After a contentious election in March 2018 that included rumblings about possibly leaving the European Union, Italy has formed a fragile government under the leadership of Giuseppe Conte. Join Active Minds as we review the rich history of Italy and its current turmoil. We’ll visit Italy’s roots in Holy Roman Empire, its rich artistic and scientific contributions of the Renaissance, its role during and after World War II, and its economic and political struggles over the past decade.

Key Lecture Points

  • Italy is the 10th largest country in Europe and the continent’s 4th largest economy.
  • By the 7th century BCE, Etruscan city-states dominated modern day Tuscany.  In 509 BCE the last Etruscan king was toppled, ushering in the Roman Republic.  The republic ended in 27 BCE, with the start of the empire.  By 46 BCE Julius Caesar ruled as a dictator.  After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, his designated heir Mark Anthony and his great nephew Octavian fought for control of the Roman world.  In 19 BCE Octavian was acclaimed Augustus (Your Eminence) with unlimited power.  He ruled Rome as emperor for the next 40 years.  Roman culture flourished under his reign—this was the time of Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Livy.  By the 3rd century CE, there were internal revolts and external attacks from Germanic tribes.  In 476 the Germanic leader Odoacer and his army deposed the last Roman ruler, Romulus Angustulus, thus ending the Roman Empire.
  • The great Italian city-states—Florence, Venice, Milan, Pisa, Genoa, etc.--grew to prominence during the Middle Ages.
  • Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy is considered one of the great works of medieval literature.  It helped establish the standard Italian language and influenced Western art’s depictions of heaven and hell for generations.
  • The Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century and lasted till the 16th century.  It was a time of great cultural change and achievement, sparked by the rediscovery of the Classical writers of antiquity.
  • In the 18th century Spain controlled the south of Italy while Austria ruled the north.  Napoleon campaigned in Italy several times, conquering the Venetian Republic in 1797 and controlling the entire peninsula by 1809.  After Napoleon’s defeat in 1813, the Congress of Vienna returned the northern states plus Venice to Austria, Rome regained the Papal States and southern Italy went back to the Spanish.
  • Napoleon brought the ideals of the French Revolution to Italy, raising aspirations of unification. Radical secret societies sprang up.  Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Camillo Benso di Cavour  used a series of uprisings across Italy in 1848 to unify the peninsula.  In 1861 Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed king of the new state of Italy.    Although Italy was late to be unified politically, it had long been unified culturally through a common language and a shared pride and collective memory of the greatness of the Roman Empire.
  • When WWI began, Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance with Austria and Germany but chose at first to be neutral.  In 1915 Italy entered the war on the side of the allies, hoping to gain Austrian territory after the war.  The Treaty of Versailles gave Italy less than had originally been promised by the allies.  Demobilized soldiers came home to find there were no jobs.
  • Benito Mussolini formed a right-wing militant political group that by 1921 had become the Fascist Party.  In 1922 he took control of the government and by 1925 had declared himself dictator “for the good of the country.”  In 1939 Hitler and Mussolini signed the Pact of Steel which obligated the two countries to support the other if one went to war.  Hitler invaded Poland, starting WWII but Mussolini did not enter the fray until 1940 when he invaded Greece and Egypt. Hitler was forced to come to the aid of his ally, setting a pattern for the rest of the war.  In 1943 American and British forces invaded Sicily and began the long, arduous campaign that would result in the liberation of northern Italy in 1945.
  • The postwar years were marked by a rapid succession of coalition governments and prime ministers.
  • After inconclusive parliamentary elections in March 2018 and lengthy negotiations, a coalition of two euroskeptic, anti-migrant populist parties finally formed a government in May with Giuseppe Conte as prime minister.  The new government wants to exceed the eurozone’s deficit limit with a combination of tax cuts and higher welfare spending that puts Italy on a collision course with the European Commission.  The new government has announced it will take steps to curb migration and that it will work for discussion of changes to current EU asylum rules which it says put an unfair burden on Italy.

Exploration Questions

  • Name three key events in Italian history and describe their significance.
  • What was the Renaissance?  Why is it important?  Why did it start in Italy?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Italy will leave the eurozone?  Why?  Why not?
  • Have you ever visited Italy?  What impressed you the most?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 624 pages.  The author tells the story of Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the great masters of the Renaissance, from his life and the development of his creative genius to his art and his science.
    Click here to order
  • Machiavelli, Niccolo, George Bull (translator), The Prince.  Penguin Classics, 2003.  106 pages.  Machiavelli’s political treatise advocates and endorses the use of ruthless tactics to gain and keep power.
    Click here to order
  • Alighieri, Dante, Peter Thornton (translator), The Inferno.  Arcade Publishing, 2017. 320 pages.  The Inferno, the first part of Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, takes the reader through Dante’s vision of hell.
    Click here to order