient Rome was eight times more densely populated than modern New York
- Over 50 million tourists a year visit Italy. Tourism is vital to Italy’s economy and provides nearly 63% of Italy’s national income.
- Italian Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon (1475-1564) was once thought to have painted in somber shades, but after his frescos on the Sistine Chapel were cleaned, it was discovered that he actually painted in bright colors, such as purples, greens, and pinks. Centuries of dirt and smoke from candles had toned down the bright colors. Some art historians argued that the restorers went too far in their cleaning efforts and removed the dark shadows Michelangelo intended.
- The pre-dinner passeggiata (evening stroll) is one of Italy’s most enduring leisure activities where Italians stroll about the streets to see and be seen.
- When European Jews were being persecuted during WWII, it was not unusual for some Jews to hide in Italy’s ancient catacombs.
- The Shroud of Turin is an ancient piece of linen cloth believed to bear the faint imprint of a male body, perhaps Jesus Christ after he was killed. It has been in the Turin’s San Giovanni Cathedral for at least 420 years. While scientists have determined the shroud was made no earlier than the 1200s, others continue to debate when and how the shroud was created.
Mussolini sought to establish an Italian empire
- In the 1930s and 40s, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) tried to eliminate foreign words from Italian. In soccer, “goal” became “meta” and Donald Duck became “Paperino.” Mickey Mouse became “Topolino” and Goofy became “Pippo.” While the ban was not permanent, the Italian names remain common.
- Begun in 1560 for Cosimo l de’ Medici, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is one of the oldest museums in the world and contains famous works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and da Vinci.
- Approximately 85% of Italians are Roman Catholics, with Protestants, Jews, and a growing Muslim community making up the minority.
- Soccer is Italy’s most popular sport, and the famous San Siro Stadium in Milan holds 85,000 people. Italy has won the World Cup four times (1934, 1938, 1982, and 2006), making the country’s team second only to Brazil's in number of wins.
- Soccer was introduced to Italians in the late 1800s by the British, but it was not until the 1930s under Mussolini that the sport took off on an international level.
- Soccer fans in Italy are called tifosi, meaning “carriers of typhus.” Italian soccer fans are known for their rowdy behavior and lack of inhibition.
- In 1454, a real human chess game took place in Marostica, Italy. Rather than fight a bloody duel, the winner of the chess game would win the hand of a beautiful girl. To commemorate the event, each September in even-numbered years, the town’s main piazza becomes a life-sized chess board.
- Italy has hosted the Olympic Games three times. The 1956 Winter Games were held at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Zuel, and the Dolomite Alps. The 1960 Summer Olympics were held in Rome. And Turin hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics.
- Known as the “Three Fountains,” Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) are arguably the three most famous Italian authors of all time. Dante’s Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) had tremendous influence on Italian literature, and he is considered the father of the Italian language.
The Divine Comedy is considered to be the greatest Italian piece of literature ever written
- Italy’s birthrate is the second lowest in the Western world. Both political and church leaders have expressed concern and have offered rewards to couples who have more than one child.
- The biggest holiday in Italy is Christmas. Many people celebrate Christmas Eve with a huge feast, often featuring seafood. The Christmas season lasts until Epiphany, January 6, the date when the Three Wise Men are said to have reached Jesus’ manger.
- Italy is among the world’s leaders of the fashion industry. In the 1950s, Italian designers such as Nino Cerruti and Valentino led the world in creating stylish fashions. Additionally, Armani, Versace, Gucci, and Prada have become internationally recognized. Italy is also known for fine sports cars, such as the Ferrari and Lamborghini.
- The first violin appeared in Italy in the 1500s, probably from the workshop of Andrea Amati (1505-1578) in Cremona. The city later became the home of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), the most famous of violin-makers.
- The world’s longest land tunnel is the Lötschberg Base Tunnel, which proves a 22-mile railway link between Switzerland and Italy.
- Influenced in part by the French flag, the Italian flag has evolved over several hundred years. The flag is vertically divided into three equal sections of green, white, and red, representing hope, faith, and charity. Another interpretation is that the green represents the Italian landscape, white represents the snow-capped Alps, and red represents the bloodshed that brought about the independence of Italy.
The statue symbolizes the defense of civil liberties embodied in the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state at the time
- In 2008, Italian experts proposed insulating Michelangelo’s David from the vibrations of tourist footsteps to prevent the marble from cracking.
- Italy was one of the founders of the EU and is a member of the Group of Eight (G8), a forum for eight of the world’s most powerful nations.
- Italy was one of the founders of the EU and is a member of the Group of Eight (G8), a forum for eight of the world’s most powerful nations.
- The Sardinian islands are famous for their “witches” who make health potions for local people. The “witches” are usually women and they use a secret language that they pass on to their daughters.
- A part of northern Italy called Val Camonica contains about 350,000 petroglyphs that were created nearly 10,000 years ago.
- Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was an Italian-born scientist. When he argued that the Earth revolved around the Sun, the Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo in his own house. The Church issued a formal apology in 1992.
- Italian citizens who are at least 18 years old can vote for the lower house in the parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. Citizens who are at least 25 years old can vote for the 315 members of the upper house, the Senate.
- Italy’s long coastline and developed economy draws many illegal immigrants from southeastern Europe and Africa. Additionally, Latin American cocaine, Southwest Asian heroine, and organized crime have all found an active market in Italy.
- The Leaning Tower of Pisa was built in 1173 and began to lean soon after, probably due to a poorly laid foundation. During WWII, the Nazi’s used it as a watch tower. After reconstruction efforts in 2008, engineers declared the tower would be stable for at least another 200 years.
- The world’s first operas were composed in Italy at the end of the sixteenth century. Opera reached the height of popularity in the nineteenth century, when the works of Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), and Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) became hugely popular. The late tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) is a national celebrity, and Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1567-1643) is regarded as the father of the modern opera.
In Italy, there are still many big families including grandparents, parents and children in the household
- Many single Italian children live at home until their 30s, even if they have a job. The Italian family stands at the heart of Italian society.
- The Arabs brought dried pasta to Italy in the thirteenth century (though fresh pasta was made before then). It was commonly eaten with honey and sugar; tomato sauce was not added until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The old-fashioned way of eating pasta was with the fingers, arm held high and head tilted back. Pasta traditionally was made by the mother of the household, who passed the precious technique to her daughters. There are currently more than 500 different types of pasta eaten in Italy today.
- The language of music is Italian. The word “scale” comes from scala, meaning “step.” And andante , allegro, presto, and vivace are just a few of the many Italian musical notations.
1Blashfield, Jean F. Italy: Enchantment of the World. New York: Scholastic Inc, 2009.
2C.I.A.: The World Fact Book. Italy. April 2009. Accessed April 29, 2009.
3Duff, Mark. “Michelangelo’s David ‘May Crack.’” BBC NEWS. September 2008. Accessed: April 29, 2009.
4f Hearder, Harry and Jonathan Morris. Italy: A Short History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
5Gast, Dwight. A Portrait of Italy. New York: Todtri Book Publishers, 1999.
6Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
7Holmes, George, ed. The Oxford History of Italy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.