Prehistory and ancient Rome
Excavations throughout Italy reveal a modern human presence dating back to the Paleolithic period, some 200,000 years ago. The Italic tribes of pre-Roman Italy, such as the Umbrians, the Latins, Volsci, Samnites, the Celts and the Ligures which inhabited northern Italy, and many others are most of Indo-European stock; main historic peoples of non-Indo-European heritage include the Etruscans, the Elymians and Sicani in Sicily and the prehistoric Sardinians.
Between the 17th to the 11th century BC Mycenaean Greeks established contacts with Italy and in the 8th and 7th centuries BC Greek colonies were established all along the coast of Sicily and the southern part of the Italian Peninsula became known as Magna Graecia. Also the Phoenicians established colonies on the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily.
Ancient Rome was at first a small agricultural community founded c. the 8th century BC, that grew over the course of the centuries into a colossal empire encompassing the whole Mediterranean Sea, in which Ancient Greek and Roman cultures merged into one civilization. This civilization was so influential that parts of it survive in modern law, administration, philosophy and arts, forming the ground that Western civilization is based upon. In a slow decline since the late 4th century AD, the empire finally broke into two parts in 395 AD: the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. The western part, under the pressure of the Franks, the Vandals, the Huns, the Goths and other populations from Eastern Europe, finally dissolved, leaving the Italian peninsula divided into small independent kingdoms and feuding city states for the next 1,300 years.
In the 6th century the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I reconquered Italy from the Ostrogoths. The invasion of a new wave of Germanic tribes, the Lombards late in the same century, reduced the Byzantine presence to the Exarchate of Ravenna and other lands in southern Italy. The Lombard reign of northern and central Italy was absorbed into the Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the late 8th century. The Frankish kings also helped the Popes to establish a true state in central Italy, extending from Rome to Ravenna, although for most of the Middle Ages they effectively controlled only what is now Lazio. Until the 13th century, Italian politics was dominated by the relationship between the German Holy Roman Emperors and the popes, with most of the Italian states siding for one or another depending from momentary convenience.
It was during this vacuum of authority that the region saw the rise of institutions such as the Signoria and the medieval commune. Despite the devastation of the numerous wars, Italy maintained, especially in the north, a relatively developed urban civilization, which later evolved in the peculiar phenomenon of its merchant Republics. These city-states, oligarchical in reality, had a dominant merchant class which under relative freedom nurtured academic and artistic advancement. Notable amongst them, in northern Italy, was Milan: in the 12th century it led the Lombard League in the defeat of the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, which led to a process granting effective independence to most of northern and central Italian cities.
During the same period, Italy saw the rise to numerous Maritime Republics, the most famous of which were Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi. These maritime republics were also heavily involved in the Crusades, taking advantage of the new political and trading opportunities. Venice and Genoa soon became Europe's main gateways to trade with the East, establishing colonies as far as the Black Sea and often controlling most of the trades of the Byzantine Empire and with the Islamic Mediterranean world. Milan also formed a state of its own, the Duchy of Milan, occupying western Lombardy. Piedmont evolved from the unimportant county of Savoy to a mid-size duchy in the late Middle Ages. Florence developed into a highly organized commercial and financial city, becoming for many centuries the European capital of silk, wool, banks and jewelry.
In the south, Sicily became an Islamic emirate in the 9th century, and thrived until the Normans conquered it in the late 11th century, together with most of the Lombard and Byzantine states of southern Italy. Through a complex series of events, southern Italy remained an unified kingdom, first under the House of Hohenstaufen, then under the House of Anjou and, from the 15th century, the house of Aragon. In Sardinia, the former Byzantines provinces became independent states known as giudicati, although most of the island was under Genoese or Pisan control, until the Aragonese conquered it in the 15th century.
Renaissance (15th–16th century)
The Black Death pandemic in 1348 left its mark on Italy by killing one third of the population. However, the recovery from the disaster of the Black Death led to a resurgence of cities, trade and economy which greatly stimulated the successive phase of the Humanism and Renaissance, that best known for its cultural achievements.
Accounts of Renaissance literature usually begin with Petrarch and his friend and contemporary Boccaccio. Famous vernacular poets and writers of the 15th century include the renaissance epic authors. Italian Renaissance painting exercised a dominant influence on subsequent European painting for centuries afterwards. The same is true for architecture. Their works include Florence Cathedral, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. Finally, the Aldine Press, founded by the printer Aldo Manuzio, active in Venice, developed Italic type and the small, relatively portable and inexpensive printed book that could be carried in one's pocket, as well as being the first to publish editions of books in Ancient Greek.
Foreign domination and Napoleonic Wars (17th–19th centuries)
The history of Italy in the early modern period was characterized by foreign domination: following the Italian Wars (1494 to 1559), Italy saw a long period of relative peace, first under Habsburg Spain (1559 to 1713) and then under Habsburg Austria (1713 to 1796).
The Black Death repeatedly returned to haunt Italy throughout the 14th to 17th centuries. The plague of 1575–77 claimed some 50,000 victims in Venice. In the first half of the 17th century a plague claimed some 1,730,000 victims, or about 14% of Italy’s population. The Great Plague of Milan occurred from 1629 through 1631 in northern Italy, with the cities of Lombardy and Venice experiencing particularly high death rates. In 1656 the plague killed about half of Naples' 300,000 inhabitants.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the northern part of the country was invaded and reorganized as a new kingdom of Italy, that was a client state of the French Empire from 1796 to 1814, while the southern half of the peninsula was administered by Joachim Murat, Napoleon's brother in law, that was crowned as King of Naples. The Congress of Vienna (1814) restored the situation of the late 18th century, which was however quickly overturned by the incipient movement of Italian unification.
Italian unification and Liberal Italy (1861–1922)
The creation of the Kingdom of Italy was the result of efforts by Italian nationalists and monarchists loyal to the House of Savoy to establish a united kingdom encompassing the entire Italian Peninsula. In the context of the 1848 liberal revolutions that swept through Europe, an unsuccessful war was declared on Austria. Giuseppe Garibaldi led the Italian republican drive for unification in southern Italy, while the northern Italian monarchy of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia whose government was led by Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, had the ambition of establishing a united Italian state under its rule. The kingdom successfully challenged the Austrian Empire in the Second Italian War of Independence with the help of Napoleon III, liberating the Lombardy-Venetia. It established Turin as capital of the newly formed state. In 1865 the capital was moved to Florence. In 1866, Victor Emmanuel II aligned the kingdom with Prussia during the Austro-Prussian War, waging the Third Italian War of Independence which allowed Italy to annex Venice. In 1870, as France during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War abandoned its positions in Rome, Italy rushed to fill the power gap by taking over the Papal State from French sovereignty.
Italian unification finally was achieved, and shortly afterwards Italy's capital was moved from Florence to Rome. Whilst keeping the monarchy, the government became a parliamentary system, dominated by the liberals.
As Northern Italy became industrialized and modernized, Southern Italy and rural areas of the north remained under-developed and stagnant, forcing millions of people to migrate to the emerging Industrial Triangle or abroad. The Sardinian Albertine Statute of 1848, extended to the whole Kingdom of Italy in 1861, provided for basic freedoms, but the electoral laws excluded the non-propertied and uneducated classes from voting. In 1913, male universal suffrage was adopted. The Italian Socialist Party increased in strength, challenging the traditional liberal and conservative organisations.
Starting from the last two decades of the 19th century, Italy developed into a colonial power by forcing Somalia, Eritrea and later Libya and the Dodecanese under its rule. During World War I, Italy at first stayed neutral but in 1915 signed the Treaty of London, entering Entente on the promise of receiving Trento, Trieste, Gorizia and Gradisca, Istria and northern Dalmatia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as parts of Ottoman Empire. Under the Peace Treaties of Saint-Germain, Rapallo and Rome, Italy obtained most of the promised territories, including the town of Fiume.
Fascist dictatorship (1922–1943)
The turbulence that followed the devastation of World War I, inspired by the Russian Revolution, led to turmoil and anarchy. The liberal establishment, fearing a socialist revolution, started to endorse the small National Fascist Party, led by Benito Mussolini. In October 1922 the fascists attempted a coup, supported by King Victor Emmanuel III. Over the next few years, Mussolini banned all political parties and curtailed personal liberties, thus forming a dictatorship. In 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, resulting in an international alienation and leading to Italy's withdrawal from the League of Nations. Consequently, Italy allied with Nazi Germany and Empire of Japan and strongly supported Franco in the Spanish civil war. In 1939, Italy occupied Albania, a de facto protectorate for decades, and entered World War II in 1940 on the side of the Axis powers. Mussolini, wanting a quick victory like Hitler's Blitzkriegs in Poland and France, invaded Greece in October 1940 but was forced to accept a humiliating stalemate after a few months. At the same time, Italy, after initially conquering British Somalia and parts of Egypt, saw an allied counter-attack lead to the loss of all possessions in the Horn of Africa and in North Africa.
Italy was then invaded by the Allies in July 1943, leading to the collapse of the Fascist regime and the fall of Mussolini. In September 1943, Italy surrendered. The country remained a battlefield for the rest of the war, as the allies were moving up from the south as the north was the base for loyalist Italian fascist and German Nazi forces, fought also by the Italian resistance movement. The hostilities ended on 2 May 1945. Nearly half a million Italians (including civilians) died in the conflict and the Italian economy had been all but destroyed; per capita income in 1944 was at its lowest point since the beginning of the 20th century.
Italian Republic (1946–present)
In 1946, Victor Emmanuel III's son, Umberto II, was forced to abdicate. Italy became a republic after a referendum held on 2 June 1946, a day celebrated since as Republic Day. This was also the first time that Italian women were entitled to vote. The Republican Constitution was approved and came into force on 1 January 1948. Under the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947, the eastern border area was lost to Yugoslavia, and, later, the free territory of Trieste was divided between the two states. Fears in the Italian electorate of a possible Communist takeover proved crucial for the first universal suffrage electoral outcome on 18 April 1948, when the Christian Democrats, under the leadership of Alcide De Gasperi, obtained a landslide victory. Consequently, in 1949 Italy became a member of NATO. The Marshall Plan helped to revive the Italian economy which, until the late 1960s, enjoyed a period of sustained economic growth commonly called the "Economic Miracle". In 1957, Italy was a founding member of the European Economic Community (EEC), which became the European Union (EU) in 1993.