Before the Roman period, the mainland of
Italy was inhabited by a variety of peoples. The most important culturally
were the Etruscans, a people with an advanced civilization who lived in
the belt of land (Etruria) between the Arno and the Tiber rivers. Various
Italic peoples occupied the remainder of the peninsula. In the eighth and
seventh centuries b.c., the first Greek colonists settled in southern Italy
and also in Sicily. All these peoples were eventually absorbed into the
Roman state, but after the collapse of Rome new invasions brought first
the Germanic Ostrogoths and Lombards, and some Slavs, to the North, and
later, Saracens and Normans to the South and Sicily. Nevertheless, the
invaders did little to change the basic physical type of the Italian people.
The majority of peninsular Italians, particularly in the South, resemble
the other brunet peoples of the Mediterranean area.
Italians have retained a strong sense of regional identity, preserving a variety of local customs and different cultural and culinary traditions. More local dialects are spoken in Italy than in any other European country.
Italian is a Romance language, based, in
its modern form, chiefly on the Tuscan dialect. The literary language of
the country has undergone relatively little change since the 14th century,
so that the works of Dante Alighieri and other early literary figures can
be read today by anyone with a good knowledge of modern Italian.
Dialects, however, are still widely spoken in various parts of the country. These regional dialects differ considerably from literary Italian both in accent and, more importantly, in the local use of certain words and expressions. The dialects in the North, whether Piedmontese, Lombard, Ligurian, or Emilian-Romagnol, are collectively known as Gallo-Italian. The Venetian dialect is quite different and shows Slavic or Illyrian influences. In central Italy, Tuscan and Umbro-Latian dialects are spoken, and in the South the leading dialects are Neapolitan and Sicilian. Sardinian is so different from the other Italian dialects that it is sometimes considered a separate language. In Trentino-Alto Adige, on the Austrian border, there is a considerable German-speaking minority; in Piedmont, there is a French-speaking minority; and in Friuli and Trieste, near Slovenia and Croatia, there are important Slavic-speaking minorities.
Although a very high percentage of Italians are baptized Roman Catholics, the constitution of 1948 guarantees freedom of religion and affirms the mutual independence of state and Church. Until 1984 the relations of Church and state were regulated by the Lateran agreements of 1929, which recognized the Catholic religion as "the sole religion of the state." A new concordat between the Vatican and the Italian government, signed Feb. 18, 1984, eliminated the concept of a state religion. Of the other religious groups found within the country, Protestants (including Waldensians, Methodists, and Baptists) are the most numerous, about 300,000 in the early 1990's. They are found mainly in Piedmont, especially in the Waldensian (or Vaudois) Alpine valleys to the west of Turin. Jews were important in Italy's commerce from the Middle Ages onward and established themselves mainly in the ports of Genoa, Livorno, and Venice. However, the racial laws introduced under Fascism in 1938 caused many Jews to emigrate, and many more died in German concentration camps during World War II. The Jewish community is, as a result, now smaller than it was before the war. In 1992 it numbered 40,000.
Italy's population at the 1991 census was 57,103,833. This marked an increase of almost 860,000 since 1981 and more than 23 million since 1901. The average yearly rate of increase in the period 1981-1991 was 0.15 percent, considerably lower than the annual rate of 0.47 percent maintained during the period 1971-1981. During the 1960's the yearly increase averaged 0.77 percent.
Age and Sex Distribution
In the decades after 1945, the Italian population on the average grew slightly older. People 65 and older made up 14 percent of the population in 1991, as compared with 8 percent in 1951. Men were slightly more numerous than women in the age group younger than 30, while women were more numerous than men in the age group 30 and older. Men in the 65 and older group in 1991 accounted for 6 percent of the total population, women of that age for 8 percent.
Birth and Death Rates
The birth rate in 1991 was 12 per thousand,
compared with 25 in 1931, and 31 in 1911. During the Fascist period (1922
to 1943), the birth rate declined, but less markedly than in other West
European nations because of the regime's policy of encouraging marriages
and large families. By the late 1970's, however, Italy's birth rate was
comparable to that of most other Western countries, declining to about
11 per thousand by 1980. Within the country, the birth rate is much lower
in the industrialized North than in the South.
The death rate has declined relatively steadily from 30 deaths per thousand inhabitants in the decade 1861-1870 to 10 deaths per thousand inhabitants in the decade 1951-1960. In 1991 the rate was 10 per thousand. The infant mortality rate, or death rate of children under one year, fell from 72 per thousand live births in 1948 to 9 per thousand in 1991.
The populations of Italy's administrative regions vary considerably. Lombardy is the most populous, with a 1991 population of 8.9 million, followed by Campania, with 5.6 million, and Latium, with 5.1 million. The least populous is Valle d'Aosta, with 117,000 people.
In 1994 the urban population was estimated
at almost 40.3 million, or 70 percent of the total population.
Four Italian cities had populations exceeding 900,000 in 1991. Rome (2.7 million), since 1870 the national capital, combines relics of every stage of its great past with all the features of a modern city. Rome is also the seat of the papacy. Milan (1.4 million), the capital of Lombardy, is the main center of Italian industry, finance, publishing, and also music. Naples (1 million), the capital of Campania, is the largest southern city and, partly because of its port, is the main industrial center in the South. Turin (960,000), the capital of Piedmont, is also an important center of industry, dominated by the FIAT automobile concern. All four cities grew rapidly in the decades after 1945 because of industrial development and the migration of workers from rural districts and from the South. As a result of these migrations the population of many southern districts declined, while that of the northern industrial centers rose correspondingly. In the 1980's the populations of the cities proper declined while their metropolitan areas grew.
The great Italian emigration movement began
in the 1870's with the opening up of the United States and South America
to emigration; it was facilitated by the development of cheap railroad
and steamship transportation. Not all who emigrated remained away permanently;
many returned after a few years, to visit or to retire. The social and
economic consequences of emigration were very significant. The number of
people dependent on Italy's limited natural resources was reduced, and
remittances of emigrants and foreign currencies brought by returning emigrants
helped to keep the Italian economy functioning.
It is estimated that, despite the large number of Italians who emigrated on a seasonal basis or returned to Italy after a long stay abroad, the loss of people to emigration for the years from 1862 to 1914 was almost 5 million. During World War I, emigration virtually ceased, but it shot up again in the immediate postwar years, with some 600,000 Italians leaving the country in the year 1920 alone. After 1921, the restrictions adopted by most overseas countries, especially the United States, cut the yearly average to less than 300,000; a further reduction took place in the 1930's, following the world depression and the Italian Fascist Party's efforts to discourage emigration. The yearly average was below 100,000 up to 1941 and fell to almost zero during the last years of World War II.
Emigration increased again after the war. The net figure (the difference between those emigrating and those returning) averaged about 150,000 a year during the 1948-1955 period, with the bulk of Italian emigrants going to France, Switzerland, Belgium, Argentina, Canada, Australia, the United States, and Venezuela. Thereafter, changing conditions at home and Italy's membership in the European Community changed the pattern of emigration. Net overseas emigration fell from 111,000 in 1954 to 4,400 in 1976. Net emigration to European countries, mainly West Germany and Switzerland, rose from 68,000 in 1958 to 143,000 in 1960. The trend was reversed by the early 1970's, as many Italians working in other European countries returned home. In 1989 Italy actually recorded a net immigration from European countries of almost 16,000. Since the early 1980's Italy has received growing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from countries of the third world.
* Back To Page Index