Italy, slightly larger than Arizona, is a long peninsula shaped like a boot, surrounded on the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea and on the east by the Adriatic. It is bounded by France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia to the north. The Apennine Mountains form the peninsula's backbone; the Alps form its northern boundary. The largest of its many northern lakes is Garda (143 sq mi; 370 sq km); the Po, its principal river, flows from the Alps on Italy's western border and crosses the Lombard plain to the Adriatic Sea. Several islands form part of Italy; the largest are Sicily (9,926 sq mi; 25,708 sq km) and Sardinia (9,301 sq mi; 24,090 sq km).
The migrations of Indo-European peoples into Italy probably began about 2000 B.C. and continued down to 1000 B.C. From about the 9th century B.C. until it was overthrown by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C., the Etruscan civilization dominated the area. By 264 B.C. all Italy south of Cisalpine Gaul was under the leadership of Rome. For the next seven centuries, until the barbarian invasions destroyed the western Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., the history of Italy is largely the history of Rome. From 800 on, the Holy Roman Emperors, Roman Catholic popes, Normans, and Saracens all vied for control over various segments of the Italian peninsula. Numerous city-states, such as Venice and Genoa, whose political and commercial rivalries were intense, and many small principalities flourished in the late Middle Ages. Although Italy remained politically fragmented for centuries, it became the cultural center of the Western world from the 13th to the 16th century.
Italy Becomes a Unified Peninsula
In 1713, after the War of the Spanish Succession, Milan, Naples, and Sardinia were handed over to the Hapsburgs of Austria, which lost some of its Italian territories in 1735. After 1800, Italy was unified by Napoléon, who crowned himself king of Italy in 1805; but with the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Austria once again became the dominant power in a disunited Italy. Austrian armies crushed Italian uprisings in 1820–1821 and 1831. In the 1830s, Giuseppe Mazzini, a brilliant liberal nationalist, organized the Risorgimento (Resurrection), which laid the foundation for Italian unity. Disappointed Italian patriots looked to the House of Savoy for leadership. Count Camille di Cavour (1810–1861), prime minister of Sardinia in 1852 and the architect of a united Italy, joined England and France in the Crimean War (1853–1856), and in 1859 helped France in a war against Austria, thereby obtaining Lombardy. By plebiscite in 1860, Modena, Parma, Tuscany, and the Romagna voted to join Sardinia. In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi conquered Sicily and Naples and turned them over to Sardinia. Victor Emmanuel II, king of Sardinia, was proclaimed king of Italy in 1861. The annexation of Venetia in 1866 and of papal Rome in 1870 marked the complete unification of peninsular Italy into one nation under a constitutional monarchy.
The Rise and Fall of Mussolini
Italy declared its neutrality upon the outbreak of World War I on the grounds that Germany had embarked upon an offensive war. In 1915, Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies but obtained less territory than it expected in the postwar settlement. Benito (“Il Duce”) Mussolini, a former Socialist, organized discontented Italians in 1919 into the Fascist Party to “rescue Italy from Bolshevism.” He led his Black Shirts in a march on Rome and, on Oct. 28, 1922, became prime minister. He transformed Italy into a dictatorship, embarking on an expansionist foreign policy with the invasion and annexation of Ethiopia in 1935 and allying himself with Adolf Hitler in the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936. When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, Mussolini's dictatorship collapsed; he was executed by partisans on April 28, 1945, at Dongo on Lake Como. Following the armistice with the Allies (Sept. 3, 1943), Italy joined the war against Germany as a cobelligerent. A June 1946 plebiscite rejected monarchy and a republic was proclaimed. The peace treaty of Sept. 15, 1947, required Italian renunciation of all claims in Ethiopia and Greece and the cession of the Dodecanese islands to Greece and of five small Alpine areas to France. The Trieste area west of the new Yugoslav territory was made a free territory (until 1954, when the city and a 90-square-mile zone were transferred to Italy and the rest to Yugoslavia).
Italy Moves to Stabilize Its Economy
Italy became an integral member of NATO and the European Economic Community (later the EU) as it successfully rebuilt its postwar economy. A prolonged outbreak of terrorist activities by the left-wing Red Brigades threatened domestic stability in the 1970s, but by the early 1980s the terrorist groups had been suppressed. “Revolving door” governments, political instability, scandal, and corruption characterized Italian politics in the 1980s and 1990s.
Italy adopted the euro as its currency in Jan. 1999. Treasury Secretary Carlo Ciampi, who is credited with the economic reforms that permitted Italy to enter the European Monetary Union, was elected president in May 1999. Italy joined its NATO partners in the Kosovo crisis. Aviano Air Base in northern Italy was a crucial base for launching air strikes into Kosovo and Yugoslavia.
Berlusconi Proves to Be Resilient and Persistent
In June 2001, Silvio Berlusconi, a conservative billionaire, was sworn in as prime minister. He pledged to reduce unemployment, cut taxes, revamp the educational system, and reform the bureaucracy. His critics were alarmed by the apparent conflict of interest of a prime minister who also owned 90% of Italy's media. He was accused of Mafia connections and was under indictment for tax fraud and bribery. Found guilty in three out of four of his trials, he was acquitted in all of them on appeal. Several other cases are pending.
In April 2005, regional elections had disastrous results for Berlusconi's center-right coalition. The dismal state of the economy was blamed for the poor showing. In parliamentary elections held April 2006, the center-left Union coalition led by Romano Prodi won 49.8% of the vote and Berlusconi's House of Liberties coalition won 49.7%—a mere 25,000 vote difference. Berlusconi refused to concede and called for a recount. He eventually relented, and Prodi was given the go-ahead by the newly installed president Giorgio Napolitano to form a government. Prodi served as prime minister once before (1996–98) and also as president of the European Union. Prodi's government proved fragile almost immediately. Indeed, he submitted his resignation in February 2007, just nine months into his term, after a key foreign-policy vote about the deployment of troops to Afghanistan and an expansion of a U. S. military base failed in the Senate. Days later, the Senate, facing the prospect of Silvio Berlusconi returning to power, narrowly passed a vote of confidence in Prodi's government and he remained in office. Less than a year later, in January 2008, the Udeur party bolted from his coalition, costing Prodi his majority in the senate. He survived a no-confidence vote in the lower house of parliament, but lost in the senate, 161 to 156, forcing his government to resign. Parliament was dissolved, and elections were set for April. Berlusconi saw the crisis as an opportunity for a political comeback. On April 15, 2008, with help from Northern League support, Berlusconi and his center-right government won elections ensuring him a third term as prime minister.
On May 8, 2008, Berlusconi was sworn in for his third term as prime minister and announced his cabinet, which remains dominated by center-right politicians and includes few women.
On July 23, 2008, the Senate and lower chamber approved a bill that grants immunity to the four most powerful elected officials while they are in office, including the prime minister, the president, and the speakers of the two chambers of Parliament.
After two consecutive quarters of negative growth, Italy was declared officially in recession in November 2008.