The following introductory pages are not intended to provide the basis for a coherent commentary. They are just a collection of random, facts, figures and curiosities.
Italy is a biggish country of 118,000 square miles, roughly like Arizona in size. Totally unlike Arizona, however, it has 5,000 miles of coastline.
Politically, it is made up of 20 regions:
Piemonte, Val d'Aosta, Lombardia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, Toscana, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzi, Molise, Campania, Puglia, Calabria, Basilicata, Sicilia, and Sardegna.
Italy's population is 55,000,000 and falling. It has the lowest birth-rate in the western world (followed by Portugal and Spain). Venice is the most aged city with an average age of 46.
There is very little outward emigration nowadays. Conversely, Italy is the commonest port of entry to Europe for illegal immigrants, coming predominantly from Albania, the former Yugoslavia and North Africa.
Four cities have over a million inhabitants. They are, in order, Rome, Milan, Naples and Turin.
There are more cars per head of population in Italy than anywhere else in the world.
The Italian motorway system is one of the great engineering achievements of Europe, travelling over incredibly difficult terrain. All the motorways have cute names:
A1 - Autostrada del Sole (Milan-Naples)
A4 - Autostrada la Serenissima (Milan-Venice)
A12 - Autostrada dei Fiori (Ventimiglia-Livorno)
FIAT is the biggest-selling car. (It stands for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino.) It is also Italy's biggest single employer, with 250,000 employees. It is the 7th largest company in Europe.
The car industry is Italy's largest manufacturing industry. The next largest is textile and clothes manufacture.
The biggest company, however, is ENI, Italy's nationalised petro-chemicals company. This is the 5th largest company in Europe and one of the world's top twenty.
In general, however, Italian economic strength is based not on massive companies but on an exceptionally large number of successful small businesses. Italy hovers between positions no. 5 and 6 in the list of the world's biggest economies.
There are next to no mineral resources in the country, except for mercury in Tuscany. Italy is the world's biggest producer of mercury.
The main source of power is hydro-electric.
Italy is the world's largest wine producer.
Only the Finns have more mobile phones per head of population.
School is compulsory until the age of 14:
Media Inferiore 11-14
Media Superiore 14-19
School hours are normally from 8.30 to 12.30 or 1.00.
As in the USA, the Christmas and Easter holidays are but the summer holidays tend to be long.
As everywhere in Europe (at the time of writing, anyway) university education is free.
50% of adult males up to the age of 29 live at home with their parents. 30% of men stay there until at least the age of 40.
In 1996 the National School of Seduction opened in the town of Udine in Friuli because of fears that Italian men had totally lost the art of romance.
Italy suffers less from alcohol abuse than any other country in the western world. They also drink more mineral water than any other country. (In the north anyway, ordinary tap water is perfectly drinkable but mineral water is just the thing to have.)
Italy leads the world in thermal spas. As a holiday activity, going to a spa for a cure has never gone out of fashion.
Real mozzarella is made from the milk of the water-buffalo.
Italy has more UNESCO-listed 'World Heritage Sites' than any other country.
There are over 200 distinct dialects spoken in present-day Italy (including, in some remote villages, dialects of Albanian, Greek and German).
North vs. South During dull stretches of motorway, perhaps as you drive through the Po valley, there is mileage to be had from the following subject. Milan is one of the richest cities in Europe, Naples is one of the poorest. To a Milanese the fundamental injustice of the Italian economy is self-evident:
Money is made in the north, ie. Milan
It is spent in the centre, ie. Rome
And it's spent on the south, ie. Naples (Cassa del Mezzogiorno)
The usual stereotypes are of northern gravity versus southern exuberance, northern efficiency versus southern incompetence. People talk of the drabness of Milan and the colour of Naples; the sobriety of the north and the vitality of the south. These may be to a certain extent unfair, even silly, generalisations but they ring more or less true. (In recent years the Milan-based separatist party The Northern League led by Umberto Bossi has been increasingly successful. They want all the regions north of Tuscany and Umbria to form a new, independent country called Padania, the old Latin name for the region of the river Po. In fact in early 1998 they held unofficial national 'elections' in this non-existent nation. In January 1997 the lunatic fringe of the separatist parties drove tanks into St. Mark's Square in Venice to declare its independence. Needless to say, this new nation did not last very long.
Unification and the Twentieth Century Perhaps this regionalism is not very surprising in a country which for a thousand years was several countries. These were united only 130 years ago and that after a 30 year long military campaign known as il Risorgimento. Until that time, as the great Austrian Chancellor Metternich said in the early C19 "Italy is a geographical expression." (And if the Lombard League have their way Italy may soon be a geographical expression again.) From the 1840s to 1870/71 under the monarchist banner of Vittorio Emmanuele II, the military inspiration of Garibaldi and the political wisdom of Cavour, Italy made its tortuous and difficult way to unification. Bit by bit the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Austrian lands in the north and the Papal States joined together to form the country that exists today.
The monarchy, the House of Savoy, lasted until the end of WW II when it was abolished in favour of the new republican constitution established on June 2nd 1946, Italy's national day. The House of Savoy had sullied its reputation so badly in the Fascist years under Mussolini that the institution of monarchy was no longer sustainable. Those Fascist years, 1922-45, the years of Italian Empire, are an episode of shame in the history of this country that most Italians would rather forget. Mussolini is a profoundly hated figure in modern Italy. It may be true that he made the trains run on time but his greater legacy, as Hitler's main ally among the Axis powers, is a horrible one.
Since then the democratic Republic has hardly been the model of stable, high-quality government with over 75 different governments in the 50 years since the war. (At the time of writing, late 1998, three former Italian Prime Ministers are under investigation for corruption.) But in spite of a succession of fairly hopeless governments Italy and the Italian economy continue to thrive. They just keep on producing. It's always been the same: the Italian way is to create genius from chaos.
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