When we consider the Mussolini-Hitler alliance in World War II, the earlier reach of the Roman Empire, the pervasive influence of the Latin language, and the Roman Catholic Church’s central role in spreading Christianity, Italy’s global importance becomes inescapable.
Italy has produced a disproportionate share of the world’s most notable people. A list of the “Top Ten Italians of the last Millennium” might include Galileo, Dante, Columbus, Michelangelo, Marco Polo, Machiavelli, Marconi, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and that universal genius, Leonardo da Vinci. Few nations can match such a power-packed lineup!
Italy’s legendary religious architecture features St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Vatican City), the Milan Cathedral, and St. Mark’s in Venice. The UNESCO World Heritage city of Venice, famous for over 100 canals, faces increasing threats of flooding from the Adriatic Sea.
The country’s extensive musical heritage is noteworthy. Italians excelled in opera, with outstanding composers (e.g., Scarlatti, Verdi, Rossini, Puccini) and performers (e.g., Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti). La Scala in Milan may be the most famous opera house in the world. The piano was invented around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord technician working in Florence.
Nineteen hundred years ago the Roman Empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea. Its achievements ranged from road construction and aqueducts to law and taxation. Rome produced some of the sharpest minds of antiquity: Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Vergil, Cicero, Quintilian, Horace, and Pliny the Elder.
Following the Empire’s collapse in the fifth century, the Italian peninsula disintegrated into disunited and often feuding principalities and city states. This chaotic environment prompted Niccolo Machiavelli to write The Prince (1513), a classic of political theory. Divorcing politics from morality, Machiavelli argued that governments need to do whatever is necessary to maintain power and order, advising that it is safer for a leader to be feared than loved.
This tumultuous history – which included epidemics, foreign invasions, papal conflicts, and the brutal Inquisition – also saw episodes of remarkable creativity. The wealthy Medici family funded great artistic accomplishments in Florence during the Renaissance. Finally, Giuseppe Garibaldi and others engineered military campaigns leading to the unification of Italy in 1870 and her emergence as a modern nation state.
The southern island of Sicily, home to Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, is only about 100 miles from Africa. This makes Italy an inviting conduit for refugees seeking a better life in Europe. Prior to World War II, Italy occupied much of northeast Africa including Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somaliland.
Political instability, corruption, a huge national debt, high unemployment, organized crime, earthquakes, and floods pose ongoing challenges for contemporary Italy. The Roma (Gypsy) community suffers periodic attacks. Former billionaire prime minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned in 2011 amid charges of sex scandals and tax evasion.
In two years Milan will host EXPO 2015, a universal exposition with the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” More than 150 nations and international organizations are expected to participate.
Besides contributing to Western civilization, Italy has significantly impacted American society. More than five and a half million Italian immigrants entered the United States. This influx peaked in the early 20th century.
The life of Italian immigrants could be difficult. Many Anglo Americans viewed southern Europeans with suspicion, associating them with what one clergyman in 1884 termed “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” The controversial executions in 1927 of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and the notorious crimes of gangster Al Capone in the 1920s, only fueled such sentiments.
Immigrants tended to cluster in urban “Little Italy” neighborhoods until later generations assimilated into the cultural mainstream. And assimilate they did! Italian Americans such as Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola, Rocky Colavito, Tony LaRussa, and Tommy Lasorda became part of baseball lore. Interestingly, Berra and Garagiola grew up on Elizabeth Ave. in “The Hill,” the Italian section of St. Louis. Garagiola once quipped, “Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street!”
Football coaches Vince Lombardi and Joe Paterno, New York mayors Fiorello La Guardia and Rudolph Giuliani, jurists John Sirica and Anthony Scalia, politicians Geraldine Ferraro and Nancy Pelosi, banker Amadeo Giannini, businessman Lee Iococca, musicians Arturo Toscanini and Guy Lombardo, and entertainers Frank Sinatra and Madonna Ciccone all shared Italian ancestry. Physicist Enrico Fermi, who directed the world’s first sustained atomic chain reaction in Chicago in 1942, was an Italian immigrant.
American cuisine took on a strong Italian flavor. Beyond staples like pizza, macaroni, and spaghetti, U.S. menus include delicacies such as Seafood Alfredo, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Six-Cheese
Ravioli. Italian wines, both Rosso (Red) and Bianco (White), are widely enjoyed.
In commenting about her physical beauty, actress Sophia Loren joked that she owed it all to spaghetti. Clearly, the United States and the world owe much to Italy.
By Dr. Allen H. Merriam
Professor of Communication (Ret.) Missouri Southern State University