A Brief Look at Italy's History of Division

Tourist Boats Traffic on the Grand Canal at Sunset, Venice, Italy


Istvan Kadar Photography/Getty Images

The history of Italy is characterized by two periods of unity—the Roman Empire (27 BCE–476 CE) and the modern democratic republic formed after the end of World War II. Between those two periods may have been a millennium and a half of division and disruption, but that disruption saw one of the world's great flowering of art, the Renaissance (circa 1400–1600 CE).

Italy, sitting in southwestern Europe, is comprised largely of a boot-shaped peninsula that extends out into the Mediterranean, as well as a region on the core landmass of the continent. It is bordered by Switzerland and Austria to the north, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea to the east, France and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, and the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean to the south. Italy also includes the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

Roman Empire

Between the sixth to third centuries BCE, the Italian city of Rome conquered Peninsular Italy; over the next few centuries, this empire spread to dominate the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The Roman Empire would go on to define much of Europe's history, leaving a mark on culture and society that outlasted the military and political machinations of its leadership.

After the Italian part of the Roman Empire declined and “fell” in the fifth century (an event no one at the time realized was so significant), Italy was the target of several invasions. The previously united region broke apart into several smaller bodies, including the Papal States, governed by the Catholic Pope.

Renaissance and the Kingdom of Italy

By the eighth and ninth centuries, a number of powerful and trading-oriented city-states emerged, including Florence, Venice, and Genoa; these were the forces that incubated the Renaissance. Italy and its smaller states also went through stages of foreign domination. These smaller states were the fertile grounds of the Renaissance, which changed Europe massively once more and owed a lot to the competing states trying to outspend each other on glorious art and architecture.

Unification and independence movements throughout Italy developed ever stronger voices in the 19th century after Napoleon created the short-lived Kingdom of Italy. A war between Austria and France in 1859 allowed several small states to merge with Piedmont; a tipping point had been reached and the Kingdom of Italy was formed in 1861, growing by 1870—when the Papal States joined—to cover almost all of what we now call Italy.

Mussolini and Modern Italy

The Kingdom of Italy was subverted when Mussolini took power as a fascist dictator, and although he was initially skeptical of German dictator Adolf Hitler, Mussolini took Italy into World War II rather than risk losing out on what he perceived as a land grab. That choice caused his downfall. Modern Italy is now a democratic republic and has been since the modern constitution came into effect in 1948. This followed a referendum in 1946, which voted to abolish the previous monarchy by 12.7 million to 10.7 million votes.

Key Rulers

A great general and statesman, Julius Caesar won a civil war to become both sole ruler of the extensive Roman domains and dictator for life, setting in motion a process of transformation that led to the creation of the Roman Empire. He was assassinated by enemies and is arguably the most famous ancient Roman.

After exile in South America, forced upon him because of his role in an attempted republican revolution, Guiseppi Garibaldi commanded forces in several Italian conflicts of the 19th century. He played an important role in Italian unification when he and his volunteer army of “Redshirts” captured Sicily and Naples and allowed them to join the Kingdom of Italy. Although Garibaldi fell out with the new king, in 1862, he was offered a command in the U.S. Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln. That never occurred because Lincoln wouldn't agree to abolish slavery at that early date.

Mussolini became the youngest-ever prime minister of Italy in 1922, using his fascist organization of “Blackshirts” to propel him to power. He transformed the office into a dictatorship and allied with Hitler’s Germany, but was forced to flee when World War II turned Italy against him. He was captured and executed.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "A Brief Look at Italy's History of Division." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/summary-of-italian-history-1221657. Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 28). A Brief Look at Italy's History of Division. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/summary-of-italian-history-1221657 Wilde, Robert. "A Brief Look at Italy's History of Division." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/summary-of-italian-history-1221657 (accessed March 23, 2023).