November 25, 2012 6:18 pm

Italy looks like a boot kicking a football. Its main part is a long peninsula that sticks into the Mediterranean Sea. The island of Sicily—the football—lies just next to the toe of the boot. Sardinia and other smaller islands in the Mediterranean also belong to Italy.
Facts About Italy
Official name
Italian Republic
Official language
58,100,000 people
Rank among countries in population
Major cities
Rome, Milan, Naples, Venice
116,000 square miles
301,000 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area
Highest point
Mont Blanc
15,782 feet/4,810 meters
A mountain range runs the length of the Italian peninsula. These mountains, the Apennines, extend south from the valley of the Po River in northern Italy. The Po Valley is the most fertile farmland in Italy.
The mighty Alps rise north of the Po Valley. The Italian Alps span the country’s northern border. Several large lakes lie in beautiful settings in the mountains.
Italy doesn’t have a lot of flat land for big farms. Instead, many small farms cover the hillsides. Here, farmers grow grapes, citrus fruits, grains, and olives. Most of the grapes are used for making wine. Italy produces more wine than any other country except France. In addition, much of the world’s best olive oil comes from Italy.
Rome is Italy’s capital and largest city. It was once the capital of the Mediterranean world. Rome began its rise to power around 500 bc. Over the next centuries, the Romans built an empire that extended from Spain to Palestine in the Middle East.
The ancient Romans filled their capital with many great buildings and monuments. You can still see the ruins of these grand buildings in Rome. The Colosseum, for example, was a huge stadium where gladiator fights and other spectacles were staged. You can also walk the streets of the Roman Forum. This was the center of Roman life, with government meeting places, markets, and temples for worshiping Roman gods.
The Roman Empire fell apart in the ad 400s. But Rome remained important as a center of the Roman Catholic world. The pope, the head of the Catholic Church, has his headquarters here. For 1,000 years, the Catholic Church dominated Europe.
Today, the pope lives in Vatican City. Vatican City is actually a tiny independent country within Rome. Many tourists come to the Vatican to see Saint Peter’s Basilica. It’s the most important Roman Catholic church in the world.
Milan, the second largest city, is in northern Italy. It’s a leading business, banking, and manufacturing center. Some of the world’s fanciest clothes come from Milan. The famous La Scala opera house is in Milan. So is one of the world’s most famous paintings, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
The northern cities of Genoa and Venice are important ports. Genoa faces the Mediterranean. Venice lies on the Adriatic Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean. Venice is built on 120 islands. About 400 bridges connect the islands. Tourists love the city because most of its streets are canals. People get around in boats instead of cars. Many people consider Venice one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Venice and Genoa were once great sea powers. Hundreds of years ago, each one had a powerful fleet of ships. Each city was a city-state—a city-sized country. Much of Italy was divided into city-states.
Florence was one of the most splendid Italian city-states. During the 1300s and 1400s, a movement known as the Renaissance began. Renaissance means “rebirth,” and what was reborn was an interest in the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.
Renaissance artists in Florence produced great books, paintings, and statues based on those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The artists of the Renaissance included Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. From Italy, the Renaissance spread north into the rest of Europe.
Italy did not become one country until the 1800s. Three men—Camillo Cavour, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Victor Emmanuel—worked to unite Italy. In 1861, they declared Italy a single kingdom with Victor Emmanuel as king.
After World War I (1914-1918), a political movement called fascism rose to power. The leader of the fascists, Benito Mussolini, became Italy’s prime minister in 1922. He soon got rid of Italy’s parliament, constitution, and other political parties. He became supreme dictator.
Mussolini led Italy into World War II (1939-1945) on the side of Germany. Italy wasn’t a strong military power, and it suffered severe defeats and hardship. At the end of the war, an angry mob killed Mussolini.
Italy voted to become a democracy and a republic in 1946. The king stepped down after the election. Instead of one political party, Italy now has many.
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