Divided for centuries by politics and geography, Italy developed a unique culture until its unification in 1861, characterised by a variety of regional customs and local centres of power and patronage. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a series of magnificent courts competed for the best architects, artists and scholars, producing an immense heritage of monuments, paintings, music and literature.
Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites (51) than any other country in the world and has rich collections of art, culture and literature from different eras. The country has a broad cultural influence throughout the world, not least because many Italians emigrated to other places during the Italian diaspora. In addition, the country has an estimated total of 100,000 monuments of all kinds (museums, palaces, buildings, statues, churches, art galleries, villas, fountains, historic houses and archaeological remains).
Italy has a very broad and diverse architectural style that can be classified not only by period but also by region, due to the division of Italy into several regional states until 1861. This created a very diverse and eclectic range of architectural designs.
Italy is known for its notable architectural achievements, such as the construction of arches, domes and similar structures in ancient Rome, the foundation of the Renaissance architectural movement from the late 14th to the 16th century. It was also the home of Palladianism, a style of architecture that inspired movements such as neoclassical architecture and influenced the designs of nobles who built their country houses around the world, including the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States in the late 17th to early 20th centuries. Many of the finest works of Western architecture, such as the Colosseum, Milan Cathedral, Florence Cathedral, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the blueprints of Venice, are found in Italy.
Italian architecture has also strongly influenced the architecture of the world. The British architect Inigo Jones, inspired by the designs of Italian buildings and cities, brought the ideas of Italian Renaissance architecture to 17th century England, drawing inspiration from Andrea Palladio. The term Italianate was popular abroad in the nineteenth century to describe foreign architecture built in the Italian style, particularly in the style of Renaissance architecture.
The history of Italian visual art is part of the history of Western painting. Roman art was influenced by Greece and can partly be considered a descendant of ancient Greek painting. However, Roman painting has important unique features. The only surviving Roman paintings are wall paintings, many of which come from villas in Campania in southern Italy. These paintings can be divided into 4 “styles” or main periods and may include early examples of trompe l’oeil, pseudo-perspective and pure landscape.
Panel painting became more common in the Romanesque period under the strong influence of Byzantine icons. Towards the middle of the 13th century, medieval art and Gothic painting became more realistic, with the beginning of interest in the representation of volume and perspective in Italy with Cimabue and then his pupil Giotto. From Giotto onwards, the treatment of composition by the best painters also became much freer and more innovative. They are regarded in Western culture as the two great medieval masters of painting.
The Italian Renaissance is considered by many to be the Golden Age of painting; it extends roughly from the 14th to the mid-17th century, with significant influence outside the borders of modern Italy as well. In Italy, artists such as Paolo Uccello, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Filippo Lippi, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini and Titian raised painting to a higher level by using perspective, the study of human anatomy and proportion, and the development of an unprecedented refinement of drawing and painting techniques. Michelangelo worked as a sculptor from about 1500 to 1520. His great masterpieces include his David, his Pietà, his Moses. Other great Renaissance sculptors include Lorenzo Ghiberti, Luca Della Robbia, Donatello, Filippo Brunelleschi and Andrea del Verrocchio.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the High Renaissance produced a stylised art that became known as Mannerism. Instead of the balanced compositions and rational approach to perspective that characterised art at the beginning of the 16th century, the Mannerists sought instability, artificiality and doubt. The imperturbable faces and gestures of Piero della Francesca and the calm virgins of Raphael are replaced by the troubled expressions of Pontormo and the emotional intensity of El Greco. In the eighteenth century, Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Artemisia Gentileschi, Mattia Preti, Carlo Saraceni and Bartolomeo Manfredi are among the greatest painters of the Italian Baroque. Later, in the 18th century, Italian Rococo was mainly inspired by French Rococo, as France was the founding nation of this particular style with artists such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Canaletto. Italian neoclassical sculpture focused on the idealistic aspect of the movement with Antonio Canova’s Nudes.
In the 19th century, the most important Italian Romantic painters were Francesco Hayez, Giuseppe Bezzuoli and Francesco Podesti. Impressionism was brought to Italy from France by the Macchiaioli, led by Giovanni Fattori, and Giovanni Boldini; Realism by Gioacchino Toma and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. In the twentieth century, with Futurism, especially through the works of Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, Italy re-established itself as a pioneering country in the artistic development of painting and sculpture. Futurism was replaced by the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, which had a strong influence on the Surrealists and subsequent generations of artists.
Literature and theatre
The foundation of the modern Italian language was laid by the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, whose greatest work, the Divine Comedy, is considered one of the most important literary statements produced in medieval Europe. Italy has no shortage of famous literary figures: Giovanni Boccaccio, Giacomo Leopardi, Alessandro Manzoni, Torquato Tasso, Ludovico Ariosto and Petrarch, whose most famous means of expression, the sonnet, originated in Italy.
Important philosophers include Giordano Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, Niccolò Machiavelli and Giambattista Vico. Modern literary figures and Nobel Prize winners include the nationalist poet Giosuè Carducci (1906), the realist writer Grazia Deledda (1926), the modern playwright Luigi Pirandello (1936), the poets Salvatore Quasimodo (1959) and Eugenio Montale (1975), and the satirist and playwright Dario Fo (1997).
Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio is the most famous children’s classic by an Italian author.
Italian theatre can be traced back to the Roman tradition, which was strongly influenced by the Greek. As with many other literary genres, Roman playwrights tended to adapt and translate from Greek. For example, Seneca’s Phaedra was based on that of Euripides, and many of Plautus’ comedies were direct translations of Menander’s works. In the sixteenth and up to the eighteenth centuries, commedia dell’arte was a form of improvisational theatre that is still performed today. Itinerant troupes of players set up an open-air stage and amused themselves with juggling, acrobatics and, in general, humorous plays based on a repertoire of fixed characters with a rough scenario, called canovaccio.
From folk music to classical music, music has always played an important role in Italian culture. The instruments associated with classical music, including the piano and violin, were invented in Italy, and many of the predominant classical music forms, such as the symphony, concerto and sonata, originated in the innovations of Italian music in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Among the most famous Italian composers are the Renaissance composers Palestrina and Monteverdi, the Baroque composers Scarlatti, Corelli and Vivaldi, the classical composers Paganini and Rossini, and the Romantic composers Verdi and Puccini. Modern Italian composers such as Berio and Nono played an important role in the development of experimental and electronic music. While the tradition of classical music remains strong in Italy, as evidenced by the fame of the myriad opera houses such as La Scala in Milan and San Carlo in Naples, and performers such as pianist Maurizio Pollini and the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Italians have a thriving scene for contemporary music.
Italy is known to be the cradle of opera. It is believed that Italian opera was founded in the early 17th century in Italian cities such as Mantua and Venice. Later, the works and plays of 19th and early 20th century Italian composers such as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini are among the most famous operas ever written and are now performed in opera houses around the world. The La Scala opera house in Milan is also recognised as one of the best in the world. Famous Italian opera singers include Enrico Caruso and Alessandro Bonci.
Introduced in the early 1920s, jazz took off particularly strongly in Italy and remained popular despite the xenophobic cultural policies of the fascist regime. The most important centres of jazz music in Italy today include Milan, Rome and Sicily. Later, Italy was at the forefront of the progressive rock movement of the 1970s, with groups like PFM and Goblin. Italy was also an important country in the development of disco and electronic music. Italo-disco, known for its futuristic sound and extensive use of synthesizers and drum machines, was one of the earliest genres of electronic dance, as were European forms of disco outside of Euro-disco (which later influenced several genres such as Eurodance and Nu-disco).
Producers/composers like Giorgio Moroder, who won three Oscars for his music, had a great influence on the development of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). Today, Italian pop music is represented every year by the Sanremo Music Festival, which served as the inspiration for the Eurovision Song Contest, and the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. Singers such as pop diva Mina, classical crossover artist Andrea Bocelli, Grammy winner Laura Pausini and European frontrunner Eros Ramazzotti have achieved international fame.
The history of Italian cinema began a few months after the Lumière brothers started showing films. The first Italian film lasted only a few seconds and showed Pope Leo XIII giving a blessing into the camera. The Italian film industry emerged between 1903 and 1908 with three companies: Società Italiana Cines, Ambrosio Film and Itala Film. Other companies soon followed in Milan and Naples. Within a short time, these first companies achieved a decent production quality and the films were soon sold outside Italy. The cinema was then used by Benito Mussolini, who founded the famous Studio Cinecittà in Rome for the production of fascist propaganda until the Second World War.
After the war, Italian cinema was widely recognised and exported until its artistic decline in the 1980s. Italian directors of the period include Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni and Dario Argento. Films include treasures of world cinema such as La dolce vita, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Bicycle Thieves. The period from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s was the heyday of neorealist cinema and reflected the poor state of post-war Italy.
As the country became richer in the 1950s, a form of neorealism known as pink neorealism took hold, and in the 1960s and 1970s other film genres such as sword and sand, followed by spaghetti westerns, were popular. In recent years, the Italian scene has only occasionally received international attention, with films such as Life is Beautiful directed by Roberto Benigni, Il Postino: The Postman with Massimo Troisi and The Great Beauty directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
Italy is the most awarded country at the Academy Awards in the category “Best Foreign Language Film” with 14 awards won, 3 special awards and 31 nominations.
By far the most popular sport in Italy is football. The Italian national football team (nicknamed Gli Azzurri – “Les Bleus”) is one of the most successful in the world and has won four FIFA World Cups (1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006). Italian clubs have won 48 major European trophies, making Italy the second most successful country in European football. Serie A, Italy’s top football league, is the fourth most successful in Europe and is followed by millions of fans worldwide.
Other popular team sports in Italy are volleyball, basketball and rugby. The Italian national men’s and women’s teams are often among the best in the world. The Italian national basketball team’s best results were a gold medal at Eurobasket 1983 and Eurobasket 1999, and a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics. Lega Basket Serie A is widely regarded as one of the most competitive in Europe. Team rugby enjoys great popularity, especially in the north of the country. The Italian national team competes in the Six Nations Championship and is a regular at the Rugby World Cup. Italy is one of the top nations in world rugby. The Italian men’s national volleyball team became world champions three times in a row in 1990, 1994 and 1998, and also won three silver medals at the 1996, 2004 and 2016 Olympic Games. Italy also has a long and successful tradition in individual sports. Cycling races are a well-known sport in the country. Italians have won more UCI World Championships than any other country except Belgium. The Giro d’Italia is a cycling race that takes place every year in May and is one of the three Grand Tours, along with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, each lasting about three weeks. Alpine skiing is also a very popular sport in Italy and the country is a popular international ski destination, known for its ski resorts. Italian skiers have performed well at the Winter Olympics, the Alpine Ski World Cup and the World Championships. Tennis is very popular in Italy, where it is the fourth most played sport. The Rome Masters, founded in 1930, is one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world. Italian professional tennis players won the Davis Cup in 1976 and the Fed Cup in 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2013. Motorsport is also very popular in Italy. Italy has won by far the most MotoGP world championships. The Italian Scuderia Ferrari is the oldest Grand Prix team still active, having raced since 1948, and with 224 victories it is statistically the most successful Formula 1 team in history.
Historically, Italy has been successful at the Olympic Games, participating in the first Olympics and in 47 out of 48 Games. Italian athletes won 522 medals at the Summer Olympics and 106 more at the Winter Olympics, for a total of 628 medals with 235 golds, making it the fifth most successful nation in Olympic history in terms of total medals. The country has hosted two Winter Olympics (1956 and 2006) and one Summer Olympics (1960).
Fashion and design
Italian fashion has a long tradition and is considered one of the most important in the world. Milan, Florence and Rome are the most important Italian fashion capitals. According to Global Language Monitor’s Top Global Fashion Capital Rankings2013, Rome ranked sixth in the world, while Milan was twelfth. Leading Italian fashion brands such as Gucci, Armani, Prada, Versace, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Fendi, Moschino, Max Mara, Trussardi and Ferragamo, to name a few, are among the top fashion houses in the world. Likewise, the fashion magazine Vogue Italia is considered one of the most prestigious in the world.
Italy also has a strong presence in design, including interior design, architectural design, industrial design and urban planning. The country has produced some well-known furniture designers, such as Gio Ponti and Ettore Sottsass, and Italian terms such as “Bel Disegno” and “Linea Italiana” have entered the vocabulary of furniture design. Examples of white goods and classic Italian furniture include Zanussi washing machines and refrigerators, Atrium’s “New Tone” sofas and Ettore Sottsass’ postmodern library inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”.
Today, Milan and Turin are national leaders in architectural and industrial design. The city of Milan hosts the Fiera Milano, the largest design fair in Europe. Milan also hosts important events and venues related to design and architecture, such as the “Fuori Salone” and the Salone del Mobile, and has hosted designers such as Bruno Munari, Lucio Fontana, Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni.
Modern Italian cuisine has evolved through centuries of social and political change and has its roots in the 4th century BC. BC. Italian cuisine itself is strongly influenced by Etruscan, ancient Greek, ancient Roman, Byzantine and Jewish influences. Important changes took place with the discovery of the New World, when elements such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and corn were introduced, which are now at the heart of the cuisine, but were not introduced in large quantities until the 18th century. Italian cuisine is known for its regional diversity, the richness of its taste differences and is considered one of the most popular in the world, exerting a strong influence abroad as well.
The Mediterranean diet is the foundation of Italian cuisine, rich in pasta, fish, fruit and vegetables, and characterised by its extreme simplicity and variety, with many dishes consisting of just four to eight ingredients. Dishes and recipes are often derived from local and family traditions rather than created by chefs, making many recipes perfect for home cooking, which is one of the main reasons for the growing popularity of Italian cuisine worldwide, from America to Asia. Ingredients and dishes vary greatly from region to region.
A key factor in the success of Italian cuisine is its heavy reliance on traditional products; Italy has the most traditional specialities protected by European legislation. Cheese, cured meats and wine are an important part of Italian cuisine, with many regional variations and protected designations of origin or geographical indications. Together with coffee (especially espresso), they are a very important part of Italian food culture. Desserts have a long tradition of combining local flavours like citrus, pistachios and almonds with mild cheeses like mascarpone and ricotta or exotic flavours like cocoa, vanilla and cinnamon. Gelato, tiramisù and cassata are among the best-known examples of Italian desserts, cakes and pastries.