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The boot shaped peninsula was united first by the Roman Republic which evolved into an empire covering the whole Mediterranean area. When that empire dissolved, after the invasion of several tribes of wandering Germans such as the Ostragoths and the Lombards, Italy became divided again and was not reunited until 1860.

Italy became part of Charlemagne's empire and then, theoretically, part of the Holy Roman Empire, though that empire was as weak in Italy as it was in Germany. The local feudal states included Milano and Torino, Toscania and the other small dukedoms. In some of these states the merchants became rich enough and confident enough to overthrow the feudal rulers and set up merchant republics, ruled by a council of the richer citizens (no actual democracy).

The commonly spoken languages of Italy are descended from Latin. However, the southern part of Italy, like Spain, was occupied by Muslim Arabs whose cultural legacy included the first medical university of Europe at Salerno. Some of the civil service positions of the Christian kingdom of Sicily as late as 1200 were held by Muslims. The southern kingdoms were conquered by the Normans, who created a synthetic culture composed of Latin, Greek, Arab and Norman elements, especially under the emperor Frederick the second "Stupor Mundi" - fluent in Arabic, German, Latin, Greek and other languages. They conquered territory from the Arabs and also from Byzantium

The mediaeval history of Italy is largely the story of the conflict between the Papacy and the Emperors, and other local rulers. (See the book by Norwich.) Thus southern Italy was conquered from the Byzantine empire, first by the Muslims, then by the Normans and by the French (Angevins). The middle part was controlled by the Papacy. The Normans formed a strong kingdom in Sicily and in the toe and heel of the country, including Naples. They lost Sicily to the Duke of Anjou. The Angevins were replaced by Aragonese (Catalans).

The Renaissance of the 13th century is associated with the city states of the north: Genova, Milano, Firenze, Bologna, which were merchant republics or duchies under the very weak sovereignty of the Holy Roman Empire. Modern European culture has one of its important origins in this area. In these Republics, which were constantly at war among themselves, grew the arts and sciences which later spread to the rest of Europe.

Venezia (Venice)
was founded in the period of chaos when Italy was affected by wars between the invading Germanic tribes after the Roman Empire faded away. Some refugees fled to the swamps of the Po Delta where they could defend themselves with a water barrier. From this beginning it became an important trading empire controlling much of the eastern Mediterranean. Genova formed a rival trading empire. Venice's power declined as the trade of Europe moved to the west after European expansion and the discovery of the Americas.

Venice was conquered first by the French during the Napoleonic wars and then by the Austrians in the post-Napoleonic settlement. Since the 1750s it had been only a shell and shadow of its former self, with an aristocracy devoted only to entertainment and pleasure - notorious for sexually transmitted disease.

Napoleonic wars
Until Napoleon Italy remained divided between a number of kingdoms and states. The ancient republic of Venezia (Venice) occupied the Po delta and the coast of Yugoslavia; the Papal states occupied the middle; a number of small duchies grown from the City States of the Renaissance occupied the north but belonged to the Holy Roman Empire - in practice were ruled by Habsburgs. The Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was based on Napoli (Naples). In the north the Kingdom of Sardinia, or Piedmont, based on Savoy, had absorbed the former republic of Genova. During the Napoleonic period the French revolutionaries brought the idea of Republics and set up a number of new republics: Liguria in the west, Etruria (Rome) in the center and Naples. Napoleon created a kingdom of Italy headed by himself. He appointed first his brother Joseph and then (when Joseph was moved to Spain) his sister's husband Joachim Murat to be puppet kings in Naples. But all these states were actually controlled by Napoleon - himself more Italian than French.

Risorgimento (reunification)
After Napoleon until unification in 1861 there were three main areas within Italy: the South consisting of Sicily and Naples, called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies ruled by the Bourbon kings; the middle ruled by the Pope; the north divided between the Austrian Empire (including the former Venice) and the kingdom of Sardinia (or Piedmont) based on Genova and Savoy with its capital at Torino.

Unification occurred as a result of the political and diplomatic action of Cavour, the Prime Minister of Sardinia, and the military actions of the revolutionary leader Garibaldi who invaded the Papal States and Sicily.

The divisions are still detectable in the modern united Italy. It was the kingdom of Sardinia which united Italy first by absorbing the small duchies, then the Papal states and the South and finally the Austrian possessions (Venezia and Trieste). For this reason the people of the south have long considered the Italian government an almost alien force. Though this does not mean that there is a probability of Italy becoming completely disunited again, there has been a significant growth of separatist parties which might lead to federalization with the local governments gaining more autonomy. One proposal is for a three state federation: North; Central; and South.

First World War and Fascism
Italy was involved in the first world war on the Allied side and gained from it some of the remaining Austrian territory south of the Alps - including South Tirol, a German speaking area, and Trieste (previously the main port of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Following the war Italy, like many other European states, succumbed to a right wing authoritarian government under Benito Mussolini the leader of what he called the Fascist Party. This was named after the Roman Fasces, the symbol of authority of the Roman Republic. They were a bundle of sticks which could not be broken and so symbolized 'Unity is Strength'. Mussolini, a former socialist (and British agent during the first world war), symbolically wanted to rebuild the Roman Empire and set up a corporatist, totalitarian state with a single party and unions united with employers' associations.

His conquests were Ethiopia (1935) and Albania (1939). He attacked Greece but had to be rescued by the Germans. He also consolidated Italian rule in Libya. Italy had colonies in Somalia and Eritrea.

Mussolini allied Italy with Nazi Germany, though he did not share Hitler's anti-Jewish beliefs and policies. What he did share was a hatred of democracy. Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq he greatly over-estimated Italy's military strength which was inferior to that of the industrial states. His only successes were against very weak enemies.

During the second world war Italy was defeated in North Africa and then invaded by British and American forces. In 1943 Mussolini was overthrown by a coup, fled to his German allies and finally was killed by guerrillas. Italy was conquered by the Allied forces who moved northward from 1943 until 1945.

Post War
Postwar Italy became a republic, as the king had been associated with Mussolini. Italy has been one of the economically successful states and surpassed Britain in GNP per head, but is going through a bad time since the adoption of the euro.

The Colonies had been lost to the allies who had driven Italian troops out of Ethiopia and Eritrea and then out of Libya in the North Africa campaign of the second world war. After WW2 Italy was allowed to administer Eritrea and Somalia under UN Trusteeship until their independence. Libya came under British control, briefly.

There are several powerful organized crime syndicates which are believed to influence many politicians, especially in the South, and prevent a great deal of government activity by stealing money intended, for example, to relieve earthquake damage. Those based in Naples and Calabria (down to the "toe" ) are named the Camorra or 'Ndrangheta; those in Sicily, the Mafia. It is said that the Mafia began as a kind of resistance to the various occupiers of Sicily. It is believed to be organized as a secret society, or group of societies. Southern Italian immigrants appear to have taken this secret culture to other countries: especially the United States.

The Mafia, by creating a series of monopolies in legitimate trade, prevents normal economic development by recreating the structure of feudalism. Profits go to the "Godfathers", as in feudalism they go to the Seigneur. All totalitarian or one-party states aspire to the condition of feudalism in which all power is centered on a Boss of some kind who gives orders. Thus the Mafia is said to have disappeared during the Fascist period - Mussolini himself filled the role of Godfather and the Fascist Party was a total Mafia (But he arrested the actual Mafiosi). Recent historical research has shown that the invading allies used the Mafia in Sicily and their American cousins to help them drive out the fascists, but leaving them in control of local government in 1945. They have remained in power until the present. Was this liberation?

In the United States the mafia syndicates can only affect limited parts of the economy; in southern Italy they stifle the whole economy. All enterprise fails unless the mafia take part, but as they siphon off the profits the entrepreneur has little incentive to expand. Because many of the politicians and police themselves belong to the mafia, or are paid off, it is difficult to get rid of it. The result is a culture of poverty and fear. The northerners in the Northern League appear to be trying to escape from southern mafia culture by demanding the reconstruction of Italy into autonomous areas.

Some of the Neo-Fascists in the recent Berlusconi government demanded renegotiation of the 1975 Treaty of Osimo which awarded the Istrian peninsula to Yugoslavia (now Slovenia and Croatia). This is most unlikely to happen.







German (South Tirol)

(Standard Italian is actually based
on the Florence dialect. Many other dialects are spoken and until recently were mutually
unintelligible. TV is teaching Italians standard Italian.)







First Republic
In 1945 Italy became a republic, as the former king had been associated with Mussolini and the Fascist regime.

The Italian Republic resembles the French Fourth Republic before De Gaulle reformed it. There is a ceremonial president whose main function is to referee the formation of governments - which keeps him busy. There is talk of constitutional change to a system similar to the French Fifth Republic to create a stronger government able to deal with the many problems of corruption. (But the corruption comes from the lack of change, as in Japan.)

The first republic came into being under American auspices. Because Italians were deemed to have dismissed Mussolini, it was not thought necessary to treat Italy as a defeated enemy. There was no long lasting military administration.

However, the Allied occupation of Italy had consequences for Italian politics. The most important of these may turn out to have been the reinstatement of the Mafia to power in the local government of Sicily. American Mafia (first generation Sicilians living in the US) are reported to have assisted the Allies in the invasion of Italy and received their reward. The second was the action against the Communists. Although Italy had been assigned to the western sphere of influence at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, there was a large Communist vote, derived partly from the fact that Communists had been prominent in the resistance against the Fascist regime. During the Cold War, it was thought by the western powers to be important to prevent Communists from participating in National government.

The constitution adopted in 1945 was in fact intended to prevent a single party from creating a dictatorship. The electoral system was arranged to be very proportional so that there were numerous parties in parliament, and it was impossible to form a government from only one party.

The main party was the Christian Democrats, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church and big business. In some ways it corresponded to the business oriented Conservative parties of western Europe. However, it also had close connections with the Mafia, especially in Naples and Sicily.

Other parties were: Social Democrat, Socialist, Republican, neo-Fascist (Italian Social Movement). In law it was (and is) illegal to revive the Fascist party.

Throughout the period from 1945 until 1993 the Christian Democrats were the main governing party. For the past decade or so of that period they were in alliance with the Socialists and Republicans. During the same period the Communists were in opposition, though they have evolved from a typically Soviet controlled party to a more independent workers' party. Towards the end the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi presided over the coalition - but he has been accused of corruption and Mafia connections (and fled to Tunisia).

In some ways this could be described as a totalitarian system, even though there were the trappings of democracy. The voters had no chance to turn out a badly performing government and put in the opposition. It is clear that the Americans would have moved against a Communist-led government, or even against any government with communist participation. (The Communists actually controlled some local governments, such as the city of Bologna, and had a reputation for honesty and efficiency). Government changes were subtle and depended on small changes in voting strength among the usual government parties, especially the main conservative party - the Christian Democrats.

The March 1992 elections resulted in a strong showing for northern separatist parties (Lombard or Northern League). The government parties (Christian Democrats, Socialists, Republicans) were reputed to be very corrupt through the patronage of putting their supporters into government jobs, and large scale taking of bribes. This is similar to, but worse, than the situation in Austria where also a perpetual coalition has led to immobilism. Can any form of democratic government get rid of the Mafia? Can the Communists (now renamed the Democratic Party of the Left), who have a better record of honesty, now enter government, following the end of the Cold War and a reduction of American interference? (The former Communists are part of the current - 2008- coalition.) Should the other European countries open their frontiers thus allowing Italian Mafiosi to spread throughout Europe? Do we need a European FBI to control the Mafia? (Europol has already been set up but it is weak.)

Related to the Mafia problem has been the scandal of Gladio, which revealed that a secret NATO organization, ostensibly maintained to train a cadre of resistance in case of invasion, was in fact allied with fascist and other groups to conduct terrorist attacks against the legal, democratic, authorities.

Post Cold War
The end of the Cold War has changed the situation. It has been revealed by the prosecuting authorities that almost all the leading politicians of the government parties had been taking bribes for such things as public contracts and appointments. Many of them were vulnerable to Mafia blackmail, or were actual members of the Mafia. The public service appointments were made on a party basis. e.g. the three public broadcasting channels represented the three main parties.

For the 1994 elections new parties were formed which replaced the former, corrupt, parties. The first of these were: the Northern League and the Network. The League is calling for a division of the country into a loose confederation to consist of the North (roughly the old kingdom of Sardinia which was the basis of the united Italy), the Center and the South (the former kingdom of the two Sicilies). Their main complaint is that the taxes of the productive North are being used by the Central government to aid the South, but almost all the money has ended in the hands of the Mafia.

The Network, based in the south, is calling for an end to the Mafia domination of politics and is roughly left.

These two parties did not do well in the 1994 general election. The Network did badly against the National Alliance in the south, which suggests the Mafia is still electorally effective but has transferred its support from the former Christian Democrats. The League did badly against Forza Italia (see below).

Constitutional change
An important constitutional change was to the voting system towards the British or American system. This tends to favor a two party system. As the Communists are now the Democratic Left, they might form one of the parties; the new Leagues might have become the other. A referendum in April 1993 voted to change the voting system of part of the Senate to First Past the Post. The Assembly was to be elected partly by FPTP and partly by PR. A party on the left called the Olive Tree coalition faced a party of the right called Forza Italia.

In theory Italy already has some of the attributes of a federation, with strong regional governments as well as a central government. The central government is weak because unstable. For much of the time since the end of the second world war and the end of the Fascist period, governments have been weak coalitions liable to change over personal disagreements. Nevertheless, the same ministers have composed these governments so that there has in practice been continuity and, some say, stagnation.

In local elections during 1993 the new parties won several cities and defeated the old parties. The Northern League, Network (Reta) PDS (former Communist) replaced the old parties.

In January 1994 in preparation for the March 1994 elections on a new voting system new parties were formed. The Christian Democrats dissolved. In their place came a Popular Party, also believed to be influenced by the Catholic Church. A right wing National Alliance was formed from the neo-Fascists and other groups. The left also formed an alliance.

Second Republic?
The winners were a right wing grouping of: the Northern League, Forza Italia and the neo-Fascists. Forza Italia grew from nothing and was headed by Silvio Berluscone, a media owner who controlled the Commercial tv network (and was connected to the former regime: friend of Craxi, former member of secret Masonic lodge P2). This coalition contains contradictions. The Fascists want a centralized state; the League wants a federation. It may turn out that little has changed. Forza seems to be the creation entirely of advertising and money with no real membership. Is it a modern media version of Fascism, or a decayed version of democracy? The coalition disintegrated Dec 1994.

The situation remains fluid and it is difficult to foresee the end of it, as the changes being demanded are as radical as those which brought to an end communist totalitarianism in eastern Europe.

In May 1996 a coalition of center left parties won a General Election with the possibility of forming a strong government (with the support of the Refoundation Communists). It failed to make many changes and in 2000 it was replaced by a rightwing coalition under Berlusconi. This seemed to be a coalition of different groups held together by the richest businessman in Italy, a very controversial figure, suspected of shady financial dealings. One of his strengths was that he controlled all six television channels in Italy (three private and three state owned). Among the groups is the Northern league of Umberto Bossi, nationalist, separatist and hostile to the EU, the Nationalists descended from the Fascists as well as right of centre people in Berlusconi's personal party, Forza Italy(whose name is a football chant). It did not behave like a democratic government.

Berlusconi formed a government and remained in power until April 2006 when he lost to a new Leftwing alliance headed by Romani Prodi, a former President of the European Commission. Maybe Berlusconi will have to face some charges in the courts, as well as several already proceeding. In an attempt to remain in power Berlusconi had changed the voting system back to the discredited system in use before the end of the former regime so that the new government was an alliance of numerous small parties, often at odds with each other.

The new government distanced Italy from US policy in the Middle East.

Romano Prodi lost power on 24 January 2008 when he lost a vote of confidence in the Senate because his Justice Minister, the leader of a small party, resigned from the government after being accused of corruption and took his party with him. Berlusconi came back, despite his numerous prosecutions for dubious business practices (but not convicted).

In 2009 Berlusconi has been associated with numerous "sex scandals".

Mussolini is supposed to have said: It is not impossible to govern Italians, merely useless.

12/11/11 Berlusconi resigned under pressure from the EU, probably to be replaced by a former European Commissioner Mario Monti.

Interesting reading

Nicolo Machiavelli - the Prince

Der Fürst

Le Prince : Texte intégral, analyse

Dante - the Divine Comedy

Die göttliche Komedie

La Divine Comèdie

Giuseppe di Lampedusa - The Leopard
The reunification as observed in the novel by a Sicilian aristocrat

The Leopard: Revised and with New Material (Vintage Classics)

Le Guépard

DVD Film the Leopard by Luchino Visconti

The Leopard [UK IMPORT]

deutsch, Italiano versions
Der Leopard, 1 DVD-Video, dtsch. u. ital. Version

Dennis Mack Smith - History of Italy

Modern Italy: A Political History

Andrea di Robilant - Venetian Navigators
Not yet available from Amazon US

Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North

Patrizia Palumbo - A Place in the Sun

A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present

John Julius Norwich - History of the Popes

The Popes: A History

The Popes: A History







Until recently a successful economic power based on small companies and a large 'Black' Economy, as well as successful large companies, despite an inefficient government and state infrastructure (poor mail service, large bureaucracy, political paralysis). Northern Italy has a modern economy; southern Italy has a traditional stagnant economy, probably as a result of a mafia culture which siphons off the profits via a criminal "tax" . The northern factories are often staffed by southern workers who migrate to the north.

Badly affected by growing political upheaval following the end of the Cold War.

Adopting the euro may integrate Italy further into the EU economy but in practice seems to have led to high unemployment and stagnation. Before the euro Italian governments were in the habit of devaluing the Lira against other currencies to keep their export prices low. Now they can't do that. Could Italy leave the euro system? Most commentators think this would be impossible or disastrous.

Italy now has the worst performing economy of the "original six" with low wages and rising unemployment. Government immobilism seems to make it impossible to make changes.







Despite the presence of the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, the population growth rate is now one of the lowest in Europe.

This is countered to some extent by immigration from all the people-exporting countries: Africa; Afghanistan; Albania and eastern Europe - especially Romania.

Bad pollution record, especially of the Adriatic where run-off from agricultural and industrial chemicals has produced annual blooms of algae sufficient to kill fish along the Italian coast. Industrialists appear to have no ecological conscience and, as in eastern Europe, the average voter has been powerless for so long that the situation is bad.

Dangers of earthquakes. Mount Vesuvius has a history of explosive eruptions which threatens Naples.






Human Rights

Western standard in theory, but the legal system is very slow. Thus people distrust the law.

There is no independent jury system as in Common Law countries. Is this the reason that the gangster-politicians seldom seem to be found guilty? Would independent jurors be more willing to convict than the mixture of lay people and professional judges?

The Kercher murder case in 2009 raised the question of whether the "jury" convicted on poor evidence.

Climate effects

The general climate tendency is likely to be towards a more arid climate, as the Sahara moves north into southern Europe. Currently (2007) there was a dry winter with implications for power generation from hydroelectricity and for agriculture.

Last revised 13/11/11


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