As a nation state, Italy has emerged only in 1871. Until then the country was politically divided into a large number of independant cities, provinces and islands. The currently available evidences point out to a dominant Etruscan, Greek and Roman cultural influence on today's Italians.
The earliest human settlements within the territory of present-day Italy date almost certainly to the initial phase of the Quaternary era (Pleistocene). This period was characterized by frequent alternation in climatic conditions, with consequent phases of expansion and retreat in the Alpine and Apennine glaciers and relative variations in sea level.
With the Iron Age Italy and her population practically enter the historical period. Until the end of 5th century A.D. Italy was dominated a number of tribes, and finally the Romans. The last hundred years of the Western Roman Empire, from the second half of the 4th century, coincided with large migrations of Germanic peoples (Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Huns, Heruli, Alemanni etc.) who on different occasions settled within her territories. At the same time economic conditions also reflected the political instability of the imperial government, it deteriorated gradually and was accompanied by a chronic fall in population.
It was in this period that the influence of the Christian church began to make itself felt more consistently. This was in contrast to the progressive orientalization of the Empire, now focused on its new capital of Costantinople, founded by the emperor Constantine between 326-330 on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium.
With first the Normans and then the Hohenstaufen (1220-1266), besides the institution of particularly efficient state structures that formed a network of control throughout the territory, there was introduced into Italy, with all its juridical implications, the feudal system. This further favoured the expansion of large establishments, whether civil or ecclesiastical, but conserved for the towns sufficient independence to guarantee the development of economic activities.
The ending of imperial authority, quickly followed by the papal crisis involving its transfer to France from 1309 to 1377, was accompanied by a strengthening in the independence of the Northern and Central Italian communes. There was also a notable economic improvement for the majority of towns in the Po Valley and Tuscany.
The scarse inclination of the newly-formed urban middle-class for military activities led to a search for the protection and support of their interests by the powerful feudal families. In a short time, although in the name of the people, they acquired the signoria or lordship of the old communes. Their sphere of interest then often spread considerably beyond the original town and its surrounding district, forming a much more extensive territory. In practice, the change from commune to new signoria also signified the transformation of the first city-states into true and proper States, whose political force was therefore directly connected to their economic power.
In this atmosphere of renewed vitality, culture also prospered with a new enthusiasm for the study of the classical world and a revaluation of interest in nature and man (humanism). The arts (from literature to the expressive and figurative) had one of their finest moments. The appearance of towns was transformed with the introduction of new styles of architecture. During this period Italy indeed became the cultural centre of Europe.
A period of calm, in the agitated political panorama of Renaissance Italy, seemed to be heralded by the Peace of Lodi (1454). The great Italian states of Milan, Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples agreed to guarantee through the Lega Italica at least forty years of peace and stability.
Between the mid-15th century and the mid-18th century, Italian city states fought against the Spanish and then the French domination. They gained their independence after this long and politically chaotic period.
The next fifty years saw a period of relative political stability and economic progress for all the various Italian States. Judicial and administrative reforms were carried out, generally marked by increased efficiency in state structures. This was also due to the actions of statesmen and enlightened sovereigns like Maria Teresa of Austria and Joseph II in Lombardy, Bernardo Tanucci at Naples, Pietro Leopoldo in Tuscany and Pius VI at Rome.
Following this brief but intense period came first the echo of the French Revolution (1789) and the tragic end of the French monarchy (1792) and then the resounding reality of the Napoleonic armies. The latter's first Italian Campaign (1796) carried with it the hope of an independent Italy before too long. Spanish predominance in Italy, extending over some two centuries, had rather negative consequences for the country, whose economy, especially in the rich northern and central regions underwent a disastrous decline. This brought in its train social and cultural repercussions. The imbalance between the southern regions and the rest of the country increased, above all in the agricultural sector.
After the revolution, Italy had to concede to France cultural leadership. A contribution that was to play a significant role in the political and philosophical debate leading to the revolutionary spirit of the 18th century. Earlier, however, and again from France, there had spread throughout Europe, of course including Italy, the new spirit of Enlightenment. This was a reaction against the restrictions imposed by tradition and religious faith, revaluing the human intellectual capacity and individual conscience in its ability to confront and resolve the great issues of humanity and its destiny through the use of reason alone. Favoured also by the renewal of economic and civil life through a series of reforms stemming from the tolerant and enlightened rulers of the period, Italy made her main contribution in this field at Milan and Naples by the actions of statesmen and economists of the calibre of Beccaria, Verri, Romagnosi, Galiani, Genovesi, Pagano and Filangieri. Reforming activities were however abruptly interrupted by the events of the French Revolution, bringing into question the very concepts of State and Society under the pressure of the new Jacobinism.
The Italian political and territorial picture, which at the end of the 18C seemed to have stabilised, rapidly disintegrated in the face of Napoleon Bonaparte's first military campaign across the peninsula so as to successfully attack the Austrian Empire on its southern flank. Successive events further reinforced Napoleon's control of Italy. His brother-in-law Murat ascended the throne of Naples; the Kingdom of Italy was expanded with the Trentino and Alto Adige (the latter fiercely defended by Andreas Hofer); and Tuscany and the Papal States were incorporated in the new French Empire (Peace of Schönbrunn, 14 October 1810). But after a brief interlude, the failure of Napoleon's Russian Campaign and his defeats at Leipzig (1813) and Waterloo (1815), as well as Murat's tragic end (October 1815), brought back to Italy the restoration of the old political and territorial order under the terms of the Congress of Vienna (June 1815). But the seeds of liberty and change had been sown in Italy above all with the First Napoleonic Campaign and a sense of national unity had been aroused by the establishment of first republican structures and then the Kingdom of Italy.
Following the plebiscite that voted in favour of annexation to Piedmont (1860), there then began the construction, together with the territory of Southern Italy that had been taken by Garibaldi's expedition of `The Thousand', of the United Kingdom of Italy. This was to be proclaimed at Turin on 17 March 1861, though the acquisition of Rome and Venice were still outstanding. The latter was added five years later (1866) following an unfortunate conflict with Austria, which was resolved in Italy's favour thanks to the intervention of Prussia; Rome was conquered by force, 20 September 1870, on the fall of Napoleon III. With these events the territorial unity of the Italian nation was almost complete and it was now necessary to construct its own social, economic and cultural image.
Among the numerous and complex problems of the new State emerged the need to bring uniformity to a territory that was so politically and economically diverse. The indiscriminate application of the administrative, judicial and fiscal structures of the old Piedmont was to create a further divide between Italy's more economically developed Northern and Central regions and the structurally weaker Southern region (the Mezzogiorno). A mass emigration of peasants and the poorest classes to the two Americas occurred (in the decades spanning the 19-20C the number reached several million) and the so-called southern question took root. At the same time, in order to compete with the other European powers, Italy followed a policy of colonial expansion in Africa. She occupied Eritrea (1885-96), Somalia (1889-1905), Libya and the islands of the Aegean (1911-12). A commercial concession (500 sq miles) centred on Tien-Tsin was obtained from China in 1902.
In the economic and social areas the period from the taking of Rome to Italy entering the First World War (1870-1915) was characterized by general growth in the whole country. This was undoubtedly favoured by an interlude in international politics that allowed Italy to put her financial affairs in order and re-organize her administrative structure. There then followed the development of certain essential sectors, such as the rail network and basic industries, often making use of foreign capital. At the same time, attempts were made to strengthen international political relations (by joining in the Triple Alliance with the Germany of Bismark and the Austria of Franz Joseph) and commercial links, even if it was eventually necessary to resort to protectionism in order to protect the still fragile national economy. While agriculture encountered notable difficulties due to the fall in prices on foreign markets and the backward conditions of a large part of the countryside, as well as the scourge of malaria, industry was a growth area. The textile industry, with its two main sectors of silk and cotton, as well as the metallurgical and mechanical industries were favoured by increasing supplies of electrical energy from the newly built water-powered plants in the upper Alpine and Apennine valleys.
Just after the WWI, which was already lost, a number of new political parties were founded; Partito Popolare (1919), by Luigi Sturzo, as a continuation of the Democrazia Cristiana; Partito Comunista d'Italia (1921, at Leghorn), from a split with the Partito Socialista and led by Antonio Gramsci; and, finally, the Fasci di Combattimento of Benito Mussolini, previously a socialist leader and an ardent interventionist. This latter movement, after having obtained 35 deputies in the 1921 election, transformed itself into the Partito Nazionale Fascista equipped with a revolutionary programme that, after the episode of the March on Rome of 28 October 1922, brought Mussolini to the head of a government.
Having obtained a parliamentary majority in the 1924 election and the following year passed a law increasing the powers of the head of government, it was in 1926, with the abolition of all the other political parties, that the Fascist dictatorship formally began.
In its external policy the Fascist regime especially sought prestige by further colonial expansion, as that into Ethiopia (1935-36) or participation in the Spanish Civil War on the side of Franco's forces. Gradually, Italy's good relations with France, Britain and the Soviet Union (whose revolutionary government Italy was the first country to recognize) deteriorated, while her links with Hitler's Germany increased (Rome-Berlin Axis, 1936). In 1939 the Pact of Steel with Germany, after an initially non-belligerent phase, inevitably dragged Italy, in 1940, into the tragic events of the Second World War (1939-45).
Italy's increasingly unsuccessful war, fought on many fronts and against better trained and equipped armies, overwhelmed Mussolini in 1943, when he was censured by his own party. He was replaced as head of government by the Marshall Pietro Badoglio, who immediately signed an armistice with the allied powers (3 September 1943). The formation of a new government by Mussolini in Northern Italy, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana based at Salò, with the support of Germany and in opposition to the monarchial government (temporarily based at Brindisi) provoked a civil war. This was only brought to an end by the intervention of the allied armies, the formation of the partisans, the abdication of the king and the end of Mussolini (28 April-2 May 1945).
After an interlude with several national coalition governments and the provisional rule of Umberto II of Savoy, Alcide De Gasperi of the Democrazia Cristiana became President of the Council. On 2 June 1946 the results of the institutional referendum brought to an end the monarchy of the House of Savoy (its last king, Umberto II, going into exile) and heralded the republic which was officially proclaimed on 18 June 1946. Enrico De Nicola was elected as the Republic's first President. Under the government led by De Gasperi, the first parliamentary assembly to be freely elected by the people began work on the new Constitutional Charter that was to come into force on 1 January 1948.