Italy, as a name, covers the entire peninsula south of the Alps. Modern history in Italy could be said to start with the Romans who, from Rome, dominated the peninsula and way beyond from the 1st Century BC until the 5th Century AD.
Prior to the Romans the peninsula was populated by Indo-Europeans and the Etruscans. In the south of the peninsula and in Sicily the Greeks were the controlling force. Rome itself started expanding beyond the city around the 4th Century BC but it wasn’t until 42 BC that they controlled territory all the way to the Alps.
Roman history is well known, as is their decline. The first invaders to reach Rome were the Alaric and Visigoths in 452 AD. Attila and the Huns were there as were the Gaiseric and the Vandals. However, it was a mutiny by German mercenaries led by Odoacer in 476 that draws a line under Roman rule.
Odoacer was to rule the remnants of Rome until he was murdered in 493 by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Theodoric went on to rule for 33 years in a deal with Constantinople, the new centre of an empire which embraced Italy.
The history of Italy becomes less well defined after this period of calm. The Lombards invaded the northern plains from the 6th to 8th Century. Further south the Byzantines continued to rule, but from a new administrative base at Ravenna. Corsica and Sardinia became a new kingdom ruled from Carthage, whilst Sicily was directly linked to Constantinople.
The Lombards continued to take territory to the south, but in 735 Pope Stephen II gained land in central Italy with the support of the Frankish King Pepin III.
Over the next few centuries the papacy in Rome provided one of the stable elements. Elsewhere, city states such as Venice, Milan, Genoa, Florence and Naples as well as smaller towns developed self-governing communes. These eventually turned into states, controlled by rich traders such as the Medici, as well as dukedoms and kingdoms.
Those same cities were involved in skirmishes and eventually, control by the French, Spanish and in the case of Milan, the Hapsburgs. The partition of Italy by the mid-16th Century remained largely unchanged for the next 200 years until the arrival of Napoleon in 1796. By 1797 Napoleon and the French had control of most of northern Italy and by 1809 he had taken the rest of the peninsula.
Eventually it took the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig in 1813 for the Austrians to recover most of their lost territory in the north. In the south the single Kingdom of the Two Sicilies emerged, whilst the first of the secret societies seeking independence from their rulers started to meet.
The Carbonari (charcoal-burners) are the most famous of those secret societies and they achieved some success in a brief revolution in Naples in 1820. The flame they lit spread across Italy. Young members such as Giuseppe Mazzini founded Giovine Italia (Young Italy) in 1831. Although he and a young Sardinian sailor, Giuseppe Garibaldi, were exiled by 1848 people were openly talking of self-rule.
An uprising in Sicily in 1848 was mirrored by similar events in Paris and Vienna. These events led the people of Milan to rise up against their Austrian rulers and everywhere rebellions grew, leading to the declaration of the Roman Republic in February 1849. The republic was short lived as French forces invaded and the Austrians took back most of their territory.
Many of the liberal constitutions introduced during the revolution were revoked, with one exception, that of Piedmont with its newly crowned Victor Emmanuel II. Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the King’s Chief Minister and Giuseppe Garibaldi were the final driving forces behind the unification of Italy. With Garibaldi and his forces driving from the south and Cavour taking the north, the two forces met and on 17th March 1761 Victor Emmanuel was proclaimed King of Italy.
Only Venice and Rome remained outside the new state. Venice joined after the Treaty of Vienna in 1866 and Rome became the capital in 1871 when the government moved there from Florence. The situation over the Vatican City remained an anomaly until 1929 when the Lateran Accord accorded the Vatican as an independent enclave.
The early leaders of Italy were a mixed bunch; Agostino Depretis was a liberal and compromiser leading his country until his death in 1887. Francesco Crispi was a more dictatorial character who sought to reduce the powers of parliament and was a role model for the later dictator Benito Mussolini. Giovanni Giolitti became prime minister five times over the period 1891 to 1921 and was a reformer.
At the start of World War One, Italy tried to remain neutral in the fights around them, but on 23rd May 1915 they declared war on Austria Hungary; this ended up in a messy trench warfare which took large numbers of lives in a mirror of the war further to the north.
After World War One, Benito Mussolini became more active and in March 1919 he formed the Fasci di Combattimento (League for Combat). They became known as Blackshirts and as a right wing group took on the Socialists and Communists alike.
Mussolini’s forces grew as did his confidence and in 1922 he took his chances against a weak and ineffective government and seized power with the backing of Victor Emmanuel III. Over the next few years he gradually tightened his grip and in January 1925 he declared himself dictator. By November 1926 all non-fascist political activity was banned.
In 1924 Il Duce, as Mussolini became known, decided to join forces with Adolf Hitler and the German Nazis. Subsequently Italy was part of the Axis forces in the Second World War. The war was a disaster for Italy; first they lost all of their overseas territories and then the Allies invaded Sicily. On 24th July 1943 the Fascist Grand Council passed a vote of no confidence in Mussolini, he was arrested and on 8th September that year Italy surrendered to the Allies. The war was not over though and the Germans occupied Italy and fought a series of battle lines with the advancing Allied forces. Mussolini was freed by German SS troops but later in the war was captured and hanged by Italian militia.
After the Second World War, Victor Emmanuel III’s support for Mussolini helped republicans to secure a referendum and in June 1946 the country voted narrowly to become a republic.
The fascist government was replaced in June 1944 by a government led by Ivanoe Bonomi. Several years and three prime ministers later, Provisional President Enrico de Nicola took the helm on 18th June 1946. General elections that year saw a 556 Constituent Assembly elected, with the role of creating a new constitution. A fresh election in 1948 with a new constitution saw the Christian Democrats take a comfortable majority, with 305 of the 574 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
The Christian Democrats were to dominate Italian politics for much of the next forty years. In 1957 Italy became a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) which later became the European Union (EU).
Italy was to experience an economic boom until political instability in the 1970s led to widespread strikes and acts of terrorism. The Christian Democrats slowly declined and the Communist Party of Italy along with the Socialist Party of Italy became more prominent.
By 1992, a series of political scandals saw most parties embroiled and the main parties were all dissolved by 1994. The inevitable vacuum allowed a new coalition called “Poles of Freedom” led by Silvio Berlusconi, a rich media magnate, to come to the fore in the 1994 general election.
Berlusconi’s tenure as Prime Minister was short lived when in 1996 the Northern League pulled out of the coalition and fresh elections were held. The general election of 1996 saw a centre-left coalition “The Olive Tree” come into office under the leadership of Romano Prodi. He lasted until 1998, was ousted in a vote of no confidence and his successor, Massimo D’Alema of the Democrats of the Left also lasted just two years.
Fresh elections in 2001 saw Silvio Berlusconi back and, for once, a prime minister managed to survive a full five year term.
The 2006 general election saw the return of the left and Romano Prodi, but two years later, in 2008, Silvio Berlusconi was back at the head of a new broad coalition, the People of Freedom (PdL). The Eurozone Crisis of 2011 took its toll on Italy and with a series of personal scandals leading to court cases, Berlusconi was forced to resign on 12th November 2011.
The choice then was between an election and the formation of a technocrat government. The political parties eventually came together and, on 16th November 2012, Mario Monti formed a technocrat government in order to impose austerity measures on the Italian economy. The technocrat government lasted just one year when the majority of Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition withdrew their support, Mario Monti announced his resignation as Prime Minister and a general election was called for 24/25th February 2013.
Berlusconi may have been hoping that a centre-right government could be formed but the final result of the 2013 election gave the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and their eight party coalition called ‘Italy, Common Good’ 345 of the 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 123 of the 315 seats in the Senate. Because the PD had been unable to garner a majority in the Senate it took some days before a grand coalition was formed led by Enrico Letta.
Prime Minister Letta found the business of keeping the grand coalition together a tough task and little progress was made in the first few months. Frustration was building in the party and on 13th February 2014 Letta stood down and the party selected the 39 year old Matteo Renzi as the new Prime Minister. Renzi appears to have succeeded where Letta failed and so far has managed to push through a number of modest reforms to the economy and constitutionally. Renzi seems to be winning friends both internationally and within Italy and on 7th February 2015 five Senators and two deputies from the centrist Civic Choice defected to the Democratic Party citing Renzi’s leadership as their reason.
The President of the Republic is elected by an electoral college consisting of both houses of Parliament and 58 regional representatives. The president’s election needs a wide majority that is progressively reduced from two-thirds to one-half plus one of the votes as the ballots progress. Although it is not forbidden by law, no president has ever served two terms.
The bicameral Parliament consists of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. The Senate has 315 seats of which 232 are directly elected and 83 are elected by regional proportional representation. In addition, there are a small number of senators for life including former presidents of the republic. The Chamber of Deputies has 630 seats of which 475 are directly elected and 155 by regional proportional representation (21st June 2012 the Parliament agreed to reduce the number of Deputies to 508 at the next election).
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Italy at joint 60th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 47 (where 100 is least corrupt).