Italians (Italian: italiani) are an European ethnic group native of Italy that share a common Italian culture, ancestry and speak the Italian language as a mother tongue. Legally, Italians are citizens of the Italian Republic, regardless of ancestry or country of residence (though the principle of jus sanguinis is used extensively and arguably more favorably in the Italian nationality law), and are distinguished from people of Italian descent and from ethnic Italians living in territories adjacent to the Italian Peninsula.
In 2010, in addition to about 56 million Italians in Italy, Italian-speaking autonomous groups are found in neighboring countries: about 500,000 in Switzerland, a large population in France, and smaller groups in Slovenia and Croatia, primarily in Istria and Dalmatia. Because of wide-ranging diaspora, about 5 million Italian citizens and nearly 80 million people of full or part Italian ancestry live outside of Italy, most notably in South America, North America, Australia and parts of Europe.
Italians have greatly influenced and contributed to science, arts, technology, cuisine, sports and banking abroad and worldwide. Italian people are generally known for their localism, both regionalist and municipalist, attention to clothing and family values.
For nearly 1,500 years, starting about 1000 BC, the history of Italy was the history of the Etruscans, of the Italics, and the one of ancient Rome. The Etruscan civilization, a great maritime, commercial, and artistic culture, reached its peak about the 7th century, but by 509 BC, when the Romans overthrew their Etruscan monarchs, its control in Italy was on the wane. By 350 BC, after a series of wars with both Greeks and Etruscans, the Latins, with Rome as their capital, gained the ascendancy by 272 BC, and they managed to unite the entire Italian peninsula.
This period of unification was followed by one of conquest in the Mediterranean, beginning with the First Punic War against Carthage. In the course of the century-long struggle against Carthage, the Romans conquered Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. Finally, in 146 BC, at the conclusion of the Third Punic War, with Carthage completely destroyed and its inhabitants enslaved, Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean. From its inception, Rome was a republican city-state, but four famous civil conflicts destroyed the republic: Lucius Cornelius Sulla against Gaius Marius and his son (88–82 BC), Julius Caesar against Pompey (49–45 BC), Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus against Mark Antony and Octavian (43 BC), and Mark Antony against Octavian.
Octavian, the final victor (31 BC), was accorded the title of Augustus by the Senate and thereby became the first Roman emperor. Augustus created for the first time an administrative region called Italia with inhabitants called "Italicus populus", stretching from the Alps to Sicily: for this reason historians like Gentile called him Father of Italians.
Under imperial rule, Rome undertook many conquests that brought Roman law, Roman administration, and Pax Romana to an area extending from the Atlantic to the Rhine, to the British Isles, to the Iberian Peninsula and large parts of North Africa, and to the Middle East as far as the Euphrates.
After two centuries of successful rule, in the 3rd century AD, Rome was threatened by internal discord and menaced by Germanic and Asian invaders, commonly called barbarians (from the Latin word barbari, "foreigners"). Emperor Diocletian's administrative division of the empire into two parts in 285 provided only temporary relief; it became permanent in 395. In 313, Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity, and churches thereafter rose throughout the empire. However, he also moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople, greatly reducing the importance of the former. The last Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 by a Germanic foederati general in Italy, Odoacer. His defeat marked the end of the western part of the Roman Empire. During most of the period from the fall of Rome until the Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861, the peninsula was divided into several smaller states.
The Middle Ages
Odoacer ruled well for 13 years after gaining control of Italy in 476. Then he was attacked and defeated by Theodoric, the king of another Germanic tribe, the Ostrogoths. Theodoric and Odoacer ruled jointly until 493, when Theodoric murdered Odoacer. Theodoric continued to rule Italy with an army of Ostrogoths and a government that was mostly Italian. After the death of Theodoric in 526, the kingdom began to grow weak. By 553, emperor Justinian I expelled the Ostrogoths. The old Roman Empire was mostly united again, even if at the price of the total destruction of the Italian peninsula (Rome –under Augustus the first "one million inhabitants" city in the world– was reduced to a small village of just one thousand inhabitants). But Byzantine rule in Italy collapsed again by 572 as a result of invasions by another Germanic tribe, the Lombards.
During the 5th and 6th centuries, the popes increased their influence in both religious and political matters in Italy. It was usually the popes who led attempts to protect Italy from invasion or to soften foreign rule. For about 200 years the popes opposed attempts by the Lombards, who had captured most of Italy, to take over Rome as well. The popes finally defeated the Lombards with the aid of two Frankish kings, Pepin the Short and Charlemagne. Using land won for them by Pepin in 756, the popes established political rule in what were called the Papal States in central Italy.
The Lombards remained a threat to papal power, however, until they were crushed by Charlemagne in 774. Charlemagne added the Kingdom of the Lombards to his vast realm. In recognition of Charlemagne's power, and to cement the church's alliance with him, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in 800. After Charlemagne's death in 814, his son Louis the Pious succeeded him. Louis divided the empire among his sons, who fought each other for territory. Such battles continued until Otto the Great, the king of Germany, was crowned emperor in 962. This marked the beginning of what later was called the Holy Roman Empire.
Rise of the city-states
From the 11th century on, Italian cities began to grow rapidly in independence and importance. They became centers of political life, banking, and foreign trade. Some became wealthy, and many, including Florence, Genoa, Milan, Pisa, Siena and Venice, grew into nearly independent city-states. Each had its own foreign policy and political life. They all resisted the efforts of noblemen and emperors to control them.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, some Italian city-states ranked among the most important powers of Europe. Venice, in particular, had become a major maritime power, and the city-states as a group acted as a conduit for goods from the Byzantine and Islamic empires. In this capacity, they provided great impetus to the developing Renaissance, began in Florence in the 14th century, and led to an unparalleled flourishing of the arts, literature, music, and science.
However, the city-states were often troubled by violent disagreements among their citizens. The most famous division was between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Guelphs supported supreme rule by the pope, and the Ghibellines favored the emperor. City-states often took sides and waged war against each other. During the Renaissance, Italy became an even more attractive prize to foreign conquerors. After some city-states asked for outside help in settling disputes with their neighbors, King Charles VIII of France marched into Italy in 1494. Charles soon withdrew, but he had shown that the cities of Italy could be conquered because they were not united. After the Italian Wars, Spain emerged as the dominant force in the region. Venice, Milan, and other city-states retained at least some of their former greatness during this period, as did Savoy-Piedmont, protected by the Alps and well defended by its vigorous rulers.
The French Revolution and Napoleon
The French Revolution and Napoleon influenced Italy more deeply than they affected any other country of Europe, except France. The French Revolution began in 1789 and immediately found supporters among the Italian people. The local Italian rulers, sensing danger in their own country, drew closer to the European kings who opposed France. After the French king was overthrown and France became a republic, secret clubs favoring an Italian republic were formed throughout Italy. The armies of the French Republic began to move across Europe. In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte led a French army into northern Italy and drove out the Austrian rulers. Once again, Italy was the scene of battle between the Habsburgs and the French. Wherever France conquered, Italian republics were set up, with constitutions and legal reforms. Napoleon made himself emperor in 1804, and part of northern and central Italy was unified under the name of the Kingdom of Italy, with Napoleon as king. The rest of northern and central Italy was annexed to France. Only Sicily and Sardinia remained free of French control.
French rule lasted less than 20 years, and it differed from previous foreign control of the Italian peninsula. In spite of heavy taxation and frequent harshness, the French introduced representative assemblies and new laws that were the same for all parts of the country. For the first time since the days of ancient Rome, Italians of different regions used the same money and served in the same army. Many Italians began to see the possibility of a united Italy free of foreign control.
The Kingdom of Italy
After the battle of Waterloo, the reaction set in with the Congress of Vienna allowed the restoration of many of the old rulers and systems under Austrian domination. The concept of nationalism continued strong, however, and sporadic outbreaks led by such inveterate reformers as Giuseppe Mazzini occurred in several parts of the peninsula down to 1848–49. This Risorgimento movement was brought to a successful conclusion under the able guidance of Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont.
Cavour managed to unite most of Italy under the headship of Victor Emmanuel II of the house of Savoy, and on 17 March 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed with Victor Emmanuel II as king. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the popular republican hero of Italy, contributed much to this achievement and to the subsequent incorporation of the Papal States under the Italian monarch. Italian troops occupied Rome in 1870, and in July 1871, this formally became the capital of the kingdom. Pope Pius IX, a longtime rival of Italian kings, considered himself a "prisoner" of the Vatican and refused to cooperate with the royal administration. Only in 1929 the Roman Pope accepted the unified Italy with Rome as capital.
In the decades following unification, Italy started to create colonies in Africa, and under Benito Mussolini's fascism conquered Ethiopia founding in 1936 the Italian Empire. World War I completed the process of Italian unification, with the annexation of Trieste, Istria, Trentino-Alto Adige and Zara. The Italians grew to 45 millions in 1940 and the land, whose economy had been until that time based upon agriculture, started its industrial development, mainly in northern Italy. But World War II soon destroyed Italy and its colonial power.
The Italian republic
Between 1945 an 1948, the outlines of a new Italy began to appear. Victor Emmanuel III gave up the throne on 9 May 1946, and his son, Umberto II, became king. On June 2, Italy held its first free election after 20 years of fascist domination (Il ventennio). Italians chose a republic to replace the monarchy, which had been closely associated with Fascism. They elected a Constituent Assembly to prepare a new democratic constitution. The Assembly approved the constitution in 1947, which came into force since 1 January 1948.
The original Indo-European tribes of the Italic people settled in neolithic times in the Italian peninsula. These tribes were historically divided between Latino-Faliscans, Osco-Umbrians, Veneti, and Ligures. Successively they were united and amalgamated by Rome, together with the Etruscans in central Italy, Gaulish tribes in the Po river plains, and Greeks in the so-called Magna Grecia. Most Italians originate from the people mentioned above, and all share common Latin heritage, but some Italians have a variety of other ancestries.
There are some Italians across Italy who have Germanic heritage from the occupation of Italy by several Germanic tribes. The Germanic tribe of the Ostrogoths conquered Italy and presented themselves as upholders of Latin culture, mixing Roman culture together with Gothic culture, in order to legitimize their rule amongst Roman subjects who had a long-held belief in the superiority of Roman culture over foreign "barbarian" Germanic culture. The total number of the population of Ostrogoths who settled in Italy was small, estimated at 40,000 people, while the total population of both the Ostrogoths and their allies who occupied Italy is estimated at 100,000 people. The Germanic tribe of the Lombards invaded Italy, which in the meantime had been reconquered by the East Roman Empire, and conquered most of it. However, only a small number of Lombards settled in Italy, in comparison with the overwhelming majority of the indigenous Latin population. The Germanic tribe of the Vandals conquered the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and held the islands until they were captured by the Byzantines in 533.
Southern Italy has an ancestral Greek heritage alongside the Italic one. Southern Italy was influenced both by the ancient Greeks of Magna Graecia who brought Hellenic culture to Italy, and by the arrival of modern Greeks in the 7th century during the rule of the Byzantine Empire.
Sicilians have a diverse ancestry. After Roman rule, Sicily was conquered by the Ostrogoths, and then by the Byzantines. However, after Byzantine rule, Sicily was conquered by Arab and Berber peoples, resulting in the introduction of Islam into Sicily. The intermixing of indigenous Sicilians with Arabs and Berbers did not always transmit Islamic culture to the people as many held on to Christianity as a symbol of defiance, though remained relatively positive social relations remained between Sicily's Christian and Muslim communities. After the period of Arab rule, the island was conquered by Norman warlords. The Normans brought a new addition to Sicilian ancestry. During the subsequent Swabian rule under the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who spent most of his life as king of Sicily in his court in Palermo, the Islamic element was progressively eradicated till the massive deportation of the last Muslims of Sicily. As a result of Arab and Berber expulsion, many towns across Sicily were left depopulated. By the 12th century, Swabian kings granted immigrants from northern Italy (particularly Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria), Latium in central Italy, and the south of France settlement into Sicily, re-establishing the Latin element back to Sicily, a legacy which can be seen in the many Gallo-Italic dialects found in the interior and western parts of Sicily, brought by these settlers.
Linguistic minorities have always been negligible in comparison with those of most other European nations; in 1861, they amounted to a scarce 1% of the total population, and in 1921, when Italy's territory reached its greatest extent, only 2% of the population spoke a language different from Italian or related dialects. However, these linguistic minorities and language islands have historically been quite diverse, speaking Algherese, Arbëresh, German, Greek, Slovene and Franco-Provençal. Moreover, it should be mentioned that in 1999 the Republic granted special protection to the languages listed above, together with the Sardinian, in the territories where they are spoken.
From antiquity until the 17th century, the inhabitants of Italy were at the centre of the Western culture, being the fulcrum and origin of Ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic Church, the Humanism and the Renaissance.
Italy became also a seat of great formal learning in 1088 with the establishment of the University of Bologna, the first university in Europe. Many other Italian universities soon followed. For example, the Schola Medica Salernitana, in southern Italy, was the first medical school of Europe. These great centers of learning presaged the Rinascimento: the European Renaissance began in Italy and was fueled throughout Europe by Italian painters, sculptors, architects, scientists, literature masters and music composers. Italy continued its leading cultural role through the Baroque period and into the Romantic period, when its dominance in painting and sculpture diminished but the Italians reestablished a strong presence in music.
Fundamental contributions to science and technology were given by Italian scientists. Galileo Galilei has been called the "father of modern observational astronomy", because of his discovery of telescope and heliocentrism, and even "the Father of Modern Science". Among the technological innovations on which today's information and communication technologies are grounded, we can mention the following: electric batteries (Alessandro Volta), radio (Guglielmo Marconi), telephone (Antonio Meucci), nuclear reactor (Enrico Fermi), and the microprocessor (Federico Faggin).
Italian explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries left a perennial mark on human history with the modern "discovery of America", due to Christopher Columbus; furthermore, the name of the American continents derives from Amerigo Vespucci's first name.
Due to comparatively late national unification, and the historical autonomy of the regions that comprise the Italian peninsula, many traditions and customs of the Italians can be identified by their regions of origin. Despite the political and social isolation of these regions, Italy's contributions to the cultural and historical heritage of the Western world remain immense. Famous elements of Italian culture are its opera and music, its iconic gastronomy and food, which are commonly regarded as amongst the most popular in the world, its cinema (with filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Mario Monicelli, Sergio Leone, etc.), its collections of priceless works of art and its fashion (Milan and Florence are regarded as some of the few fashion capitals of the world).
Strictly defined, the Italian Diaspora took place between the unification of the country in 1861 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. However, large-scale migrations phenomena did not recede until the late 1920s, well into the Fascist regime, and one last wave can be observed after the end of World War II.
Over 80 million people of full or partial Italian descent live outside of Europe, with nearly 50 million living in South America (primarily Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay), about 18 million living in North America (United States and Canada) and 850,000 in Australia. Millions of others live in other parts of Europe (primarily France, Germany and Switzerland). Most Italian citizens living abroad live in other nations of the European Union.
Autochthonous Italian communities outside Italy
In both the Slovenian and Croatian portions of Istria, in Dalmatia as well as in the city of Rijeka, Italian refers to autochthonous speakers of Italian and various Italo-Dalmatian languages, natives in the region since before the inception of the Venetian Republic. In the aftermath of the Istrian exodus following the Second World War, most Italian-speakers are today located in the south and west of Istria, and number about 30,000. The number of inhabitants with Italian ancestry is likely much greater but undeterminable. In the first Austrian census carried out in 1870 the number of Italians Dalmatians varied between 40,000 and 50,000 amongst the about 250,000 inhabitants of Dalmatia, or 20% of the total Dalmatian population.
In the French County of Nice, autochthonous speakers of regional languages of Italy (Ligurian and Piedmontese), are natives in the region since before annexation to France in 1860. The number of inhabitants with Italian ancestry is generally indeterminable, and the use of French language is now ubiquitous. In addition, Corsica was a part of the Republic of Genoa until 1768 and most Corsicans spoke Corsican, a language of the Italian family. The Italian language ceased to have official status in Corsica in 1871, with the establishment of the French Third Republic.
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