Tracing the Rich Tapestry of Italy’s History

Italy became an independent nation state only in 1871; prior to this point it was politically divided into a series of cities, provinces, and islands that existed independently from one another. Historical evidence points towards an Etruscan, Greek and Roman cultural influence being evident amongst today’s Italians.

Italy has been home to humans since at least the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch of Quaternary history (Pleistocene). This period saw dramatic variations in climate and sea level changes; hence periods of expansion and retreat of Alpine and Apennine glaciers as well as relative fluctuations.

Iron Age Italy and her population entered history at an accelerated pace during this period, from approximately the middle of 5th century A.D. until its conclusion by various tribes led by Rome before finally falling under Roman dominion for 100 years from 2nd half of 4th century until its collapse during which large migrations of Germanic peoples such as Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Huns Heruli Alemanni etc migrated through its territories into Italy over time – economic conditions reflected political instability while political instability gradually led to political instability that caused governmental instability which in turn caused its governance gradually decline accompanied by chronic population decline.

At this point, Christian church influence became more pervasive, in contrast to its progressive orientalization by Emperor Constantine between 326 and 330 on the site of Byzantium, now capital of Constantinople.

With the Normans and then Hohenstaufen (1220-1266), along with efficient state structures that provided control across Italy, was introduced a feudal system, with all its legal implications, into Italy. This further encouraged large establishments such as civil or ecclesiastical facilities to flourish while at the same time maintaining enough independence for towns to develop economic activities independently.

Following the collapse of imperial authority and its aftermath–namely the papal crisis in France between 1309-1377–there was a marked strengthening in the independence of Northern and Central Italian communes, while many towns across Po Valley and Tuscany experienced marked economic improvements.

As urban middle-classes were not eager to engage in military activities, their interests were protected and supported by powerful feudal families. Within a short time they acquired signoria or lordship of old communes in their name – often going well beyond just the town and its immediate surrounding districts; often expanding considerably beyond it all into far more extensive territories than originally anticipated; marking an effective transformation from city-states into real and proper states with political power directly correlated to economic power.

Culture flourished amidst this environment of revitalized vitality, as the study of classical antiquity became ever more appealing, along with renewed interest in nature and humanity (humanism). Arts (from literature to the expressive and figurative) enjoyed one of their finest moments during this era; towns became transformed as new styles of architecture were introduced; Italy truly became the cultural heart of Europe during this period.

Peace was finally restored in Renaissance Italy following the signing of Lodi (1454). Through their Lega Italica agreements, Milan, Florence, Venice Rome and Naples signed on to ensure at least forty years of stability and peace through this treaty.

From the mid-15th to 18th centuries, Italian city states fought off Spanish and later French dominance of their region and eventually achieved independence after this long and politically chaotic period.

In the next fifty years, Italy experienced relative political and economic progress across its various States. Judicial and administrative reforms were implemented, typically leading to improved state structures through statemen such as Maria Teresa of Austria in Lombardy; Joseph II in Lombardy; Bernardo Tanucci at Naples; Pietro Leopoldo in Tuscany and Pius VI at Rome who all took measures that resulted in more efficiency among state structures.

Following this brief yet intense period came first the French Revolution (1789) and its tragic aftermath (1792), followed by Napoleonic armies’ first Italian Campaign (1796). With this came hope of an independent Italy within short order; Spanish predominance in Italy over two centuries had significant negative repercussions for Italy’s economy; particularly those rich northern and central regions which suffered an economic decline which brought with it social and cultural consequences as well as increasing disparity between southern regions and rest of country, especially within agricultural sector.

After the revolution, Italy conceded cultural leadership to France; an act which played an essential role in fomenting revolutionary ideals of the 18th century. Prior to this time, and beginning in France, a new wave of Enlightenment spread throughout Europe – and Italy in particular. It was an expression of discontent against tradition and religious dogma, reinvigorating individual intellectual capacities and conscience to tackle and address some of humanity’s most complex and pressing problems through reason alone. Italy thrived during this era due to a series of reforms implemented by tolerant and enlightened rulers of the period, revitalizing both economic and civil life through reforms implemented through reformers such as Beccaria, Verri Romagnosi Galiani Genovesi Pagano Filangieri among others. Reforming activities were however cut short abruptly by events of French Revolution which called into question concepts of State and Society under pressure of Jacobinism.

Italian politics and territory had appeared to stabilize at the close of the 18C; however, these fortunes rapidly disintegrated during Napoleon Bonaparte’s first military campaign across Italy to threaten Austria on its southern flank. Events after events consolidated Napoleon’s power in Italy. Murat succeeded him on the throne of Naples; Italy expanded with Trentino and Alto Adige (defended fiercely by Andreas Hofer); while Tuscany and Papal States became part of the new French Empire (Peace of Schonbrunn 14 October 1810). After an interim period, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign and defeat at Leipzig and Waterloo resulted in the restoration of Italy’s old political and territorial order through the terms of the Congress of Vienna (June 1815). But during that first Napoleonic Campaign the seeds of liberty and change had been planted which ignited a sense of national unity which eventually gave way to its establishment of republican structures before being transformed into the Kingdom of Italy.

After the plebiscite that decided in favour of Piedmont annexation (1860), construction of the United Kingdom of Italy started alongside that occupied by Garibaldi’s Thousand Expedition. On 17 March 1861, this was declared in Turin; Rome and Venice still lay in limbo. Five years later (1866), Italy gained control of Rome following an unfortunate conflict with Austria that was resolved thanks to Prussia’s intervention; Rome itself was captured via force after Napoleon III fell on 20 September 1870, creating the conditions necessary for further territorial unification of Italian nationhood as well as creating its own socioeconomic and cultural identity.

One of the many and complex challenges of the new State was creating uniformity within an area so politically and economically diverse. Uneven implementation of the administrative, judicial and fiscal structures of old Piedmont resulted in further discord between Italy’s more economically advanced Northern and Central regions and structurally less powerful Southern region (Mezzogiorno). As peasants and the poorest classes emigrated to North and South America (numbering several million by the 19-20C), so did the southern question arise. At the same time, in order to compete with other European powers, Italy pursued a policy of colonial expansion in Africa. She occupied Eritrea (1885-96), Somalia (1889-1905), Libya and Aegean Islands (1911-12), before receiving from China a 500 sq mile commercial concession centered on Tien Tsin in 1902.

Economically and socially, Italy experienced steady development from 1870 until entering World War One (1915). This period marked by rapid economic and social expansion across its entirety. An interlude in international politics allowed Italy to arrange its finances and revamp its administrative structures, greatly aiding Italy in this endeavor. Subsequently, essential sectors like rail transport and basic industry were expanded through foreign investment. Simultaneously, efforts were undertaken to strengthen international political ties (through joining the Triple Alliance with Germany under Bismark and Austria under Franz Joseph) as well as commercial links, even if this meant resorting to protectionism to preserve an otherwise vulnerable national economy. Agriculture was experiencing severe challenges as foreign market prices plummeted and local conditions worsened, as well as malaria being a serious scourge in many rural communities, while industry flourished significantly. Textile industry with its two key sectors – silk and cotton textiles – as well as the metalworking and mechanical industries were greatly assisted by increasing supplies of electrical energy from newly built water-powered plants in Alpine and Apennine valleys.

Following World War I’s conclusion and its loss, many new political parties were established: Partito Popolare (1919) under Luigi Sturzo as an extension of Democrazia Cristiana; Partito Comunista d’Italia (1921 at Leghorn), which emerged out of Antonio Gramsci’s split with Partito Socialista; Fasci di Combattimento founded by Benito Mussolini previously as a socialist leader and interventionist movement before being transformed into Partito Nazionale Fascista with revolutionary program after his involvement with March on Rome on 28 October 1922 event.

Once they had gained a majority in parliament following their 1924 election victory and passed a law expanding his powers as head of government in 1925, Fascism officially began with its formal establishment when all other political parties were banned in 1926.

Fascism’s external policy was defined by colonial expansion into Ethiopia (1935-36) or participation in the Spanish Civil War on Franco’s side, while at the same time maintaining good relations with France, Britain, and the Soviet Union (which it recognized first) gradually declined over time while her links with Hitler’s Germany increased (Rome-Berlin Axis 1936). By 1940 the Pact of Steel between Italy and Germany had already drawn her into World War Two (1939-45).

Mussolini was forced from power in 1943 after Italy’s increasingly unsuccessful war fought on multiple fronts against better equipped armies overtook him, leading his party to censure him and demand that he step down as leader. Marshall Pietro Badoglio soon took over as head of government and immediately signed an armistice treaty with allied forces (3 September 1943). Mussolini’s installation of his Repubblica Sociale Italiana government at Salo, with support from Germany and in opposition to monarchial authorities temporarily located at Brindisi, created an explosive civil war which only ended through intervention from allied armies, partisan formation, King abdication and Mussolini’s overthrow (28 April-2 May 1945).

After several national coalition governments and Umberto II’s provisional rule, Alcide De Gasperi of Democrazia Cristiana became President of the Council. On 2 June 1946, following results of an institutional referendum that put an end to monarchy of House Savoy (and led to its last King, Umberto II going into exile), an electoral referendum led to its formal dissolution on 18 June 1946; Enrico De Nicola was then chosen as its inaugural President; under De Gasperi’s government the first freely elected parliamentary assembly assembled under free elections from people began work on creating its new Constitutional Charter which came into effect on 1 January 1948.

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