Italy is home to more than 62 million individuals as of 2017 and is ranked 23rd in population size when compared with other countries throughout the world. Italian culture is steeped in the arts, family, architecture, music and food. Home of the Roman Empire and a major center of the Renaissance, culture on the Italian peninsula has flourished for centuries. Here is a brief overview of Italian customs and traditions.
Population of Italy
About 96 percent of the population of Italy is Italian, though there are many other ethnicities that live in this country. North African Arab, Italo-Albanian, Albanian, German, Austrian and some other European groups fill out the remainder of the population. Bordering countries of France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia to the north have influenced Italian culture, as have the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Sicily and Sardinia.
Languages of Italy
The official language of the country is Italian. About 93 percent of the Italian population speaks Italian as native language, according to the BBC. There are a number of dialects of the language spoken in the country, including Sardinian, Friulian, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Venetian and Calabrian. Milanese is also spoken in Milan. Other languages spoken by native Italians include Albanian, Bavarian, Catalan, Cimbrian, Corsican, Croatian, French, German, Greek, Slovenian and Walser.
Family life in Italy
"Family is an extremely important value within the Italian culture," Talia Wagner, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist, told Live Science. Their family solidarity is focused on extended family rather than the West's idea of "the nuclear family" of just a mom, dad and kids, Wagner explained.
Italians have frequent family gatherings and enjoy spending time with those in their family. "Children are reared to remain close to the family upon adulthood and incorporate their future family into the larger network," said Wagner.
Religion in Italy
The major religion in Italy is Roman Catholicism. This is not surprising, as Vatican City, located in the heart of Rome, is the hub of Roman Catholicism and where the Pope resides. Roman Catholics and other Christians make up 80 percent of the population, though only one-third of those are practicing Catholics. The country also has a growing Muslim immigrant community, according to the University of Michigan. Muslim, agnostic and atheist make up the other 20 percent of the population, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Art and architecture in Italy
Italy has given rise to a number of architectural styles, including classical Roman, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical. Italy is home to some of the most famous structures in the world, including the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The concept of a basilica — which was originally used to describe an open public court building and evolved to mean a Catholic pilgrimage site — was born in Italy. The word, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is derived from Latin and meant "royal palace." The word is also from the Greek basilikē, which is the feminine of basilikos which means "royal" or basileus, which means "king."
Italy also is home to many castles, such as the Valle d'Aosta Fort Bard, the Verrès Castle and the Ussel Castle.
Florence, Venice and Rome are home to many museums, but art can be viewed in churches and public buildings. Most notable is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, painted by Michelangelo sometime between 1508 and 1512.
Opera has its roots in Italy and many famous operas — including "Aida" and "La Traviata," both by Giuseppe Verdi, and "Pagliacci" by Ruggero Leoncavallo — were written in Italian and are still performed in the native language. More recently, Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti made opera more accessible to the masses as a soloist and as part of the Three Tenors.
Italy is home to a number of world-renowned fashion houses, including Armani, Gucci, Benetton, Versace and Prada.
Italian cuisine has influenced food culture around the world and is viewed as a form of art by many. Wine, cheese and pasta are important part of Italian meals. Pasta comes in a wide range of shapes, widths and lengths, including penne, spaghetti, linguine, fusilli and lasagna.
For Italians, food isn't just nourishment, it is life. "Family gatherings are frequent and often centered around food and the extended networks of families," said Wagner.
No one area of Italy eats the same things as the next. Each region has its own spin on "Italian food," according to CNN. For example, most of the foods that Americans view as Italian, such as spaghetti and pizza, come from central Italy. In the North of Italy, fish, potatoes, rice, sausages, pork and different types of cheeses are the most common ingredients. Pasta dishes with tomatoes are popular, as are many kinds of stuffed pasta, polenta and risotto. In the South, tomatoes dominate dishes, and they are either served fresh or cooked into sauce. Southern cuisine also includes capers, peppers, olives and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, eggplant and ricotta cheese.
Wine is also a big part of Italian culture, and the country is home to some of the world's most famous vineyards. The oldest traces of Italian wine were recently discovered in a cave near Sicily's southwest coast. "The archaeological implications of this new data are enormous, especially considering that the identification of wine [is] the first and earliest-attested presence of such product in an archaeological context in Sicily," researchers wrote in the study, published online August 2017 in the Microchemical Journal.
Doing business in Italy
Italy's official currency is the euro. Italians are known for their family-centric culture, and there are a number of small and mid-sized businesses. Even many of the larger companies such as Fiat and Benetton are still primarily controlled by single families. "Many families that immigrated from Italy are traditionalists by nature, with the parents holding traditional gender roles. This has become challenging for the younger generations, as gender roles have morphed in the American culture and today stand at odds with the father being the primary breadwinner and the undisputed head of the household and the mother being the primary caretaker of the home and children," said Wagner.
Meetings are typically less formal than in countries such as Germany and Russia, and the familial structure can give way to a bit of chaos and animated exchanges. Italian business people tend to view information from outsiders with a bit of wariness, and prefer verbal exchanges with people that they know well.
Italians celebrate most Christian holidays. The celebration of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, is much like Christmas. Belfana, an old lady who flies on her broomstick, delivers presents and goodies to good children, according to legend.
Pasquetta, on the Monday after Easter, typically involves family picnics to mark the beginning of springtime.
November 1 commemorates Saints Day, a religious holiday during which Italians typically decorate the graves of deceased relatives with flowers.
Many Italian towns and villages celebrate the feast day of their patron saint. September 19, for example, is the feast of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Napoli.
April 25 is the Liberation Day, marking the 1945 liberation ending World War II in Italy in 1945.
Additional reporting by Alina Bradford, Live Science Contributor
A rich tapestry
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From the Mediterranean south to the alpine north, Italy is a nation with a rich and sometimes turbulent history. The Italian culture is the product of many influences, but is unique in its own right. Italy is not a large nation in comparison to others, but its influence on our world has been profound.
Italy is located on a peninsula extending into the Mediterranean Sea. The 58 million people who live there are both proud and welcoming of others. The climate can vary widely from the cooler mountains in the north to the balmy coast along the Mediterranean. The population is densely packed and perse. The rich history of the country and the beautiful sights make Italy one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
A Brief History
Italy, as a nation-state, was formed in 1861 as a combination of smaller regions. The history of the Italian people goes back much farther. For 3000 years the land now known as Italy was invaded and conquered by various other powers.
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Italy was home to several artistic and literate civilizations, such as the Etruscans, Greeks and Romans. Religion is important in the lives of Italians. The Vatican, located within Rome, is itself an independent Catholic country.
The ancient Roman Empire was a dominant force, both militarily and culturally. At one point the empire encompassed much of Europe, stretching as far north as modern day Scotland. During this period, phenomenal advances were made in science, technology and philosophy. Eventually the empire established Christianity as its official religion. In the following centuries, Popes would wield a great deal of power over Italy and the rest of Europe.
World War Two was a particularly tumultuous time for Italians. The fascist dictator Benito Mussolini established a regime that allied itself with Nazi Germany. Allied forces invaded to drive Axis forces out. Mussolini was deposed and publicly executed as the war drew to a close. The suffering of the people during the war was accompanied by the destruction and plunder of many precious relics, some thousands of years old.
The median age of an Italian is 42.2 years. The population is relatively stable, only rising at the rate of .04% yearly (CIA, 2006). About 90% are Roman Catholic, but there are also well established Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities.
In this sense, Italy may be out of step with the rest of Europe. According to Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times:
When the Vatican looks out at the state of the Western European family, it is alarmed. It sees parents and children at the mercy of overly secular nations awash in laws and practices that liberalize evils, from abortion to gay marriage. (2006, Pg.1)
In keeping with their religion, family is a central element of Italian life. Strong family values also characterize Italian immigrants to other countries. It is a major factor in their success. Family responsibilities come before any other. It is traditionally a patriarchal culture, but industrialization and other factors are changing this.
A strong work ethic is central to the Italian personality. Although Italians are known for a robust enjoyment of life, they also work very hard. Education is part of this ethic. Even Italians with little education take interest and are active in the education of their children.
Weddings are a sacred tradition, particularly for Catholic Italians. They are held in a church and adhere to a number of rites and traditions. The groom must gain the permission of the bride’s father. Marriages must not be scheduled around events on the Catholic calendar, such as Lent and the advent. Traditionally, brides wore green dresses, but today most wear white. Guests throw rice and confetti to represent good fortune.
Wedding receptions are energetic and jovial affairs. Food is central to the celebration. Guests may be served as many as a dozen courses, including antipasto, fish, desserts, salads, fruits and wine.
Many traditional Italian foods have become worldwide favorites. Ravioli and other pastas are eaten everywhere. Pizza also has its origins in Italy.
A traditional Christmas meal in Italy begins with fish, made many different ways. This is in keeping with the Lenten tradition. After midnight meat dishes may be served. Italian fruit cake might be served for dessert. All Christmas desserts have nuts. Traditionally, nuts are a symbol of virility. Food is also a social tool. When Italians first meet, they often will invite each other to dinner.
Italians are expressive people, often using animated gestures while communicating. This is a trait that goes back at least to Roman times when gladiators were given a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating by audiences. Such gestures today are part of Italian etiquette. For example, stroking of the chin may be seen as a sign of indecisiveness. A pinch of the nose is a negative reaction, while sitting with legs crossed at the ankle is a show of respect for tradition. Crossing the arms shows defensiveness. Hand gestures modify or amplify the meaning of words. Humor is a staple of Italian culture. Laughing is seen as a necessary part of life. Most families have at least one good joke teller or practical joker.
The expressive Italian nature is seen in their dress as well. Italian designers such as Gucci and Dior are on the cutting edge of European fashion.
Modern day Italy is a republic and a member of the European Union. The capital is Rome. The official language is Italian. It comes directly from Latin, an ancient language of the region. The combination of many immigrants, of many languages, over hundreds of years formed the Italian we hear today.
There are some areas where local dialects are spoken. There are also some regions of the country where German, French and Slovene are spoken. The country enjoys a literacy rate of 98.6% (CIA, 2006).
Recently, Prime Minister Berlusconi was defeated. This has unclear implications for relations with the United States. The Berlusconi government was generally U.S. friendly. Italy committed troops to the war on terror, but pressure is building for their withdrawal.
Italy celebrates several national holidays. They include Republic Day (June 2), Independence Day (March 17) and Christmas (Dec. 25).
The Italian region has been a hub of art and architecture for thousands of years. Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael are among the many world renowned artists who come from what is now Italy. Roman architecture is legendary for its innovation. Its arenas, aqueducts and road systems were the tools to expand an empire that once dominated much of Europe.
Music is important to the lives of Italians. Italy is the birthplace of opera. Several orchestral instruments were invented in Italy, and many great composers come from there. The country is steeped in history and culture. Evidence of highly advanced civilization from thousands of years ago still awes visitors. Timothy Egan, of the New York Times writes of its feel:
…in the heart of the Chianti Classico district, where the black rooster symbol of one of the world’s oldest wine regions is as ubiquitous as the crucifix. We have seen Siena in all seasons, probed Etruscan tombs outside Volterra and wondered what Donald Trump would do to mess with the ancient skyscrapers of San Gimignano, the Medieval Manhattan. (2006, Pg. B1)
Italy has been a site of advanced culture as long as anywhere in the world. It has also been the site of many wars and a great deal of human strife. Today’s Italy is home to a highly educated and productive culture. It is a land of great natural beauty. Its residents are proud Italians who hail from a number of regions. Civilization in those regions dates back thousands of years, so naturally there will be some differences in dialect and cultural traditions.
The people, generally speaking, are family oriented, industrious and welcoming. Like many highly industrialized countries, Italy is a draw for immigrants and will face the growing pains as the population becomes even more perse.
Although Catholicism is by far the dominant religion, other faiths are gaining a foothold. The recent riots in France show that European countries must focus on better assimilating their new citizens. Many of them bring different faiths and cultural traditions.
People choosing to live in, or just visit, Italy are likely to find a hardworking and welcoming people who confident and sure of their rich history.
- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (2006).The World Factbook: Italy. Retrieved 5/23/2006 from: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/it.html
- Curci, Cookie. (2006). Body Gestures: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Retrieved 5/23/2006 from: http://www.italiansrus.com/articles/subs/body_language.htm
- Duggan, Christopher. (1984). A Concise History of Italy. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
- Egan, Timothy. (2006). Exploring Tuscany’s Lost Corner. The New York Times: May 21, Sec 2, Pg1.
- Field, Carol. (1997). Celebrating Italy: Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through Its Feasts, Festivals and Sumptuous Foods. New York: Morrow Books.
- Wilkinson, Tracy. (2006). Southern Europe Seeing a Breakup Boom. Los Angeles Times: May 21. Pg.A1.