A land of vivid art in many domains—visual, culinary, architectural, literary, musical—and a land of long and equally vivid history, Italy lives large in the popular imagination of people around the world.
The land now known as Italy was home to the peoples of ancient civilizations, including the Etruscans, now seen as foundational to the later civilization of Rome. When Rome came to great power, Italy became the mighty center of the Mediterranean and European worlds. Over time, Rome also came to exert enormous influence on the Christian movement. The bishop of Rome was recognized by the Western Church as having special authority; this recognition culminated in the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church. (Today, approximately 90% of Italy’s population is Roman Catholic, with about one-third of that number regularly attending services.)
Italy lost its political unity after the fall of the Roman Empire and became a fragmented collection of republics and principalities. Each of these regions had its effect on Western culture; Italy is known as the seedbed of ideas that spread across Europe, including the Baroque and Renaissance movements. Artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Titian and Raphael; authors like Dante Alighieri; composers like Vivaldi, Paganini, and Verdi—these are just a few of the great Italian talents who would shape the arts for centuries to come.
The action and ideas which came with the era of Napoleon eventually inspired the reunification of Italy in 1861. Unification was resisted by the peoples of the South, most of whom spoke regional dialects, but the regional states of the peninsula, along with Sardinia and Sicily, were united under King Victor Emmanuel II. An era of parliamentary government came to a close in the early 1920s when Benito Mussolini established a Fascist dictatorship. His alliance with Nazi Germany led to Italy's defeat in World War II. A democratic republic replaced the monarchy in 1946 and economic revival followed.
Italy is often referred to as "il Belpaese" (Italian for beautiful country) by its inhabitants. The country is home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world.