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Italy - Introduction

Italy is a longstanding, multiparty parliamentary democracy. Executive authority is vested in the Council of Ministers, headed by the president of the Council (the Prime Minister). The Head of State (President of the Republic) nominates the Prime Minister after consulting with leaders of all political forces in Parliament. The current Parliament was elected in free and democratic elections in April 1996. The judiciary is independent, but critics complain that some judges are politicized.

Italy has an advanced, industrialized market economy, and the standard of living is high. Small and midsized companies employ from 70 to 80 percent of the work force. Major products include machinery, textiles, apparel, transportation equipment, and food and agricultural products. The Government owns a substantial number of enterprises in finance, communications, industry, transportation, and services, but privatization is moving forward at a measured pace.

The Government generally respects the human rights of its citizens, and the law and the judiciary generally provide effective means of dealing with instances of individual abuse; however, there were problems in some areas. There were isolated reports of police abuse of detainees; such accusations are investigated by the judiciary. Prisons are overcrowded. The pace of justice is slow, and perpetrators of some serious crimes avoid punishment due to trials that exceed the statute of limitations. Lengthy pretrial detention is a serious problem. The Government has taken steps to combat violence against women and child abuse; however, they remain problems. Societal discrimination against women and discrimination and sporadic violence against immigrants and other foreigners continue to be problems.

Italy's national territory covers a total of 301,333 square kilometres. Its only land border consists of the Alpine arc that stretches from the Varo river (beginning in Nice) and the Vrata Pass (at Fiume) and, along this arc Italy borders France to the west, Switzerland and Austria to the north, and Slovenia to the east.

A peninsula extending into the Mediterranean, Italy is surrounded by the Ligurian, Tyrhennian Sea, Ionian and Adriatic Seas and its national territory includes a series of islands: Sicily and Sardinia, as well as numerous minor archipelagos. The Italian peninsula has a great variety of climates, from the alpine climate of the North to sub-continental climate of the Centre and South with hot summers and mild winters.

The country is divided into twenty administrative Regions, five of which have special autonomous status (Valle d'Aosta, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily and Sardinia). Italy is commonly considered as being made up of three segments: Northern Italy (Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta, Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria and Emilia Romagna); Central Italy (Tuscany, Umbria, Latium, the Marches, The Abruzzi, Molise and Sardinia); and Southern Italy (Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily).

Italy is largely homogeneous linguistically and religiously but is diverse culturally, economically, and politically. Italy has the fifth-highest population density in Europe--about 200 persons per square kilometer (490 per sq. mi.). Minority groups are small, the largest being the German-speaking people of Bolzano Province and the Slovenes around Trieste. There are also small communities of Albanian, Greek, Ladino, and French origin. Immigration has increased in recent years, however, while the Italian population is declining overall due to low birth rates. Although Roman Catholicism is the majority religion--85% of native-born citizens are nominally Catholic--all religious faiths are provided equal freedom before the law by the constitution.

According to the 14th national census, Italy has a population of 56.9 million, of whom 27.5 million are men and 29.4 million women. 26.2% of the population counted by ISTAT reside in northern Italy, 18.8% in northeast Italy, 19% in the centre and 24.5% in the south, and the remaining 11.5% on the islands.

Italy's birth rate is among the lowest in the European Union. While the average birth rate among the 15 Member States levels off at 10.6 per 1000 inhabitants, in Italy it drops to 9.6. The number of people over the age of 65 is increasing: today 18.9% of the population is over 65, but this figure is likely to go up to 34.4% by 2050. The average age of Italians is currently 41.8 and in 2050 is predicted to be at around 50.5; 4.3% of the population is over 80 and by 2050 that figure will probably reach 14.2%. For every 100 children between the ages of 0 and 14, there are 127 elderly people. This percentage is the highest in Liguria (239.1) and the lowest in Campania (72.5); in these regions the elderly population represents respectively 25.3% and 14% of the population. At top of the list are Umbria (22.6% of the population; 183.7 elderly for every 100 children) and Emilia Romagna (22.3%; 194.4); last on the list Apuglia are (15.7%; 90.5) and Sardinia (16%; 100.2)

The education level of adults in Italy between the ages of 25 and 64 is among the lowest in the European Union: 25% of the population has no more than an elementary school diploma, 30% of teenagers between 15 and 19 have already left school, as compared with a European average of 20%, and only 42% have earned a diploma, as compared with a European average of 59%. Since1991 the number of foreign residents has tripled from 356,159 to 987,363, while non-residents are estimated at 252,185. For every thousand Italian residents there are 17.5 foreigners, with peaks of 27 in the northeast and 25 in the northwest. A total of 37% of foreigners live in the northwest, and 29% in the northeast. Less significant in number are the linguistic minorities present and recognised in Italy, which include speakers of German, Albanian, Slovenian, Ladino and Catalan, Provenšal and Franco-Provenšal.

Rome takes the prize for the most inhabitants (approx. 2.7 million), and the town with the smallest population is Morterone in the province of Lecco with only 33 residents.

According to UNESCO, more than half of world historic and artistic heritage lies in the hundreds of archaeological sites and over 3000 museums scattered across Italy.

Southern Italy is rich in vestiges of ancient Greece, from the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento to the city of Selinunte - both in Sicily - and on to Paestum and the Homeric charm of the Campi Flegrei in the region of Campania. Important too are the remains of the most mysterious of populations, the Etruscans, who left numerous necropolises scattered throughout Latium and Tuscany such as Cerveteri, Tarquinia and Volterra). But archaeological Italy is most importantly of all Roman: traces of the Roman Republic abound, but it is the Imperial Age that left its imprint in treasures such as the Forums, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, as well as the sites of Pompei and Herculanaeum - those cities that have been passed down to us through the ages just as they were left after the terrible eruptions of Vesuvius in 79 AD. At the same time the decadence of this great historical period gave rise to another, as witnessed at Ravenna in the mosaics by Teodorico and Galla Placidia, and at Acquileia and Grado, by the great Paleo-Christian basilicas erected in rupture as well as in continuity with the Imperial symbols. As the Saracens sacked the coastal areas they also contributed new architecture (the tiled domes and decorated towers of Campania and sumptuous palaces of Sicily) as a prologue, some say, to the imposing Romanesque and Gothic structures of the central-northern cities and the Norman-Swabian castles once again in the south.

Religious-monastic fervour would be central to the Middle Ages, leaving its immortal mark in the many convents and hermitages along the roads leading to Rome (the "Via Fracigena" is surely the most famous).

In Tuscany Giotto was to "create" his modern sense of painting, exporting it later to almost every corner of the peninsula (good examples are the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi or the Chapel of the Scrovegni in Padua). Also in Tuscany, men like Lorenzo de' Medici, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippo Brunelleschi, Sandro Botticelli and many others, would give life to the Renaissance, one of the most exciting cultural movements in the history of humanity which, before going on to influence the entire world, would fill Florence and Italy with its splendid masterpieces, among which the dome of St. Peter's and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

Another great contributor to this artistic "rebirth" was Palladio, and the numerous villas he designed in the Veneto Region, a dry-land appendix to the splendour and richness of Venice with its canals, churches and palaces. Italy would break free of the Renaissance in the 17th century, winning a place of honour in the world of modern art whose absolute paradigm was Caravaggio, who revolutionised the concept of painting with a use of light that today we would call "cinematic" and with a realism such as had never been seen before.

The Baroque was a great era in Rome, which, after the Renaissance masterpieces of Michelangelo and Raphael, would host the creative fantasy of Bernini and Borromini, eternal rivals and creators of two of great schools of Italian Baroque the evidence of which is scattered throughout the peninsula. The 18th century saw the peak and the start of the decline of Naples, at that time the European city second only to Paris, and the initial embryo of national unity under Napoleon. Unity finally arrived in the century that followed when Italy was able to begin to dedicate itself to a widespread conservation of the immense patrimony accumulated over the centuries, giving rise to the various schools of restoration (mosaic, sculpture, painting) that, thanks to a felicitous marriage of artistic sensibility and sophisticated technologies, have been able to preserve these masterpieces so damaged by time.




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