|Prehistory to Magna Graecia
Excavations throughout Italy reveal human presence dating back to the Palaeolithic period (the “Old Stone Age”) some 200,000 years ago. In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, driven by unsettled conditions at home, Greek colonies were established in places as widely separated as the eastern coast of the Black Sea and Massilia (what is now Marseille, France). They included settlements in Sicily and the southern part of the Italian Peninsula. The Romans called the area of Sicily and the foot of the boot of Italy Magna Graecia (Latin, “Greater Greece”), since it was so densely inhabited by Greeks.
Ancient Rome was a civilization that grew from a small agricultural community founded on the Italian Peninsula circa the 8th century BC to a colossal empire straddling the Mediterranean Sea. In its twelve-century existence, Roman civilization shifted from a monarchy, to a republic based on a combination of oligarchy and democracy, to an autocratic empire. It came to dominate Western Europe and the entire area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea through conquest and assimilation.
Italia, under the Roman Republic and later Empire, was the name of the Italian Peninsula. During the Republic, Italia (which extended at the time from Rubicon to Calabria) was not a province, but rather the territory of the city of Rome, thus having a special status: for example, military commanders were not allowed to bring their armies within Italia, and Julius Caesar passing the Rubicon with his legions marked the start of the civil war.
From the 3rd century, the Roman Empire went into decline. The western half of the empire, including Hispania, Gaul, and Italy, broke into independent kingdoms in the 5th century. The eastern empire, governed from Constantinople, is usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire after 476, the traditional date for the “fall of Rome” and for the subsequent onset of the Early Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages.
The Iron Crown with which Lombard rulers were crowned. They established a Kingdom of Italy which lasted until 774, when it was conquered by the Franks. Their influence on Italian political geography is plainly visible in the regional appellation Lombardy
In the sixth century AD the Byzantine Emperor Justinian reconquered Italy from the Ostrogoths. The invasion of a new wave of Germanic tribes, the Lombards, doomed his attempt to resurrect the Western Roman Empire but the repercussions of Justinian’s failure resounded further still. For the next thirteen centuries, whilst new nation-states arose in the lands north of the Alps, the Italian political landscape was a patchwork of feuding city states, petty tyrannies, and foreign invaders.
For several centuries the armies and Exarchs, Justinian’s successors, were a tenacious force in Italian affairs – strong enough to prevent other powers such as the Arabs, the Holy Roman Empire, or the Papacy from establishing a unified Italian Kingdom, but too weak to drive out these “interlopers” and recreate Roman Italy. Later Imperial orders such as the Carolingians, the Ottonians and Hohenstaufens also managed to impose their overlordship in Italy. But their successes were as transitory as Justinian’s and a unified Italian state remained a dream until the nineteenth century.
No ultramontane Empire could succeed in unifying Italy—or in achieving more than a temporary hegemony—because its success threatened the survival of medieval Italy’s other powers: the Byzantines, the Papacy, and the Normans. These—and the descendants of the Lombards, who became fused with earlier Italian ethnic groups—conspired against, fought, and eventually destroyed any attempt to create a dominant political order in Italy. It was against this vacuum of authority that one must view the rise of the institutions of the Signoria and the Comune.
Comuni and Signorie
In Italian history the rise of the Signorie (sing.: Signoria) is a phase often associated with the decline of the medieval commune system of government and the rise of the dynastic state. In this context the word Signoria (here to be understood as “Lordly Power”) is used in opposition to the institution of the Commune or city republic.
Indeed, contemporary observers and modern historians see the rise of the Signoria as a reaction to the failure of the Communi to maintain law-and-order and suppress party strife and civil discord. In the anarchic conditions that often prevailed in medieval Italian city states, people looked to strong men to restore order and disarm the feuding elites. In times of anarchy or crisis, cities sometimes offered the Signoria to individuals perceived as strong enough to save the state. For example, the Tuscan state of Pisa offered the Signoria to Charles VIII of France in the hope that he would protect the independence of Pisa from its long term enemy Florence. Similarly, Siena offered the Signoria to Cesare Borgia.
Types of Signoria
The composition and specific functions of the Signoria varied from city to city. In some states (such as Verona under the Della Scala family or Florence in the days of Cosimo de Medici and Lorenzo the Magnificent) the polity was what we would term today a single party state in which the dominant party had vested the Signoria of the state in a single family or dynasty.
In Florence this arrangement was unofficial as it was not constitutionally formalized before the Medici were expelled from the city in 1494.
In other states (such as the Milan of the Visconti) the dynasty’s right to the Signoria was a formally recognized part of the Commune’s constitution, which had been “ratified” by the People and recognized by the Pope or the Holy Roman Empire.
Italy at this time was notable for its merchant Republics, including the Republic of Florence and the Maritime Republics. They were city-states and they were generally republics in that they were formally independent, though most of them originated from territories once belonging to the Byzantine Empire (the main exceptions being Genoa and Pisa). All these cities during the time of their independence had similar (though not identical) systems of government in which the merchant class had considerable power. Although in practice these were oligarchical, and bore little resemblance to a modern democracy, the relative political freedom they afforded was conducive to academic and artistic advancement.
The four classic Maritime Republics in Italy are Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi and they are always given in that order, reflecting the temporal sequence of their dominance. However, other towns in Italy also have a history of being Maritime Republics, though historically less prominent. These include Gaeta, Ancona, Molfetta, Trani and, in Dalmatia (under Italian cultural influence), Ragusa and Zara.
Venice and Genoa were Europe’s gateway to trade with the East, and a producer of fine glass, while Florence was a capital of silk, wool, banks and jewelry. The wealth such business brought to Italy meant that large public and private artistic projects could be commissioned. The Maritime Republics were heavily involved in the Crusades, providing support but most especially taking advantage of the political and trading opportunities resulting from these wars. The Fourth Crusade, notionally intended to “liberate” Jerusalem, actually entailed the Venetian conquest of Zara and Constantinople.
Each of the Maritime Republics over time had dominion over different overseas lands, including many of the islands of the Mediterranean and especially Sardinia and Corsica, lands on the Adriatic, and lands in the Near East and North Africa.
The unique political structures of late Middle Ages Italy have led some to theorise that its unusual social climate allowed the emergence of a rare cultural efflorescence. Italy was divided into smaller city states and territories: the kingdom of Naples controlled the south, the Republic of Florence and the Papal States the centre, the Genoese and the Milanese the north and west, and the Venetians the east. Fifteenth-century Italy was one of the most urbanised areas in Europe. Most historians agree that the ideas that characterised the Renaissance had their origin in late 13th century Florence, in particular with the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1313–1375), as well as the painting of Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337).
The Renaissance was so called because it was a “rebirth” of certain classical ideas that had long been lost to Europe. It has been argued that the fuel for this rebirth was the rediscovery of ancient texts that had been forgotten by Western civilisation, but were preserved in some monastic libraries and in the Islamic world, and the translations of Greek and Arabic texts into Latin.
Renaissance scholars such as Niccolò de’ Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini scoured the libraries in search of works by such classical authors as Plato, Cicero and Vitruvius. The works of ancient Greek and Hellenistic writers (such as Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy) and Muslim scientists were imported into the Christian world, providing new intellectual material for European scholars.
The Black Death in 1348 inflicted a terrible blow to Italy, killing one third of the population.
The recovery from the disaster led to a resurgence of cities, trade and economy which greatly stimulated the successive phase of the Humanism and Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) when Italy again returned to be the center of Western civilisation, strongly influencing the other European countries with Courts like Este in Ferrara and De Medici in Florence.
Foreign Domination (16th – 19th centuries)
After a century where the fragmented system of Italian states and principalities were able to maintain a relative independence and a balance of power in the peninsula, in 1494 the French king Charles VIII opened the first of a series of invasions, lasting half of the sixteenth century, and a competition between France and Spain for the possession of the country. Ultimately Spain prevailed (the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559 recognised the Spanish possession of the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples) and for almost two centuries became the hegemon in Italy. The holy alliance between Habsburg Spain and the Holy See resulted in the systematic persecution of any Protestant movement, with the result that Italy remained a Catholic country with marginal Protestant presence. During its long rule on Italy, Spain systematically spoiled the country and imposed heavy taxation. Moreover, Spanish administration was slow and inefficient.
Austria succeeded Spain as hegemon in Italy after the Peace of Utrecht (1713), having acquired the State of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples. The Austrian domination, thanks to the Enlightenment embraced by Habsburgic emperors, was a considerable improvement. The northern part of Italy, under the direct control of Vienna, gained economic dynamism and intellectual fervour.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic War (1796-1815) introduced the ideas of equality, democracy, law and nation. The peninsula was not a main battle field as in the past but Napoleon (born in Corsica in 1769, one year after the cession of the island from Genoa to France) changed completely its political map, destroying in 1799 the Republic of Venice, which never recovered its independence. The states founded by Napoleon with the support of minority groups of Italian patriots were short-lived and did not survive the defeat of the French Emperor in 1815.
The creation of the Kingdom of Italy was the result of concerted efforts by Italian nationalists and monarchists loyal to the House of Savoy to establish a united kingdom encompassing the entire Italian Peninsula.
The Kingdom of Sardinia industrialised from 1830 onward. A constitution, the Statuto Albertino was enacted in the year of revolutions, 1848, under liberal pressure. Under the same pressure, the First Italian War of Independence was declared on Austria. After initial success the war took a turn for the worse and the Kingdom of Sardinia lost.
After the Revolutions of 1848, the apparent leader of the Italian unification movement was Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi. He was popular amongst southern Italians. Garibaldi led the Italian republican drive for unification in southern Italy, but the northern Italian monarchy of the House of Savoy in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia whose government was led by Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, also had the ambition of establishing a united Italian state. Though the kingdom had no physical connection to Rome (deemed the natural capital of Italy), the kingdom had successfully challenged Austria in the Second Italian War of Independence, liberating Lombardy-Venetia from Austrian rule. The kingdom also had established important alliances which helped it improve the possibility of Italian unification, such as Britain and France in the Crimean War.
In 1866 Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck offered Victor Emmanuel II an alliance with the Kingdom of Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War. In exchange Prussia would allow Italy to annex Austrian-controlled Venice. King Emmanuel agreed to the alliance and the Third Italian War of Independence began. The victory against Austria allowed Italy to annex Venice. The one major obstacle to Italian unity remained Rome.
In 1870, Prussia went to war with France starting the Franco-Prussian War. To keep the large Prussian army at bay, France abandoned its positions in Rome in order to fight the Prussians. Italy benefited from Prussia’s victory against France by being able to take over the Papal State from French authority. Italian unification was completed, and shortly afterward Italy’s capital was moved to Rome.
Liberalism to Fascism (1870-1922)
In Northern Italy, industrialisation and modernisation began in the last part of the nineteenth century. The south, at the same time, was overcrowded, forcing millions of people to search for a better life abroad. It is estimated that around one million Italian people moved to other European countries such as France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. Parliamentary democracy developed considerably in the twentieth century. The Sardinian Statuto Albertino of 1848, extended to the whole Kingdom of Italy in 1861, provided for basic freedoms, but the electoral laws excluded the non-propertied and uneducated classes from voting. In 1913 male universal suffrage was allowed. The Socialist Party became the main political party, outclassing the traditional liberal and conservative organisations. Starting from the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Italy developed its own colonial Empire. Italian colonies were Somalia and Eritrea. In addition, in 1911, Giovanni Giolitti’s government agreed to sending forces to occupy Libya. Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire which held Libya. The annexation of Libya and of the Dodecanese (a group of island in the Aegean Sea) caused nationalists to advocate Italy’s domination of the Mediterranean Sea by occupying Greece as well as the Adriatic coastal region of Dalmatia.
The path to a modern liberal democracy was interrupted by World War I. At first Italy stayed neutral, but in 1915, under pressure from the United Kingdom and France, Italy signed the London Pact by which she became an allied belligerent. In return, the two Powers promised that, at the end of the war, Italy would receive Trento, Trieste, Istria, Dalmatia and some territories in Turkey. Italy managed to defeat the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in November 1918, but only with the considerable help of French and British army divisions and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Army. During the war, 600,000 Italians died and the economy collapsed with high inflation and unemployment. In the Peace treaty, Italy obtained just Trento, Trieste and Istria but not other lands scheduled from the Pact of London, so this victory was defined as “mutilated”. Subsequently, after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, Italy formally annexed the Dodecanese (Possedimenti Italiani dell’Egeo), that she had occupied during the war.
Fascism and World War II (1922-1945)
After the devastations of World War I, many Italian workers joined lengthy strikes to demand more rights and better working conditions. Some, inspired by the Russian Revolution, began taking over their factories, mills, farms and workplaces. The liberal establishment, fearing a socialist revolution, started to endorse the small National Fascist Party, led by Benito Mussolini, whose violent reaction to the strikes (by means of the “Blackshirts” party militia) was often compared to the relatively moderate reactions of the government. After several years of struggle, in October 1922 the fascists attempted a coup (the “Marcia su Roma”, i.e. March on Rome); the fascist forces were largely inferior, but the king ordered the army not to intervene, formed an alliance with Mussolini, and convinced the liberal party to endorse a fascist-led government. Over the next few years, Mussolini (who became known as “Il Duce”, Italian for “the leader”) eliminated all political parties (including the liberals) and curtailed personal liberties under the pretext of preventing revolution.
In 1935, Mussolini declared war on Ethiopia on a territorial pretext. Ethiopia was subjugated in a few months. This resulted in the alienation of Italy from its traditional allies, France and the United Kingdom, and its support for Nazi Germany. A first pact with Germany was concluded in 1936, and in 1938 (the Pact of Steel). Italy supported Franco’s revolution in the Spanish civil war and Hitler’s pretensions in central Europe, accepting the annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938, although the disappearance of a buffer state between Germany and Italy was unfavourable for the country.
In October 1938 Mussolini brought together the United Kingdom, France and Germany at the expense of Czechoslovakia’s integrity.
On April 7, 1939 Italy occupied Albania, a de-facto protectorate for decades, but in September 1939, after the invasion of Poland, Mussolini decided not to intervene on Germany’s side, due to the poor preparation of the armed forces. Italy entered the war in 1940 when France was beaten. Mussolini hoped that Italy would be able to win in a very short time.
Italy invaded Greece in October 1940 via Albania but was forced to withdraw after a few months. After Italy conquered British Somalia in 1940, a counter-attack by the Allies led to the loss of the whole Italian empire in the Horn of Africa. Italy was also defeated by Allied forces in North Africa and was saved only by the German armed forces led by Erwin Rommel.
After several defeats, Italy was invaded in June 1943. King Vittorio Emanuele and a group of fascists set themselves against Mussolini. In July 1943, Mussolini was arrested. As the old pre-Fascist political parties resurfaced, secret peace negotiations with the Allies were started. In September 1943, Italy surrendered. Immediately Germany invaded the country and Italy was divided for almost two years and became a battlefield. The Nazi-occupied part of the country, where a fascist state under Mussolini was reconstituted, saw a savage civil war between Italian partisans (“partigiani”) and Nazi and fascist troops. The country was liberated on April 25, 1945. The liberation is still celebrated on April 25.
The First Republic (1946-1992)
In 1946 Vittorio Emanuele III’s son, Umberto II, was forced to abdicate. Italy became a Republic after the result of a popular referendum held on June 2, 1946, a day celebrated since as Republic Day. This was the first election in Italy allowing women to vote. The Republican Constitution was approved and came into force on January 1, 1948.
Under the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947, the eastern border area was annexed by Yugoslavia. In 1954, the free territory of Trieste was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia. In 1949 Italy became an ally of the United States, which helped to revive the Italian economy through the Marshall Plan. Moreover, Italy became a member of the European Economic Community, which later transformed into the European Community (EC) and subsequently the European Union (EU). In 1950s and 1960s the country enjoyed prolonged economic growth.
Italy faced political instability in the 1970s, which ended in the 1980s. Known as the Years of Lead, this period was characterised by widespread social conflicts and terrorist acts carried out by extra-parliamentary movements. The assassination of the leader of the Christian Democracy (DC), Aldo Moro, led to the end of a “historic compromise” between the DC and the Communist Party (PCI). In the 1980s, for the first time, two governments were managed by a republican and a socialist (Bettino Craxi) rather than by a member of DC.
At the end of the Lead years, the PCI gradually increased their votes thanks to Enrico Berlinguer. The Socialist party (PSI), led by Bettino Craxi, became more and more critical of the communists and of the Soviet Union; Craxi himself pushed in favour of US president Ronald Reagan’s positioning of Pershing missiles in Italy.
In 2000, a Parliament Commission report from The Olive Tree left-of-centre coalition concluded that the strategy of tension had been supported by the United States to “stop the PCI, and to a certain degree also the PSI, from reaching executive power in the country”. The report was not approved by the right-of-centre coalition. A source in the U.S. Embassy in Rome characterised the report as “allegations that have come up over the last 20 years” and have “absolutely nothing to them”, while other commentators deemed it nothing more than “a manoeuvre dictated primarily by domestic political considerations”.
The Second Republic (1992-present)
From 1992 to 1997, Italy faced significant challenges as voters disenchanted with political paralysis, massive government debt, extensive corruption, and organized crime’s considerable influence collectively called the political system Tangentopoli. As Tangentopoli was under a set of judicial investigations by the name of Mani pulite (Italian for “clean hands”), voters demanded political, economic, and ethical reforms. The Tangentopoli scandals involved all major parties, but especially those in the government coalition: between 1992 and 1994 the DC underwent a severe crisis and was dissolved, splitting up into several pieces, among whom the Italian People’s Party and the Christian Democratic Center. The PSI (and the other governing minor parties) completely dissolved.
The 1994 elections also swept media magnate Silvio Berlusconi (leader of “Pole of Freedoms” coalition) into office as Prime Minister. Berlusconi, however, was forced to step down in December 1994 when the Lega Nord withdrew support. The Berlusconi government was succeeded by a technical government headed by Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, which left office in early 1996.
In April 1996, national elections led to the victory of a centre-left coalition under the leadership of Romano Prodi. Prodi’s first government became the third-longest to stay in power before he narrowly lost a vote of confidence, by three votes, in October 1998. A new government was formed by Democrats of the Left leader and former communist Massimo D’Alema, but in April 2000, following poor performance by his coalition in regional elections, D’Alema resigned. The succeeding centre-left government, including most of the same parties, was headed by Giuliano Amato (social-democratic), who previously served as Prime Minister in 1992-93, from April 2000 until June 2001. In 2001 the centre-right formed the government and Silvio Berlusconi was able to remain in power for a complete five year mandate, but with two different governments. The first one (2001-2005) became the longest government in post-war Italy. Berlusconi participated in the US-led military coalition in Iraq.
The last elections in 2006 returned a centre-left majority to Italy (albeit a slim one in the Senate), allowing Prodi to form his second government. In the first year of his government, Mr. Prodi has followed a cautious policy of economic liberalization and reduction of public debt. So far Mr. Prodi has resigned because of rejection by the parliament, and President Giorgio Napolitano has dismissed the parliament. New elections will be held in April 2008.