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Italy - Early History

From the Renaissance to the 18th century foreigners went to Italy primarily for the sake of its classical remains. This was natural enough at a time when education was itself primarily classical, when Roman history was more familiar to most European gentlemen than the history of their own country and when surviving Roman buildings were the models for architects from Russia to America. From the mid-18th century and throughout the 19th this classical interest remained paramount, but visitors also expected to study and admire the splendours of Renaissance art and to learn something of Italian literature and music. At two crucial periods it determined the character of Western civilization: at the time of the Roman Empire and at the Renaissance. Europeans and North Americans know, therefore, that in going to Italy they are gomg to a major source of their own culture.

The two great pre-Roman Italic civilisations were the Etruscan and the Greek. Both settled around the 8th century BC in, respectively, Etruria in Central Italy and Magna Graecia in the South, thus beginning a bifurcation that was to persist for nearly three millennia. The former were politically organised into City-States along the Tuscany-Umbria-Latium axis, constituting the first germ of a State system. The latter arrived from ancient Greece and colonised southern Italy.

The city of Rome rose up over a settlement of shepherds and farmers living on the Palatine hills between the late 9th and early 7th centuries B.C. Legend and history have set the date at 753 B.C. and, also according to tradition, the first of the seven Kings of Rome was its mythical founder Romulus. It was in the subsequent Republican period that Rome made its grand entrance on the world stage, thanks to its headlong Mediterranean expansion and to its political/institutional consolidation, which culminated with the taking of Carthage in 201 B.C. and the resulting absolute hegemony over the Mediterranean region (Mare Nostrum).

Julius Cesar continued this expansion over land, giving the Republic "imperial" connotations and borders. Thus when the actual imperial regime came about with Octavian in 27 B.C., Rome could rightly call itself "Caput Mundi". At the apex of its strength, approximately two centuries later, its legions had conquered from the Valley of Hadrian near the border with Scotland all the way to Persia and vast areas of sub-Saharan Africa, stretching to the ancient Columns of Hercules near Gibraltar to the west. Thus began the Roman empire's period of maximum splendour known as the "Pax Romana", which lasted up until the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 AD) and the beginning of a long slow decline that lasted until 476 A.D., when it was crushed by the Barbarian invasions.

In the Middle Ages Italy was a land of conquest for many "barbarian" peoples but, at the same time, saw the appearance on the historical stage of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

Cultural and artistic activity re-flowered in the Renaissance, a phenomenon that swept across the whole of Europe but whose indisputable roots are to be traced to Florentine Humanism, and that took place from the late 14th century through the second half of the 16th. The arts, sciences and philosophy return to life, and figures such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo need no introduction.

Europe's Renaissance period began in Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries. Literary achievements--such as the poetry of Petrarch, Tasso, and Ariosto and the prose of Boccaccio, Machiavelli, and Castiglione--exerted a tremendous and lasting influence on the subsequent development of Western civilization, as did the painting, sculpture, and architecture contributed by giants such as da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and Michelangelo.

The musical influence of Italian composers Monteverdi, Palestrina, and Vivaldi proved epochal; in the 19th century, Italian romantic opera flourished under composers Gioacchino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, and Giacomo Puccini. Contemporary Italian artists, writers, filmmakers, architects, composers, and designers contribute significantly to Western culture.

From 1500 to 1800 Italy found itself a land contested by between foreign powers (France and Spain in the first place, and to a lesser degree Austria and England) and the scene of violent internal conflict between city-states. Southern Italy was first under the dominion of the King of Spain, and later of the Bourbons; the Centre of the country continued under the power of the Papacy; in the North the Lombard/Veneto region was continuously contested by France, Span and Austria. After the brief but intense revolutionary era that gave Italy a flag and its first prefect-run administration, the country went to the Vienna Congress still divided into states and city-states.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:00:50 ZULU