Italy is a Southern European country, encompassing the boot-shaped Italian peninsula and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Renowned for its ancient beauty and long tradition of intellectual innovation, it is a member of the European Union, NATO, and the G8, among other organizations.
From ancient Rome to the 21st century, Italy has gifted the world with hundreds of brilliant minds. Its long history bears witness to the oratory of Cato and Pliny, the philosophy of Boethius and Machiavelli, the innovation of Leonardo and Galileo, the music of Puccini and Vivaldi, and the art of Michelangelo and Botticelli; the list goes on and on. In the Middle Ages the country was divided into several independent kingdoms and city states, several of which held considerable international power. It was during this era that Florence brought the Renaissance to the rest of Europe, and the mighty Republic of Venice founded its vast mercantile empire. These separate polities united as the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, which became the modern Italian Republic in 1946. Since then the country has faced a variety of problems, including corruption in government, organized crime, and an economic downturn in the 1970s and 80s; still, it remains one of the world’s largest economic powers, and the sixth largest exporter of manufactured goods.
Today’s Italy is a blend of the old and the new, where ancient ruins stand adjacent to cobblestone streets crowded with Fiats and Alfa Romeos. The country hosts a wide variety of natural scenery, from sunny beaches to Alpine ski slopes, and hardly any city lacks at least one museum or historic locality. Italy is home to the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any country to date, so it is little wonder that 43.7 million tourists flock here each year, making it the fifth largest tourist destination in the world. Major exports include energy, appliances, defense technology and firearms, but Italy is probably more famous for its fashion and automobile industries, and its distinguished cuisine and agricultural products.
Italy was once a country of emigrants, but immigration has been on the rise in the past 20 years. Most immigrants come from Eastern Europe seeking work; a large community of North Africans exist as well, who were once Italy’s largest immigrant population. Other groups originate in Asia and Latin America. Of course, Italian civilization attracts a number of immigrants as well, and Italy has a long tradition of students, artists, and adventurers arriving to soak up the local culture, or just enjoy the pleasant climate and native hospitality.
Italian is the official language of Italy, used almost exclusively for communication, media, and government. It is a Romance language, directly descended from Latin. Although heavily dialectic, the standard variety, based on Tuscan, has gained nearly universal acceptance. English education is widespread, and many regional dialects and languages are still in use as well; these include Venetian, Friulian, and even an extremely ancient form of Greek!