Italian Culture

Published 18 Jan 2017

A rich tapestry

From the Mediterranean south to the alpine north, Italy is a nation with a rich and sometimes turbulent history. The Italian culture is the product of many influences, but is unique in its own right. Italy is not a large nation in comparison to others, but its influence on our world has been profound.

Italy is located on a peninsula extending into the Mediterranean Sea. The 58 million people who live there are both proud and welcoming of others. The climate can vary widely from the cooler mountains in the north to the balmy coast along the Mediterranean. The population is densely packed and perse. The rich history of the country and the beautiful sights make Italy one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

A Brief History

Italy, as a nation-state, was formed in 1861 as a combination of smaller regions. The history of the Italian people goes back much farther. For 3000 years the land now known as Italy was invaded and conquered by various other powers.

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Italy was home to several artistic and literate civilizations, such as the Etruscans, Greeks and Romans. Religion is important in the lives of Italians. The Vatican, located within Rome, is itself an independent Catholic country.

The ancient Roman Empire was a dominant force, both militarily and culturally. At one point the empire encompassed much of Europe, stretching as far north as modern day Scotland. During this period, phenomenal advances were made in science, technology and philosophy. Eventually the empire established Christianity as its official religion. In the following centuries, Popes would wield a great deal of power over Italy and the rest of Europe.

World War Two was a particularly tumultuous time for Italians. The fascist dictator Benito Mussolini established a regime that allied itself with Nazi Germany. Allied forces invaded to drive Axis forces out. Mussolini was deposed and publicly executed as the war drew to a close. The suffering of the people during the war was accompanied by the destruction and plunder of many precious relics, some thousands of years old.

The People

The median age of an Italian is 42.2 years. The population is relatively stable, only rising at the rate of .04% yearly (CIA, 2006). About 90% are Roman Catholic, but there are also well established Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities.

In this sense, Italy may be out of step with the rest of Europe. According to Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times:

When the Vatican looks out at the state of the Western European family, it is alarmed. It sees parents and children at the mercy of overly secular nations awash in laws and practices that liberalize evils, from abortion to gay marriage. (2006, Pg.1)

In keeping with their religion, family is a central element of Italian life. Strong family values also characterize Italian immigrants to other countries. It is a major factor in their success. Family responsibilities come before any other. It is traditionally a patriarchal culture, but industrialization and other factors are changing this.

A strong work ethic is central to the Italian personality. Although Italians are known for a robust enjoyment of life, they also work very hard. Education is part of this ethic. Even Italians with little education take interest and are active in the education of their children.

Weddings are a sacred tradition, particularly for Catholic Italians. They are held in a church and adhere to a number of rites and traditions. The groom must gain the permission of the bride’s father. Marriages must not be scheduled around events on the Catholic calendar, such as Lent and the advent. Traditionally, brides wore green dresses, but today most wear white. Guests throw rice and confetti to represent good fortune.

Wedding receptions are energetic and jovial affairs. Food is central to the celebration. Guests may be served as many as a dozen courses, including antipasto, fish, desserts, salads, fruits and wine.

Many traditional Italian foods have become worldwide favorites. Ravioli and other pastas are eaten everywhere. Pizza also has its origins in Italy.

A traditional Christmas meal in Italy begins with fish, made many different ways. This is in keeping with the Lenten tradition. After midnight meat dishes may be served. Italian fruit cake might be served for dessert. All Christmas desserts have nuts. Traditionally, nuts are a symbol of virility. Food is also a social tool. When Italians first meet, they often will invite each other to dinner.

Italians are expressive people, often using animated gestures while communicating. This is a trait that goes back at least to Roman times when gladiators were given a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating by audiences. Such gestures today are part of Italian etiquette. For example, stroking of the chin may be seen as a sign of indecisiveness. A pinch of the nose is a negative reaction, while sitting with legs crossed at the ankle is a show of respect for tradition. Crossing the arms shows defensiveness. Hand gestures modify or amplify the meaning of words. Humor is a staple of Italian culture. Laughing is seen as a necessary part of life. Most families have at least one good joke teller or practical joker.

The expressive Italian nature is seen in their dress as well. Italian designers such as Gucci and Dior are on the cutting edge of European fashion.

The Nation

Modern day Italy is a republic and a member of the European Union. The capital is Rome. The official language is Italian. It comes directly from Latin, an ancient language of the region. The combination of many immigrants, of many languages, over hundreds of years formed the Italian we hear today.

There are some areas where local dialects are spoken. There are also some regions of the country where German, French and Slovene are spoken. The country enjoys a literacy rate of 98.6% (CIA, 2006).

Recently, Prime Minister Berlusconi was defeated. This has unclear implications for relations with the United States. The Berlusconi government was generally U.S. friendly. Italy committed troops to the war on terror, but pressure is building for their withdrawal.

Italy celebrates several national holidays. They include Republic Day (June 2), Independence Day (March 17) and Christmas (Dec. 25).

The Italian region has been a hub of art and architecture for thousands of years. Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael are among the many world renowned artists who come from what is now Italy. Roman architecture is legendary for its innovation. Its arenas, aqueducts and road systems were the tools to expand an empire that once dominated much of Europe.

Music is important to the lives of Italians. Italy is the birthplace of opera. Several orchestral instruments were invented in Italy, and many great composers come from there. The country is steeped in history and culture. Evidence of highly advanced civilization from thousands of years ago still awes visitors. Timothy Egan, of the New York Times writes of its feel:

…in the heart of the Chianti Classico district, where the black rooster symbol of one of the world’s oldest wine regions is as ubiquitous as the crucifix. We have seen Siena in all seasons, probed Etruscan tombs outside Volterra and wondered what Donald Trump would do to mess with the ancient skyscrapers of San Gimignano, the Medieval Manhattan. (2006, Pg. B1)

Italy has been a site of advanced culture as long as anywhere in the world. It has also been the site of many wars and a great deal of human strife. Today’s Italy is home to a highly educated and productive culture. It is a land of great natural beauty. Its residents are proud Italians who hail from a number of regions. Civilization in those regions dates back thousands of years, so naturally there will be some differences in dialect and cultural traditions.

The people, generally speaking, are family oriented, industrious and welcoming. Like many highly industrialized countries, Italy is a draw for immigrants and will face the growing pains as the population becomes even more perse.

Although Catholicism is by far the dominant religion, other faiths are gaining a foothold. The recent riots in France show that European countries must focus on better assimilating their new citizens. Many of them bring different faiths and cultural traditions.

People choosing to live in, or just visit, Italy are likely to find a hardworking and welcoming people who confident and sure of their rich history.


  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (2006).The World Factbook: Italy. Retrieved 5/23/2006 from:
  • Curci, Cookie. (2006). Body Gestures: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Retrieved 5/23/2006 from:
  • Duggan, Christopher. (1984). A Concise History of Italy. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Egan, Timothy. (2006). Exploring Tuscany’s Lost Corner. The New York Times: May 21, Sec 2, Pg1.
  • Field, Carol. (1997). Celebrating Italy: Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through Its Feasts, Festivals and Sumptuous Foods. New York: Morrow Books.
  • Wilkinson, Tracy. (2006). Southern Europe Seeing a Breakup Boom. Los Angeles Times: May 21. Pg.A1.
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