Italy, country of south-central Europe, occupying a peninsula that juts deep into the Mediterranean Sea. Italy comprises some of the most varied and scenic landscapes on Earth and is often described as a country shaped like a boot. At its broad top stand the Alps, which are among the world’s most rugged mountains. Italy’s highest points are along Monte Rosa, which peaks in Switzerland, and along Mont Blanc, which peaks in France. The western Alps overlook a landscape of Alpine lakes and glacier-carved valleys that stretch down to the Po River and the Piedmont. Tuscany, to the south of the cisalpine region, is perhaps the country’s best-known region. From the central Alps, running down the length of the country, radiates the tall Apennine Range, which widens near Rome to cover nearly the entire width of the Italian peninsula. South of Rome the Apennines narrow and are flanked by two wide coastal plains, one facing the Tyrrhenian Sea and the other the Adriatic Sea. Much of the lower Apennine chain is near-wilderness, hosting a wide range of species rarely seen elsewhere in western Europe, such as wild boars, wolves, asps, and bears. The southern Apennines are also tectonically unstable, with several active volcanoes, including Vesuvius, which from time to time belches ash and steam into the air above Naples and its island-strewn bay. At the bottom of the country, in the Mediterranean Sea, lie the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
Italy’s political geography has been conditioned by this rugged landscape. With few direct roads between them, and with passage from one point to another traditionally difficult, Italy’s towns and cities have a history of self-sufficiency, independence, and mutual mistrust. Visitors today remark on how unlike one town is from the next, on the marked differences in cuisine and dialect, and on the many subtle divergences that make Italy seem less a single nation than a collection of culturally related points in an uncommonly pleasing setting.
Across a span of more than 3,000 years, Italian history has been marked by episodes of temporary unification and long separation, of intercommunal strife and failed empires. At peace for more than half a century now, Italy’s inhabitants enjoy a high standard of living and a highly developed culture.
Though its archaeological record stretches back tens of thousands of years, Italian history begins with the Etruscans, an ancient civilization that rose between the Arno and Tiber rivers. The Etruscans were supplanted in the 3rd century BCE by the Romans, who soon became the chief power in the Mediterranean world and whose empire stretched from India to Scotland by the 2nd century CE. That empire was rarely secure, not only because of the unwillingness of conquered peoples to stay conquered but also because of power struggles between competing Roman political factions, military leaders, families, ethnic groups, and religions. The Roman Empire fell in the 5th century CE after a succession of barbarian invasions through which Huns, Lombards, Ostrogoths, and Franks—mostly previous subjects of Rome—seized portions of Italy. Rule devolved to the level of the city-state, although the Normans succeeded in establishing a modest empire in southern Italy and Sicily in the 11th century. Many of those city-states flourished during the Renaissance era, a time marked by significant intellectual, artistic, and technological advances but also by savage warfare between states loyal to the pope and those loyal to the Holy Roman Empire.
Plains cover less than one-fourth of the area of Italy. Some of these, such as the Po valley and the Apulian Plain, are ancient sea gulfs filled by alluvium. Others, such as the Lecce Plain in Puglia, flank the sea on rocky plateaus about 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 metres) high, formed of ancient land leveled by the sea and subsequently uplifted. Plains in the interior, such as the long Chiana Valley, are made by alluvial or other filling of ancient basins. The most extensive and important plain in Italy, that of the Po valley, occupies more than 17,000 of the 27,000 square miles (44,000 of the 77,000 square km) of Italian plain land. It ranges in altitude from sea level up to 1,800 feet (550 metres), the greater part below 330 feet (100 metres). Through it runs the Po River and all its tributaries and the Reno, Adige, Piave, and Tagliamento rivers. The plain falls into several natural divisions. At its highest end, by the Alpine foothills, it is made up of parallel ferretto (red loam composed of ferrous clay) ridges, running from north to south, with areas of gravel and permeable sand between them. This section of the plain is terraced and unproductive, although the rainfall is high. Below this is a section where the rivers rise, their waters eventually providing vital irrigation both for the marcite (winter pastures) and for the intensive agriculture of the fertile lower plain. Other notable plains include the maremme of Tuscany and Lazio, reclaimed marshland with dunes at the edge of the sea; the Pontine Marshes, a recently reclaimed seaward extension of the Roman countryside (campagna); the fertile Campania Plain around Vesuvius; and the rather arid Apulian Plain. In Sicily the Plain of Catania is a good area for growing citrus fruit.