Italy is a boot-shaped peninsula that juts out of southern Europe into the Adriatic Sea, Tyrrhenian Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and other waters. Its location has played an important role in its history.
The sea surrounds Italy, and mountains crisscross the interior, dividing it into regions. The Alps cut across the top of the country and are streaked with long, thin glacial lakes. From the western end of the Alps, the Apennines mountains stretch south down the entire peninsula.
West of the Apennines are wooded hills that are home to many of Italy's historic cities, including Rome. In the south are hot, dry coastlands and fertile plains where olives, almonds, and figs are grown.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Since the rise of the Roman Empire, Italian art, architecture, and culture have had an influence around the world. Famed Italian painters include Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Italy is also at the heart of the Catholic Church, which is governed from Vatican City, a city-state surrounded by Rome.
The family is at the center of Italian society. Young people often live at home until they are in their 30s, even if they have a job. When parents retire, they often go to live with their children.
For 22 centuries, Italians and their ancestors have cleared fields, grazed livestock, and hunted wild animals. Forests that once covered large areas are gone. But the country's remote places and many national parks still have wilderness largely untouched by humans.
The lower slopes of Italy's Alps are covered with forests. Above these woodlands are meadows that explode with specially adapted wildflowers in the spring. Throughout Italy, millions of birds stop to rest during their annual migration to Africa.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
In Italy, politics can often be exciting and noisy. Crowds gather in the streets to protest government policies or to show support for their party.
Since World War II, Italy has enjoyed an economic transformation. Industry grew, and by the mid-1960s, Italy had become one of the world's leading economies. Its main exports are clothing, shoes, food, and wine.
Italy's location on the Mediterranean linked it with the trade routes of the ancient civilizations that developed in the region. With the city of Rome's rise to power, the Italian peninsula became the center of a huge empire that lasted for centuries. (Learn about Ancient Rome.)
Italy's first societies emerged around 1200 B.C. Around 800 B.C. Greeks settled in the south and Etruscans arose in central Italy. By the sixth century B.C., the Etruscans had created a group of states called Etruria. Meanwhile, Latin and Sabine people south of Etruria merged to form a strong city-state called Rome.
Etruscan kings ruled Rome for nearly a hundred years. But Romans tossed out the Etruscans in 510 B.C. and went on to conquer the whole peninsula. They then set out to build a vast empire. At its greatest extent, in A.D. 117, the Roman Empire stretched from Portugal to Syria to Britain to North Africa.
The first sole emperor of Rome, Octavian, took power in 27 B.C. and took the name Augustus Caesar. For more than 400 years, the empire flourished. But by the fourth century A.D., it was in decline. In 395, the empire was split in two, and in 476, Germanic tribes from the north toppled the last emperor.
In the 12th century, Italian city-states began to rise again and grow rich on trade. But Italy remained a patchwork of territories, some of which were controlled by foreign dynasties. Beginning in 1859, an uprising forced the foreigners out, and in 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed.
In 1914, Italy took the side of the United Kingdom and the U.S. in World War I, but was left in poverty at war's end. Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party rose to power promising to restore the Roman Empire. He ruled as a dictator and entered World War II on the side of Germany and Japan. He was later captured and executed.