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Italy (in Italian, Italia), republic in southern Europe, bordered on the north by Switzerland and Austria; on the east by Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea; on the south by the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea; on the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Ligurian Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea; and on the north-west by France. It comprises, in addition to the Italian mainland, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, in the Mediterranean Sea; Elba in the Tyrrhenian Sea; and many lesser islands. Enclaves within mainland Italy are the independent countries of San Marino and Vatican City; the latter is a papal state mostly enclosed by Rome, the capital of Italy. The area of Italy is 301,323 sq km (116,341 sq mi).

Land and Resources

More than half of Italy consists of the Italian Peninsula, a long projection of the continental mainland. Shaped like a boot, the Italian Peninsula extends generally south-east into the Mediterranean Sea. From north-west to south-east, the country is about 1,145 km (710 mi) long; with the addition of the southern peninsular extremity, which extends north to south, it is about 1,360 km (845 mi) long. The maximum width of the mainland portion of Italy is about 610 km (380 mi) in the north; the maximum width of the peninsula is about 240 km (150 mi). On the northern frontiers are the Alps, which extend in a wide arc from Ventimiglia on the west to Gorizia on the east, and include such high peaks as Monte Cervino (4,478 m/14,692 ft) and Monte Rosa (4,634 m/15,203 ft). The highest point in Italy is near the summit of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco), on the border of Italy, France, and Switzerland; the peak, located in France, is 4,807 m (15,771 ft). Between the Alps and the Apennines, which form the backbone of the Italian Peninsula, spreads the broad Plain of Lombardy, comprising the valley of the River Po. The northern Apennines project from the Maritime Alps along the Gulf of Genoa to the sources of the River Tiber. Monte Cimone (2,163 m/7,097 ft) is the highest summit of the northern Apennines. The central Apennines, beginning at the source of the Tiber, consist of several chains. In the eastern portion of this rugged mountain district is Monte Corno (2,914 m/9,560 ft), the highest Apennine peak. The southern Apennines stretch south-east from the valley of the River Sangro to the coast of the Gulf of Taranto, where they assume a more southerly direction. High peaks of the Apennine ranges of the Calabrian Peninsula, as the southern extremity of the Italian Peninsula is known, include Botte Donato (1,929 m/6,329 ft) and Montalto (1,957 m/6,422 ft). The Apennines form the watershed of the Italian Peninsula. The main uplifts are bordered by less elevated districts, known collectively as the sub-Apennine region.

About one third of the total land surface of Italy consists of plains, of which the greatest single tract is the Plain of Lombardy. The coast of Italy along the northern Adriatic Sea is low and sandy, bordered by shallow waters and, except at Venice, not readily accessible to ocean-going vessels. From a point near Rimini going southwards, the east coast of the peninsula is fringed by spurs of the Apennines. Along the middle of the west coast, however, are three stretches of low and marshy land, the Campagna di Roma, the Pontine Marshes, and the Maremma.

The western coast of Italy is broken up by bays, gulfs, and other indentations, which provide a number of natural anchorages. In the north-west is the Gulf of Genoa, the harbour of the important commercial city of Genoa. Naples, another leading west-coast port, is situated on the beautiful Bay of Naples, dominated by the volcano Vesuvius. A little further south is the Gulf of Salerno, at the head of which stands the port of Salerno. The south-eastern end of the peninsula is deeply indented by the Gulf of Taranto, which divides the so-called heel of Italy (ancient Calabria) from the toe (modern Calabria). The Apennine range continues beneath the narrow Strait of Messina and traverses the island of Sicily, where the volcano Etna, 3,323 m (10,902 ft) high, is located. Another active volcano rises on Stromboli, one of the Lipari Islands, north-west of the Strait of Messina. In addition to volcanic activity, Italy is also plagued by frequent minor earthquakes, especially in the southern regions.

Rivers and Lakes

Italy has many rivers, of which the Po and the Adige are the most important. The Po, about 670 km (415 mi) long, is navigable from Turin to its outlet on the Adriatic Sea and with its tributaries affords about 965 km (600 mi) of inland waterways. The Adige, about 355 km (220 mi) long, enters Italy from the Austrian province of Tirol, flows east, and, like the Po, empties into the Adriatic. The beds of these rivers are slowly being elevated by alluvial deposits from the mountains.

The rivers of the Italian Peninsula are shallow, often dry during the summer season, and consequently of little importance for navigation or industry. The chief peninsular rivers are the Arno and the Tiber. From its sources in the Apennines, the Arno flows west for about 225 km (140 mi), through a well-cultivated valley and the cities of Florence and Pisa. The Tiber rises not far from the sources of the Arno and runs through Rome. Both the northern and peninsular regions of Italy have numerous lakes. The principal lakes of northern Italy are Garda, Maggiore, Como, and Lugano; the peninsular lakes, which are considerably smaller, include
Trasimeno, Bolsena, and Bracciano.


The climate of Italy is highly diversified, with extremes ranging from frigid, in the higher elevations of the Alps and Apennines, to semi-tropical along the coast of the Ligurian Sea and the west coast of the lower peninsula. The average annual temperature, however, ranges from about 11° to 19° C (52° to 66° F); it is about 13° C (55° F) in the Po Valley, about 18° C (64° F) in Sicily, and about 14.5° C (58° F) in the coastal lowland. Climatic conditions on the peninsula are characterized by regional variations, resulting chiefly from the configurations of the Apennines, and are influenced by tempering winds from the adjacent seas. In the lowland regions and lower slopes of the Apennines bordering the west coast from northern Tuscany to the vicinity of Rome, winters are mild and sunny, and extreme temperatures are modified by cooling Mediterranean breezes. Temperatures in the same latitudes on the east of the peninsula are much lower, chiefly because of the prevailing north-eastern winds. Along the upper eastern slopes of the Apennines, climatic conditions are particularly bleak. The climate of the peninsular lowlands below the latitude of Rome closely resembles that of southern Spain. In contrast to the semi-tropical conditions prevalent in southern Italy and along the Gulf of Genoa, the climate of the Plain of Lombardy is continental. Warm summers and severe winters, with temperatures as low as -15° C (5° F), prevail in this region, which is shielded from sea breezes by the Apennines. Heaviest precipitation occurs in Italy during the autumn and winter months, when westerly winds prevail. The lowest mean annual rainfall, about 460 mm (18 in), occurs in the Apulian province of Foggia in the south and in southern Sicily; the highest, about 1,525 mm (60 in), occurs in the province of Udine in the north-east.

Natural Resources

Italy is poor in natural resources, much of the land being unsuitable for agriculture due to mountainous terrain or unfavourable climate. Italy, moreover, is seriously deficient in such basic natural resources as coal. The most important mineral resources are natural gas, petroleum, lignite, sulphur, and pyrites. Other mineral deposits include lead, manganese, zinc, iron ore, mercury, and bauxite. Many of these deposits are on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. They had been heavily depleted by the early 1990s, however. Italy is rich in various types of building stone, notably marble. The coastal waters of Italy teem with fish, of which sardine, tuna, and anchovy have the greatest commercial importance. Freshwater fish include eel and trout.

Plants and Animals

The flora of the central and southern lowlands of Italy is typically Mediterranean. Among the characteristic vegetation of these regions are such trees as the olive, orange, lemon, palm, and citron. Other common types, especially in the extreme south, are fig, date, pomegranate, and almond trees, and sugar cane and cotton. The vegetation of the Apennines closely resembles that of central Europe. Dense growths of chestnut, cypress, and oak trees occupy the lower slopes, while at higher elevations there are extensive stands of pine and fir.

Italy has fewer varieties of animals than are generally found in comparable areas of Europe. Small numbers of marmot, chamois, and ibex live in the Alps. The bear, numerous in ancient times, is now virtually extinct, but the wolf and wild boar still flourish in mountainous regions. Another fairly common quadruped is the fox. Among the predatory species of bird are the vulture, buzzard, falcon, and kite, confined for the most part to the mountains. There are also quail, woodcock, partridge, and various migratory species. Reptiles include several species of lizards and snakes and three species of the poisonous viper family. Scorpions are also found.


The Italian population consists almost entirely of native-born people, many of whom identify themselves closely with a particular region of Italy. The country can be generally divided into the more urban north (the area from the northern border and the port of Ancona to the southern part of Rome) and the mostly rural south (everything below this line, which is called the “Ancona Wall” by Italians). The more prosperous north contains most of Italy’s larger cities and about two thirds of the country’s population; the primarily agricultural south has a smaller population base and a more limited economy.

Population Characteristics

The population of Italy (1995 estimate) is 57,268,578; the overall population density is approximately 190 people per sq km (491 per sq mi). In recent decades the population has generally migrated from rural to urban areas; the population was about 70 per cent urban in the early 1990s.

Political Divisions

Administratively, Italy is divided into 20 regions, each of which is subdivided into provinces and communes.

Principal Cities

The capital and largest city of Italy is Rome (population, 1993, 2,687,881), which is a cultural and tourist centre. Other cities with populations of more than 300,000 in 1993 include Milan (1,334,171), an important manufacturing, financial, and commercial city; Naples (1,061,583), one of the busiest ports in Italy; Turin (945,551), a transport junction and major industrial city; Palermo (694,749), the capital and chief seaport of Sicily; Genoa (659,754), the leading port in Italy
major trade and commercial centre; Bologna (394,969), a major transport centre and agricultural market; Florence (392,800), a cultural, commercial, transport, and industrial centre; Catania (327,163), a manufacturing and commercial city in Sicily; Bari (338,949), a major commercial centre; and Venice (306,439), a leading seaport and a cultural and manufacturing centre.


The dominant religion of Italy is Roman Catholicism, the faith of more than 80 per cent of the people. However, the Catholic Church’s role in Italy is declining: only about 25 per cent of Italians attend Mass regularly, and a law passed in 1984 abolished Roman Catholicism as the official state religion and ended mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution guarantees freedom of worship to the religious minorities, which are primarily Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish.


The overwhelming majority of the people speak Italian, one of the Romance group of languages of the Indo-European family of languages (see Italic Languages). German is spoken around Bolzano in the north near the Austrian border. Other minority languages include French (spoken in the Valle d’Aosta region), Ladin, Albanian, Slovene, Catalan, Friulian, Sardinian, Croatian, and Greek.


The Italian impact on European education dates from the ancient Roman educators and scholars, outstanding among whom were Cicero, Quintilian, and Seneca. Later, during the Middle Ages, Italian universities became the model for those of other countries. During the Renaissance, Italy was the teacher of the liberal arts to virtually all Europe, especially for Greek language and literature. The educational influence of Italy continued through the 17th century, when its universities and academies were Continental centres of teaching and research in the sciences. After a decline during the 18th and 19th centuries, Italian education regained international attention in the 20th century, partly as a result of Maria Montessori’s method for teaching young children.

The modern educational system dates from 1859, when a law was passed providing for a complete school system that extended from the elementary through the university levels. Improvements were introduced later in the 19th century. In 1923 the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, Minister of Public Instruction under Benito Mussolini, promoted complete State control of education, which was reinforced by the School Charter of 1939. With the collapse of fascism in 1944, however, Italy undertook to organize the school system along democratic lines. The constitution of 1947 and later laws raised the general educational level and encouraged such experiments as televised adult education (telescuola).

Traditionally, the goal of the Italian educational system has been to establish a well-trained minority rather than a widely educated majority. Children aged 3 to 5 may attend kindergarten. Education is free and compulsory for all children aged 6 to 14. The compulsory system includes five years of elementary and three years of secondary education. The required part of secondary education is taken in a lower secondary school. This period may be followed by study in a higher secondary school to gain specialized training or to prepare for university entrance. Higher secondary studies leading to university entrance may be taken in classical, scientific, teacher-training, technical, or business schools. A student may also enter an art institute or conservatory of music. Areas of specialized training include industry and agriculture. In 1995 just over 5 per cent of national income was spent on education.

Elementary and Secondary Schools

In 1995-1996 about 20,442 elementary schools with some 283,760 teachers were giving instruction to about 2.8 million pupils. Some 1.9 million students were annually enrolled in about 9,270 lower secondary schools, and about 2.7 million students attended some 7,880 higher secondary schools.

Universities and Colleges

Much attention is given to higher education in Italy. During the last quarter of the 19th century, the gain in Italian university graduates was about seven times the corresponding rate of increase of the Italian population. More than 1.6 million students were enrolled in higher education in Italy in the academic year 1995-1996. Examinations held three times a year are mainly oral. Six Italian universities were founded in the 13th century and five in the 14th. The oldest is the University of Bologna, dating from the 11th century, and the largest is the University of Rome, with about 180,000 students. Other notable institutions are those of Bari, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Padua, Perugia, Pisa, Siena, and Trieste.


From antiquity to modern times, Italy has played a central role in world culture. Italians have contributed some of the world’s most admired sculpture, architecture, painting, literature, and music, particularly opera. Although the nation was politically unified less than 150 years ago, the Italians do not consider themselves to be a “new” people, but see themselves instead as the descendants of the ancient Romans. Moreover, regional differences persist because of natural geographical boundaries and the disparate cultural heritage that has come down from the Greeks, Etruscans, Arabs, Normans, and Lombards. Regional variety is evident in persistent local dialects, holidays, festivals, songs, and cuisine. Central to all
Italian life is the tradition of the family as a guiding force and focus of loyalty.

Many of the great Italian painters, such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Amedeo Modigliani, are covered in separate articles in the encyclopedia, as are such composers as Antonio Vivaldi, Gaetano Donizetti, Giacomo Puccini, Gioacchino Rossini, and Giuseppe Verdi. See Italian Literature; Cinema, History of; Music, Western.

Italy is rich in important library collections. Among the largest and most valuable are the national libraries in Florence, Naples, and Rome. Several universities also have large libraries. Smaller collections, rich in local manuscripts and incunabula, are found in most Italian cities.

World-famous art collections are housed in numerous Italian cities. Among the most important art museums are the Uffizi Gallery and Medici Chapel in Florence, the National Museum in Naples, and, in Rome, the Villa Giulia Museum, the Galleria Borghese, and the National Gallery of Modern Art. Vatican City has important art collections in its museums and chapels, the most famous of which is the Sistine Chapel. An international biennial exhibition of visual arts in Venice is world renowned.

The Mafia

A loosely affiliated network of criminal groups that first developed in Sicily during the late Middle Ages, the Mafia has historically been a powerful social and economic force in large parts of Italy. By the late 19th century, the Mafia, known for its familial structure, ruthless violence, and strong code of silence (omertą), controlled the Sicilian countryside, infiltrating or manipulating local authorities, extorting money, and terrorizing citizens. During the 20th century, except for a period of repression by Benito Mussolini from the 1920s until the end of World War II, the Mafia continued to expand its influence over both legal and illegal operations in Italy, especially in the south. The Mafia’s influence was exported to other countries by emigrants, and by the 1970s the Mafia controlled a large part of the world’s heroin trade. Renewed government prosecution of Mafia figures and activities beginning in the mid-1980s, and a series of political scandals linking many Italian politicians with the Mafia, gave rise to hopes that Mafia influence in Italy would eventually decline.


A largely agricultural country before World War II, Italy has developed a diversified industrial base in the north, which contributes significantly to the economy. In 1994 the gross national product (GNP) of Italy was US$1,101 billion (World Bank figure; 1992-1994 prices), or US$19,840 per capita, while in 1995 the gross domestic product was estimated at US$1, 089 billion, or about US$18,700 per capita; industry contributed about 32 per cent to the value of domestic output, agriculture 3 per cent in the early 1990s. Italy has essentially a private-enterprise economy, although the government has a controlling interest in a number of large commercial and manufacturing enterprises, such as the oil industry through the Italian state petroleum company. Also, the state owns the principal transport and telecommunication systems. An ongoing problem of the Italian economy has been the slow growth of industrialization in the south, which lags behind the north in most aspects of economic development. Government efforts to foster industrialization in the south have met with mixed results, as problems with the workforce and the overriding influence of the Mafia have discouraged many large corporations from opening operations there. Many southerners have migrated to northern Italy in search of employment. Unemployment remains a problem throughout the country, however: the unemployment rate remains at over 12 per cent (1995) of the working-age population. The large national debt has also plagued Italy’s economy: the national budget of Italy in 1994 included revenue of about US$339 billion and expenditure of some US$431 billion.

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