history italy

The history of Italy is as rich, colorful and varied as the country itself. It is the history of Roma the master of the world, successively center of a world empire, of Christendom and of today's Repubblica Italiana. But it is also the history of many very different regions and cities, from Turin to Bari and from Venice to Palermo. The result is a theater piece that has been running for 3.000 years with always fascinating actors.

How did Italy get its name?

It is not entirely clear where the name Italy comes from. It may be an ancient Greek term meaning "land of the cattle," or referring to a tribe in the south of the country, the Italoi. What is certain is that the term was initially used for the southern coastal regions, appeared in the 1st century BC on coins of so-called 'Italic' peoples in the center and gradually became used in the Middle Ages for the entire peninsula. It should be borne in mind, however, that until well into the 19th century 'Italy' was no more than a 'geographical expression', in the words of the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich. It was only after unification in 1870 that the country of Italy, in the sense of a nation-state, was given its present form and name.

Magna Graecia, Etruria, Rome

Map of Magna Graecia
Map of Magna Graecia (source: Wikimedia)

From the eighth century BC, Greek settlers settled on the Italian southern coasts. They founded cities like Gela and Syracusae in Sicily, Kroton (today's Crotone) in Calabria and Neapolis, the 'new city': Naples. The term Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) is still used to refer to this part of Italy. In Sardinia and western Sicily, the Carthaginians from North Africa founded colonies such as Panormus (Palermo).

The interior was inhabited by indigenous Italic peoples such as the Sabines, Samnites, Latins, Osks and Umbrians, while the north was populated by Germanic and Celtic tribes such as the Veneti, Liguri and Reti. The center was the domain of the Etruscans, a people who spoke a non-Indo-Germanic language that is still not fully deciphered. The Etruscans, who adopted writing from the Phoenicians and art and ceramics from the Greeks, developed a high civilization. They reached their peak around 500 BC, when Etruria stretched from present-day Verona to Rome.

Excavations on the Palatine Hill in Rome have revealed a village from the 10th century BC. found. But according to legend, the present-day capital was founded by its first king, Romulus, in 753 BC, on April 21, still celebrated as Natale (Day of Birth) di Roma. Romulus was the first of seven - also largely legendary - kings, the last three of whom were Etruscans. In 509 BC. the people revolted against the tyrannical last monarch, Tarquinius Superbus, and began the long period of the Republic, which lasted until 27 BC, when Emperor Augustus came to power.

How did Rome come about?

The old part of the city of Rome is built on seven hills. That history began with the Romans, according to the legend of Titus Livius, the city of Rome was founded around 750 BC. founded by Romulus and Remus.

These were two brothers and according to Roman mythology they founded Rome. However, archaeologists have a different opinion on this.

They believe that Rome was created in 4 steps.

1. Small settlements on 2 hills

Around the year 1000 BC. some small settlements of the people of the Latins came on the Esquiline and Palatine Hills, two of the seven hills of Rome.

2. New Settlements and a Wall

Around the year 800 BC. new settlements arose on these hills. The Roma Quadrata alliance was established between the two settlements on the Palatine Hill. In this way, these two settlements became stronger militarily. The first wall around the Palatine also appeared around this time.

3. More settlements and union into a city

Around the year 600 BC. further settlements appeared on the Esquiline, Palatine and Coeliu Hills. The Etruscans (is a population group) conquered these settlements, and united them into a city.

4. Expansion to the 4 other hills

The last phase was completed around the year 400 BC, the city was further expanded to the four other hills on which no settlements had yet been built. Rome gained a considerable size because the seven settlements on these seven hills were connected with a wall.

Around the year 300, Rome had about 1 million inhabitants, this number was only reached again in the 30s after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire

Ruled by a Senate (literally: Council of the Ancients) and equipped with a powerful and professional army, the small town on the River Tiber steadily expanded its influence. In doing so, she played a delicate diplomatic game, in which the surrounding cities and peoples could choose between war or an alliance with Rome. For example, the Romans first managed to conquer the surrounding cities, after which in the 4th century BC. the Etruscans were defeated and in the following century the Greek and Carthaginian colonies in the south were annexed. The process was not always smooth and sometimes the edge was off. As in 490 BC. when Rome was invaded and sacked by Gauls from the north. And even more so in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), when the Carthaginian army commander Hannibal Barkas descended from the Alps into Italy and inflicted one defeat after another on the Romans, but was ultimately forced to return to Carthage undefeated. .

Second Punic War with Hannibal Barkas
Second Punic War with Hannibal Barkas (source: Wikimedia)

In 146 BC. Carthage was finally defeated and destroyed. Greece was also conquered, as was Cisalpina Gaul (on this side of the Alps), the northern part of the Italian peninsula. The contours of present-day Italy were thus roughly established. In the years 113-80 BC. the Empire was startled by three serious threats: enemy incursions on the northern and eastern borders; an uprising of allies within Italy and a civil war in Rome itself. Thanks to the Senate-appointed dictator Sulla, who exercised a veritable reign of terror, order was restored and the conquests continued. Thirty years later, Gaius Julius Caesar, the general who had previously subjugated the Gauls in a bloody war, sparked another civil war. After five years of struggle, in 45 he succeeded in being named dictator for life by the Senate, formally still the highest administrative body. But a year later, Caesar was killed by a group of adversaries and new wars broke out, ultimately resulting in his adopted son Antony emerging as the winner.

Pax Romana

In 27 BC. Anthony was proclaimed Augustus emperor by the Senate. It was the beginning of the Pax Romana, also known as Pax Augusti, the Peace of Augustus, a long period of relatively quiet life within the Empire. Apart from the excesses of some overly exuberant rulers, such as Nero, whose death was followed by a short-lived civil war in which emperors were wiped out so quickly that the year 69 has become known as the Year of the Four Emperors: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian in succession . Augustus, who lived from 63 BC to AD 14, refrained from further expansion and instead consolidated the borders: Rhine and Danube in the North, the Sahara in the South, and friendly buffer states in the East.

The Roman Empire with its provinces and trade routes

Within the immense Empire, Roman law was introduced and Latin, alongside Greek in the East, the official language. Large numbers of inhabitants in the province were given Roman citizenship, relatively safe trade routes over land and sea connected all corners of the Empire, and the same Roman coins were everywhere. Rome grew into a metropolis of a million inhabitants, as can be seen from the size of the wall that surrounded the city by the emperor Aurelian at the end of the third century, and was embellished with magnificent public works such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Forum.

The Roman Empire at its peak
The Roman Empire at its peak (click to enlarge) (photo: Wikipedia)

The Decline of the Roman Empire

The Pax Romana lasted until about 180, the year of the death of emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In the years that followed, the Empire was again ravaged by civil wars, while the northern and eastern borders came under increasing pressure and became increasingly difficult to defend. The decline was temporarily halted by the emperors Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine the Great (306-37). The first divided the Empire into a western and an eastern part, with two emperors and two deputies each accounting for a quarter (the tetrarchy) and Milan instead of Rome became the capital of the west (from 286-402). Constantine rose to rule after yet another civil war, then made Christianity the official religion in an effort to give the now deeply divided Empire a common religious foundation. In 330 he also moved the center of gravity of the Empire to Byzantium on the Bosphorus, which was then given the name Constantinople.

Nice video about the growth and decline of the Roman Empire and the development of Europe

In the east it has remained fairly stable since then, but in the west the pressure has increased further. A series of emperors were forced to enlist more and more Germanic troops, who gradually took over. In 378, the Roman legions lost the decisive Battle of Adrianople, present-day Edirne, clearing the way across the Danube for increasing numbers of Germans and other barbarians, hunted down by the great migrations of the 4th and 5th centuries. On the death of Emperor Theodosius in 395 the division became final. Since then his son Arcadius has ruled in the east, his brother Honorius in the west, a weak ruler who, fearing the invaders, moved his capital to Ravenna.

In 410, for the first time in 900 years, Rome was sacked again, this time by the Goths. Another chaotic period followed, in which Goths and Vandals set fire to the Western Roman Empire and then founded their own kingdoms in Spain and North Africa. In 452 the Huns of Attila made a home in northern Italy and then stopped just before Rome. Germanic generals advanced a series of puppet emperors, until in 476 one of them, Odoakar, gave up, deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus, still a child, and sent the Imperial insignia to Constantinople, to the only remaining, Eastern Roman, emperor. It was the end of the Western Roman Empire and also that of Classical Antiquity.

Middle Ages in Italy

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Italy began a more than a thousand-year period of division and fragmentation. Not only local potentates, but also German, French, Spanish and Austrian rulers fought their quarrels on the Italian peninsula in an endless succession of wars and skirmishes, in which the civilian population was all too often the victims. At the same time, the rapid rise of Islam, which in the seventh century conquered North Africa, Spain and the Levant in a few decades, broke the cultural and economic unity of the Mediterranean.

The Conquests of Islam in the 7th Century
The conquests of Islam in the 7th century (source: historycollection.co)

Rome, formerly the center of the known world, came to lie on the south side of a Europe in which the center of power shifted to the North. The Roman institutions in many parts of the former Empire were often maintained in name for a long time, but the lack of a strong central authority meant that roads, aqueducts, theaters and public baths fell into disarray, while trade routes over land and sea were threatened. by brigands and pirates and the money economy was severely reduced. But, as elsewhere in Europe, it flourished again in the late Middle Ages, especially in the cities.

The Goths from Pannonia, present-day Hungary, were the first to use the power vacuum that had arisen. They invaded Italy in 488 under the leadership of their king Theodoric and were overrun in a short time. The Goth Empire lasted until 535, when the powerful Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian reconquered lost Italy in a twenty-year war.

However, the Byzantines, who also had to defend themselves against a permanent threat from Persia, soon had to relinquish part of their recaptured territories. In 568 another Germanic tribe, the Longobards (indeed: men with 'long beards'), invaded Italy, where they founded a new kingdom with Pavia as its capital in the region still called Lombardy. But they failed to conquer all of Italy. Ravenna, Venice, Rome, Naples and large parts of the South remained in Byzantine hands. The division of Italy was thus a fact and would last until the 19th century.

In the center, the popes gradually acquired more and more secular power, so that they could operate practically as independent rulers from Rome. They invoked the Donatio Constantini, a document in which the emperor Constantine the Great is said to have granted the pope dominion over the West (and over the Church) around AD 315. It was a fairly rudimentary forgery from the eighth century, but it was not until 1415 that it was exposed as such. When the Lombard kings also threatened to annex his territory, Pope Stephen II enlisted the help of the Frankish king Pippin in 755. His son Charlemagne defeated the last Lombard king, Desiderius, in 774 and subsequently founded a Frankish vassal state in northern Italy. In the south, the Byzantines remained in control, while Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 in St. Peter's in Rome, gifted him in gratitude a strip of land from Rome to Ravenna, which would continue to exist as an Papal State until 1870. Until then (and beyond) the Pope would remain one of the protagonists on the Italian political scene.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Italy was roughly divided into three. A kingdom in the north, where vassals of the weakening Frankish kings grew into independent rulers, a few of whom did not hesitate to declare themselves king of Italy. In the center was the Papal State. And the Byzantines ruled the South. With the exception of a surviving Lombard duchy around the city of Benevento, and Sicily, which was conquered by the Arabs in the course of the ninth century and was a thriving emirate with a mixed Muslim-Christian population and culture for over two centuries.

Finally, some port cities developed into practically independent republic marinare (marine or trade republics): Amalfi, Gaeta, Genoa, Pisa and especially Venice. The latter city, founded in the fifth century by refugees from the mainland in the lagoon, developed in the following centuries into a formidable economic and military power, which included the present-day regions of Veneto and Friuli, the coasts of Dalmatia and a series of Greek islands. included. The aristocratic, governed by a Doge and a Council of Ten Serenissima Republica would last until 1795.

In the middle of the tenth century, a new player appeared on the Italian scene, when the German king Otto I meddled in the quarrels between northern Italian nobles, traveled on to Rome and there in 962 had himself crowned emperor of what had become emperor. 1806 would be called the Holy Roman Empire. Formally this encompassed all of Germany and Italy and for three centuries German emperors would therefore also intensively interfere with Italy. This brought them into conflict with the Popes several times. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries this led to the Investiture Controversy, in which the emperor and pope disputed each other's right to appoint bishops. The climax of this was the rather pathetic journey to the castle of Canossa, near Reggio Emilia, by Emperor Henry IV in 1077. Pope Gregory VII had excommunicated the cocky emperor, and legend has it that the monarch stood barefoot in the snow for three days. persuade the Pope, who was a guest at the castle, to revoke that ban. The Pope did, but less than a year later the bickering started all over again. As in Germany, this also led in Northern Italy to a sharp political dichotomy between the pope and the emperor, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines (a corruption of the German Welfs en waiblingen), which would keep the urban elites divided long after the Investiture Controversy, which formally ended in 1122.

In the meantime other newcomers had arrived in southern Italy: the Normans. Shortly after the year 1000, Norwegian and Norman mercenaries joined the strife between southern Italian potentates. During the eleventh century they defeated the weak Byzantine and Longobard rulers in Apulia and Calabria and then the Moors in Sicily. In passing, they also briefly sacked Rome in 1084. Their conquests were united in 1130 to form the Kingdom of Sicily, which would exist under a long line of Norman, German, French, Aragonese, Spanish, Habsburg and Bourbon rulers until 1860 and in the still persistent contradiction between northern and southern Italy, the classical South.

The last emperor to effectively rule Italy was Frederick II, who, from 1220, first brought the northern Italian cities into line that had successfully resisted his grandfather Frederick Barbarossa half a century earlier. (The rebellious cities had united in the Lega Lombarda, the same name Umberto Bossi chose for the northern Italian autonomy party he founded in 1982 and later merged into the Lega Nord.) He then took control of the south, where the Norman dynasty had died out, then held a splendid court in Palermo, amid northern and southern European, Moorish and Jewish artists, poets, philosophers and scientists. Palermo's glory days came to an end after Frederick's death in 1250, when Pope Clement IV, wishing to take the opportunity to deal once and for all with his imperial opponent, brought in a new pretender in the person of Charles of Anjou. The French made short work of Frederick's successors, even though French rule did not last long in Sicily: in 1282, the French garrison here was massacred in an uprising that has come to be known as the Sicilian Vespers. The Spaniards now came to Sicily in place of the French: Prince Peter of Aragon was enthusiastically overtaken as a liberator and crowned king, but in Naples the French remained in power. And with that, the seeds were sown for the Spanish-French wars that would rage on the Italian peninsula for centuries.

The Renaissance in Italy

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were relatively prosperous for Italy, save for a continuous series of regional skirmishes and a horrific plague epidemic that wiped out a third to half of the population in the years 1348-65, as elsewhere in Europe. The emperors were too busy with their German vassals and Hungarian invaders and the popes – who had come under French influence – did not sit in Rome from 1309-77 but in Avignon. In addition, the papal tiara was often contested by two and sometimes as many as three popes and antipopes at the same time. In northern and central Italy, urban oligarchies took advantage of this to establish their own power and practically create independent city-states.

The map of Italy in 1328
The map of Italy in 1328 (source: Wikimedia)

In Milan, the Visconti family ruled with a heavy hand: they roughly conquered the present-day region of Lombardy and acquired the ducal title in 1395, which passed to the Sforza family in 1450. The Republic of Venice gradually annexed present-day Veneto, putting an end to Verona's independence, which had previously been ruled by the Scaliger family. Genoa also remained a trading oligarchy that extended its power to present-day Liguria and Corsica. In Ferrara the D'Este family ruled, in Parma and Piacenza the Farnese house and in Mantua the Gonzagas lasted until the 18th century. In the Papal State, local potentates took advantage of the weakness of the papacy. In Rome the Colonna and Orsini families fought for power, in Rimini the Malatesta's ruled and in Bologna, where a Volksraad initially ruled, the Bentivoglio family became de facto ruler in the 15th century.

After the Pope's return to Rome in 1377 and the Council of Constance (1414-17), however, papal power was restored and the lost cities subjugated, after which the papacy itself became the plaything of opposing factions and families like Riario, Della Rovere and Borgia. Finally, in the northeast, Savoie waited its chance: in the following centuries this somewhat sleepy duchy, located for the most part on French territory, would supply the kings of Sardinia and from 1860 of all Italy.

Ancient Florence
Ancient Florence (source: Wikimedia)

A story on its own is Florence, which conquered the textile city of Prato in the fourteenth century (to this day), as well as Pistoia, Volterra and – in 1406 – archrival Pisa. At the same time, the city experienced spectacular economic development thanks to the growth of international banking, in which families such as the Bardi and Medici played the leading role, and a cloth industry that, although occasionally shaken by revolts by underpaid weavers, nevertheless led to the formation of large capital. Florence also remained a republic, but in reality the Medici banking family had been in control since the 30s. Ancestor Cosimo de' Medici still behaved like a wise man in the background, but his grandson Lorenzo il Magnifico (traditionally translated as 'the Magnificent') negotiated on an equal footing with popes and kings and was also a major sponsor of arts and letters. 15th-century Florence became one of the main centers of a new, secular art that was inspired by the realism of Antiquity and the recovered ancient images and writings. It also spawned the great political thinker Niccolò Macchiavelli, who towards the end of the century wrote a tract devoid of Christian morality, but nevertheless a very realistic guide to the acquisition and use of power, with the tract The Prince.

De Renaissance – the 'rebirth' of classical arts and thought – also spread in cities such as Venice, Milan and Rome – where around 1500 popes such as Alexander VI (Borgia), Leo X and Clement VII (the last two members of the Medici family ) were at least as active as patrons and builders as the other regional Italian rulers. After Lorenzo de' Medici's death in 1492, Florence gradually went downhill. His son Piero was expelled in 1494 in a revolt led by the fanatic monk Savonarola, which turned the city into a theocratic republic until he himself was overthrown and executed four years later. The republic also came to an end in 1523 with the return – sponsored by Emperor Charles V – of another Medici descendant, Alessandro il Moro (the Black), who was given the title of Duke of Florence in 1532. His son Cosimo even became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569, after the conquest and annexation of Siena, a title that the House of Medici retained until its extinction, in 1737.

Trailer from Spain

In 1494, the French King Charles VIII invaded Italy, with dubious claims to the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, now also ruled by a Spaniard. This ended the precarious balance between the five geopolitical centers of power on the peninsula: Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. The Spaniards responded with a second invasion and for over thirty years Italy was the scene of a bloody battle. Rome was sacked again, in 1527, by soldiers of Charles V. France and Spain, the two superpowers at the time, were assisted by the various Italian states, who did not hesitate to switch ally as soon as it suited their needs. The proverb comes from that time Franza o Spagna, purché se magna (France or Spain, as long as there is something to eat), an opportunistic credo that has never left Italian politics. In 1532, the losing French retreated, leaving most of Italy behind as a sort of Spanish colony. Until 1700, Milan, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia were governed by viceroys of Spain, which also exercised a protectorate over Florence and Genoa. In fact, only Venice and the Papal State were still independent, while Savoie was under French influence.

The Spanish period was one of prolonged stagnation. The Spaniards regarded their Italian possessions as little more than conquered territories, necessary to pay for the generous lifestyle of the Spanish nobility and military campaigns against rebellious empires such as the Netherlands. They imposed on Italy a very conservative, commercially hostile policy and an orthodox bigot Catholicism. And while the political center thus moved to Madrid, the economic heart of Europe, after the discovery of the sea routes to India and the Far East, gradually shifted to the North. As a result, wealthy families of entrepreneurs no longer stopped doing business, but withdrew to spacious country houses in the Tuscan or Venetian countryside. The flourishing, culturally and economically central Italy of the Renaissance was reduced to the periphery of Europe, a position some say it still finds.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, prospered. Protestantism, which had convinced large parts of northern Europe after the Lutheran Reformation of 1517, hardly got a foothold in Italy, partly thanks to an effectively operating Inquisition. (With the exception of a small area in Piemonte. Here the Waldensians, followers of a Proto-Protestant doctrine, joined the Reformation of Calvin in the 16th century. Despite centuries of persecution, they managed to survive around the town of Torre Pellice until the endured today.) In world politics, the pope's role had diminished significantly, but in Italy the church leader remained influential. Thanks to the Counter Reformation initiated at the Council of Trent (1545-63), carried out by a series of powerful prelates, the Italian peninsula was enriched with hundreds of baroque churches and Rome made a furore more than ever as the center of (Catholic) Christendom. The construction of today's St. Peter lasted all through the 16th century, from 1506-1626 to be precise, and Sixtus V, Pope from 1585-90, laid the foundations for modern Rome, with its straight roads and piazzas crowned with unearthed obelisks. .

Austrians, Spaniards, French

The death of the last Spanish Habsburg king, in 1700, plunged Europe, especially Italy, into another half-century of succession wars. The result was that in the North the Austrians were in charge. Lombardy was governed directly from Vienna, and in Tuscany relatives of the Emperor ruled as Grand Dukes. In contrast, the south – the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily – went to a branch of the Spanish Bourbons, which soon gained independence from Spain. Another Bourbon was assigned the Duchy of Parma, becoming the Bourbon de Parme, ancestor of our king's cousins.

At the end of the 18th century, the Austrians under the 'enlightened despot' Emperor Joseph II and the Tuscan Grand Duke Peter Leopold implemented a number of reforms that made government more central, efficient and less corrupt. In the south this process was not carried out and for many Milanese this is still reason to boast of their 'Austrian' tradition, as opposed to that of the 'Bourbon' south that has been left behind.

The French Revolution that broke out in 1789 had major consequences for Italy. The ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity appealed to many intellectuals and citizens, and when Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796, traditional rulers across the Italian peninsula, including the Pope and the Venetian Doge, were dismissed and formed French-backed republics. It didn't take long. The republicans found no connection with the population, the French troops imposed high taxes and when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, he made Italy a kingdom and the democratic ideal was lost. Until 1814, Napoleon was formally king of northern and central Italy, and his general Joachim Murat king of Naples. Only Sicily was under the control of the English, who en passant devoted themselves to the production and trade of Marsala wine.

The Risorgimento

After the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 largely reversed the French reforms. The Bourbons returned to Naples, the Pope regained his territory in the Center, Austria again took control of Lombardy and also annexed Veneto. The departure of the French was regretted by few. Nevertheless, the legacy of the French era continued for a long time. In practical matters such as the metric system, a less arbitrary case law and a nascent industry. But especially in ideals such as equality, national unity and codecision. Across Italy, nationalists, liberals and anticlericals conspired against the returned autocratic and conservative rulers. It was the beginning of the Risorgimento, the slow and arduous 'rebirth' of a united Italy. This led to revolts in the name of a united democratic Italy in 1820 and 1831, which were quickly crushed, however. In the European Revolutionary year of 1848, rebellious movements formed all over Italy, forcing kings and dukes to write new, more democratic constitutions. Except in the north, where Austrian Marshal Radetzky made short work of the revolutionaries in Milan and Venice. But the army also gained the upper hand in the rest of Italy, after which democratic legislation was quickly repealed.

The unification of Italy in an animation
The unification of Italy in an animation (source: Wikimedia)

The Nationalists, led by the Liberal Giuseppe Mazzini and the popular General Giuseppe Garibaldi, leader of the giubbe red, free corps clad in red shirts, were defeated. By now it was clear that they needed the support of an existing state and army, which they found in the northwestern corner of Italy, in Turin. Here at the beginning of the 18th century, the former Duchy of Savoie had expanded with the island of the same name to form the Kingdom of Sardinia. A century later, after Napoleon's defeat, Liguria was also added, making the kingdom the largest independent state in the north. After the failure of the uprisings of 1848, King Charles Albert of Sardinia was the only Italian monarch who had not revoked the democratic Constitution, which for the first time also granted civil rights to religious minorities such as Jews and Protestants. This made him, and especially his prime minister, Camillo Benso di Cavour, an ideal ally for the nationalists. Cavour, the true architect of Italian unity, secretly signed a treaty with the French Emperor Napoleon III, who promised military support for Cavour's plans to reunite Italy under his king's crown. In exchange, Savoie and Nice, the home town of Garibaldi, were annexed by France. This created the current Italian-French border.

After two wars against Austria, in 1859 and 1866, Lombardy and Veneto were added to the kingdom. (The Austrians for the time being kept the cities of Trento and Trieste, which only came to Italy after the First World War.) In 1860, plebiscites were invariably organized throughout central Italy – Parma, Modena, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Emilia-Romagna. an overwhelming majority voted in favor of joining the newly formed Italian state. That same year, Garibaldi landed in Sicily with a thousand volunteers, where he received the support of the local bourgeoisie in many towns, so that after a three-month triumphal procession he could move on to tie Naples to his chariot as well. On March 17, 1861, the Parliament of Turin proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy and in 1864 Florence was proclaimed the capital, albeit for a short time. Only Rome and the surrounding region of Lazio initially remained in the hands of the Pope, protected by French troops and Catholic volunteers, the so-called Zouaves, many of whom were also Dutch. But in 1870, when the French soldiers were recalled after the outbreak of war against Prussia, the Papal State was over. On September 20 – a date for which a street is named in every Italian city – Italian troops entered the city, which that same year became the capital of Italy, which had been reunited for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. Pope Pius IX indignantly withdrew to the Vatican and forbade Catholics to engage in politics within the new state.

The new kingdom was a poor state. Of the approximately thirty million inhabitants, almost 80% were illiterate, 70% of the active population worked in agriculture and between 1876 and 1915 no fewer than 14 million Italians were forced to emigrate. Nevertheless, in the years after unification, a railway network was built, connecting the different regions, and textile and metal industries emerged in the North and Center. But the free trade policies pursued by successive governments were disastrous for the emerging industry in the South, which had until then been protected by tariff walls. For the South, the balance of unity was therefore less positive, so that some southern Italian politicians still argue that the unification was essentially little more than colonization of the agrarian south by the industrial north. After the turn of the century, under the liberal Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, suffrage was gradually extended: Italy was granted universal male suffrage in 1919, while women had to wait until 1946. At the same time, labor legislation and social benefits were started, while per capita income slowly increased. In parallel, there was a rapid growth of the socialist party and of left-wing and Catholic trade union movements. The latter had become possible after Pope Leo XIII with his encyclical rerum novarum (1891) had relaxed the rules for participation in society.

Compared to the other European powers Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia, Italy was still a weak brother, a frustrating status that still sometimes plagues the country. That is why the young state immediately wanted to build a colonial empire in order to be seen as full and to find an outlet for the poor peasants who disappeared to America by the hundreds of thousands every year. The first target was Tunis, where a significant Italian colony was already established. But the French beat the Italians and occupied the city in 1881. The result was a diplomatic crisis – comparable to the present Franco-Italian jealousy in North Africa – which led to the joining of Italy with Germany and Austria in the so-called Trinity. Italy had to content itself with Eritrea and parts of Somalia, after which an Italian expeditionary force attempted to conquer Ethiopia, but was crushed to death in 1896 at the Battle of Adowa. It was not until 1911 that the Italians dared to embark on a colonial venture again by attacking Libya, which at that time was still formally part of the ramshackle Turkish Empire. After a short-lived war, peace was concluded the following year, in which Italy, in addition to the Libyan regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, was also assigned the Greek island group Dodecanese. But it would not take until 1925 before Italy took full control of Libya, after a long and bloody guerrilla war that the Libyan dictator Gaddafi would later fondly and often refer to.

War, fascism, war again

Meanwhile, the aspiring world power had already become involved in a much larger conflict. At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Italy was still an ally of Germany and Austria. But the sympathy for the 'Teutons' among the population was not great, and with Austria the question of the irredentist, the Italian-speaking areas around Trento and Trieste, which Italy has claimed since the Risorgimento. When the English and French secretly offered these areas as spoils of war, Italy quickly changed its mind and in May 1915 it declared war on Austria and then on Germany. After more than three years of grueling trench warfare in the Slovenian and Friulian Alps, in which 650.000 Italians were killed, Italy was able to participate in the peace talks as joint winner. In addition, it indeed received the coveted irredentta, including German-speaking South Tyrol, but the devastated country was in chaos.

In 1919-21, known as the Red Years, socialists and anarchists occupied factories across the country, trying to imitate the Russian Revolution of 1917. The result was exactly the opposite, namely the emergence of the fascism. The Fasci di Combattimento, literally: combatants, were initially a small aggressive club of ex-combatants, ultra-nationalists and politically displaced persons, such as the leader of the movement, the former radical socialist Benito Mussolini. The fascists soon became involved in armed conflict with the left-wing revolutionaries and many citizens, faced with the red threat, chose the fascist alternative. After a menacing fascist 'March on Rome', King Victor Emmanuel III on October 28, 1922 – referred to in the regime's rhetoric as the 'Year I of the Fascist Era' – ordered Mussolini to form a cabinet. In a few years Mussolini eliminated the opposition and from 1925 he was as Duce (derived from the Latin dux: leader) sole ruler. All other parties except the National Fascist Party were banned, open opponents imprisoned or interned, and the press, including the ubiquitous radio, was transformed into a propaganda apparatus.

Mussolini at the March on Rome
Mussolini at the March on Rome (Photo: Wikimedia)

Initially, the regime was relatively popular, partly thanks to a positive economic situation, despite the restrictions on freedom and the increasingly strict control of the OVRA, the secret service. Agricultural and industrial production, with companies such as Fiiat, Edison and Pirelli, gradually increased; major public works such as the draining of the Pontine Marshes under Rome provided employment and fertile land; and the conflict with the Catholic Church was settled in the 1929 Lateran Pact, whereby the Pope was again allocated a tiny piece of his own territory in Vatican City.

However, little came of the fascist ideal, a society in which the various professional groups, organized in 'corporations', jointly rule the country. Italy remained a capitalist country with an increasingly strong state influence. This happened mainly under the influence of the great economic crisis of the 30s, which forced the regime to nationalize a series of banks and other companies in order to prevent their bankruptcy. This process continued after the war, so that private and government interests in the Italian economy have remained more entwined than elsewhere in Europe.

Authoritarian regimes tend to distract the population from domestic problems through a foreign challenge. Similarly, Mussolini, who, as the economic crisis among the poor became more and more dramatic, invaded Ethiopia in 1935. A year later, to thunderous applause from the crowd, from the steps of his office in the Roman Piazza Venezia, he announced the foundation of the new Empire. He then sent troops to Spain to assist his kindred spirit General Franco. Two years later, he entered into an alliance with Adolf Hitler and anti-Semitic laws were also introduced in Italy. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Italy initially remained neutral, but in June 1940, when the French had almost died, Mussolini declared war on them, hoping to share in the spoils.

Things went differently. The Italian army was hopelessly ill-equipped and was even beaten back by the weak Greece until the German army came to the rescue. Ethiopia, recently conquered, fell into English hands and an Italian expeditionary force in Russia lost 75.000 dead. Most Italians were tired of the war and when the Allies invaded Sicily in June 1943, they were welcomed as liberators. Mussolini was removed from office and arrested by the Grand Council of his own fascist party, but returned after a spectacular liberation campaign by German commandos in September 43 as leader of the Italian Social Republic, a German puppet state in northern Italy, with Salò. on Lake Garda as the capital. This republic had to cede South Tyrol to Germany and continuously lost territory to the Allied advance. The country got caught up in a bloody battle between fascists and partisans. In April 45 the last German SS units surrendered and on the 25th, the day now celebrated in Italy as Liberation Day, Milan was taken. Three days later, after a failed attempt to escape to Switzerland, the fallen Duce was shot by a partisan and his body was hung upside down from the roof of a gas station in Milan. The battle was over.

The First Republic

A year after the war, the Italian royal family, which had supported fascism through thick and thin, was expelled after a popular vote in which a narrow majority opted for the republic. Two political power blocs formed: the communist party PCI and the Christian Democracy, who faced each other for the first time in the 1948 general election. The Communists, who had reaped much goodwill in the partisan struggle, hoped for victory, but thanks in part to a fierce campaign by the Catholic Church, the victory went to the DC, which won a whopping 48.5% of the vote, ushering in nearly half a century of political hegemony. Contrary to what the large number of successive cabinets might suggest – 65 in the period 1945-2017 – post-war Italy was a fairly stable country politically. The changes of government usually took place in private, with no by-elections, and the ruling party was always the DC until the 90s, with changing partners. The PCI, on the other hand, has remained invariably in opposition, especially when its socialist partner PSI overtook the DC, leading to a series of 'centre-left' cabinets since the 60s. Internationally, Italy was, and is, closely anchored to the Western bloc, as a co-founder of the EEC (later EU) and a staunch member of NATO.

In the 50s and 60s, Italy experienced rapid economic growth known as the Miracolo Economico. Per capita income increased, four out of five families acquired their own homes and the roads quickly became crowded with more and more Fiats for which an impressive network of highways was constructed. But in the 70s, cracks appeared in the status quo. The power of the Church, and with it of the DC's right wing, was shattered by two referendums, in 1974 and 1978, by which the Italian people chose to allow divorce and abortion respectively. Public life was disrupted by a series of bribery affairs - including the Lockheed scandal, also known in the Netherlands, in which then-President Giovanni Leone also appeared to be involved.

In addition, terrorist attacks caused fear, anger and uncertainty. Between 1969 and 1988, more than 14.000 politically motivated attacks in Italy left 428 dead and about 1.000 injured. On the one hand, groups such as the Red Brigades, from the extra-parliamentary left-wing opposition, were disappointed by the failure of the student uprisings of 1968 and therefore took up arms to fight the 'bourgeois state'. Their most notorious 'feat of arms' was the kidnapping and murder of Christian Democratic leader Aldo Moro in 1977. At the other extreme of the political spectrum were neo-fascist 'black terrorists', often backed by secret service agents. bombs – such as the Bologna train station in 1980, which killed 85 people – to create an atmosphere of chaos and thereby promote the call for a strongman and an authoritarian regime.

After the rounding up of the main red and black terrorist gangs, a new series of centre-left cabinets followed. In addition to Christian Democrats, there was now also room for prime ministers from other parties, such as the republican such as Giovanni Spadolini (1981-82) and the socialists Bettino Craxi (1983-87) and Giuliano Amato (1992-93). The main power bloc of the 80s was known as the CAF, the initials of the three allies of those years: Craxi and DC stars Giulio Andreotti and Arnaldo Forlani. Buoyed by a new economic boom, government spending reached unprecedented heights and every social group got its way: workers with regular pay rounds; self-employed with an unofficially tolerated mass tax evasion; industrialists with soft loans from state banks and protectionist measures; the church with a far-reaching tax exemption; the political parties with often black contributions in exchange for public tenders and other favours; and the mafia with ineffective prosecution policies. All this, of course, cost a lot of money and it is during this period that the gigantic Italian government debt arose. Moreover, this greatly promoted corruption and that would mean the end of the First Republic.

The Second Republic

On February 18, 1992, the Milan Public Prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro arrested the director of a municipal care facility for the elderly, Mario Chiesa, also a prominent figure in the local PSI. Chiesa, who unsuccessfully tried to flush the bribe bills just collected down the toilet, proved willing to talk and lifted the veil on a gigantic system of corruption, involving not only senior officials and entrepreneurs, but also politicians from virtually all countries. parties. “Christian Democrats steal for themselves, communists for the party and socialists for both,” the saying has gone on for years, and it turned out to be all too true in practice.

Not only in Milan, but also in Turin, Rome, Naples. Palermo and dozens of other cities were dismantled networks that together had stolen hundreds of millions from the state treasury. Rows of entrepreneurs voluntarily reported to Di Pietro and his colleagues, arguing that they had not bribed anyone, but were victims of extortion by officials and politicians who demanded ever higher percentages of the contract price for themselves. The resulting judicial investigation Clean hands (Clean Hands) marked the end of the traditional parties. Dozens of political leaders had to answer to court, often in front of enthusiastically running TV cameras. Craxi, considered one of the main instigators of institutionalized corruption, fled to Tunisia, where he died in 2000.

A series has recently been made about this explosive period in Italian history, whose seasons 1992 ,1993 and 1994 have since been released.


At the same time as the political crisis, Italy was shaken by a new kind of terrorism, that of the mafia. In 1991, more than a hundred top gangsters were sentenced in a 'maxi trial' to heavy sentences, often lifelong, which, unlike the usual practice, were not reversed this time on appeal.

The then leader of Cosa Nostra, Totò Riina, saw this as betrayal by the judges and politicians who had been guarantor until then. So he ordered a military-like response. The first was the murder of Sicilian DC boss Salvo Lima in Palermo in March 1992. In May and July, the two most famous anti-mafia judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellinio, followed. In 1993, mafiosi attacked museums and monuments in Rome, Florence and Milan. But in the end, the strategy of violence turned against the mafiosi themselves. The government responded – for the first time with broad open support from the Sicilian population – with an arrest offensive. Riina himself was imprisoned in 1993, where he would remain until his death in 2017, and the Sicilian mafia lost its main leaders one by one in the following years.

Amid the chaos, the traditional parties fell, in a process now known as the creation of the Second Republic. In 1994, the DC dissolved itself. In its place came a progressive and a conservative Catholic party. The smaller parties – socialists, liberals and republicans – disappeared from the scene. Only the left-wing democrats, as the ex-communists called themselves since 1991, survived. (Until 2007, when they merged into the broad Democratic Party.)

Forza Italy

New parties emerged, especially on the right. The former neo-fascist MSI transformed into the right-wing People's Party in 1994 National alliance. The Lega NorthUntil then a fringe northern separatist movement, it grew into a broad anti-system party. And Silvio Berlusconi, media mogul and AC Milan president, used his TV channels and his advertising company Publitalia to propagate his newly founded movement. Forza Italy, who unexpectedly (for his opponents at least) won the March 1994 elections.

The flag of Forza Italy
The flag of Forza Italia (source: Wikimedia)

Berlusconi's first cabinet lasted only seven months - his restless partner Umberto Bossi of the Lega Nord pulled the plug when Berlusconi wanted to remove corruption as a crime from the Criminal Code - but for the next 20 years he would remain the central figure in Italian politics .

Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi (source: Wikimedia)

In the 1996 elections, he lost out to Romano Prodi, the leader of the progressive coalition. Prodi implemented a sound policy to put the public finances in order – including an unpopular 'Eurotax' to bring down the budget deficit and thus meet the admission requirements for the euro. But after only two years, he was thwarted by his own allies, followed by a few weak cabinets, until the 2001 elections, which were again won by Berlusconi.

His second term in office was marked by the problems of the protagonist himself, embroiled in a long series of trials and scandals for corruption, fraud, slander, fornication with minors, and so on. He was ultimately convicted only once, in 2013 for tax evasion. He owes this to an army of lawyers, to a cunning delay strategy and to a series of laws tailor-made for him, known as the leggi ad personam, such as halving the statute of limitations for white-collar offenses.

During his administration, progress was made in areas such as pension legislation and the fight against mafia, but little or nothing was done about other essential problems such as public debt, bureaucracy and legal uncertainty (especially due to the extremely long duration of many trials). In the foreign field, Berlusconi made himself known mainly through unfortunate statements, such as when he compared German MEP Martin Schulz to a Nazi camp executioner in 2003 at the start of the Italian EU presidency.

In 2006, Prodi won again, but with a tiny and extremely varied majority, from neo-Communists to conservative Catholics, which was really unworkable. His cabinet fell two years later, followed by early elections that brought Berlusconi back to the government plush. This time he didn't finish the ride. The steadily increasing public debt, the obstinate denial of the economic crisis that has now set in and Berlusconi's ongoing problems with the judiciary have pushed international confidence in Italy to a new low.

business cabinet

In November 2011, when Italian government bond yields had risen to more than 5 percentage points above Germany's, President Giorgio Napolitano said he had had enough and urged Berlusconi to resign. In his place, he appointed former European Commissioner Mario Monti as head of a business cabinet, which enforced a tight financial policy for a year and somewhat restored international confidence in Italy. After a year, Monti tendered his resignation to be succeeded by young PD man Enrico Letta, who slackened the financial reins a bit to boost much-needed economic growth. But in February 2014, Letta was unceremoniously shoved off the board by his party's newly elected leader Matteo Renzi.

The energetic Renzi launched a wide-ranging reform program that has led, among other things, to more flexible labor legislation, economic support for the lower-paid, an education reform and a further (necessary) increase in the retirement age. He also regularly slammed his fist on the table in Brussels to free up extra money for economic stimulus measures. But the constitutional reform he initiated ended in a fiasco. At the heart of this was a simplification of the parliamentary procedure by drastically reducing the role of the Senate, which had (and has) the same powers as the Chamber of Deputies, and a clear delineation of the powers of State and Regions that still differ from each other. often overlap.

A reasonable program in itself, and parliament agreed, after a long and complicated procedure. The reform only had to be ratified by a popular vote held on December 4, 2016. But Renzi, overconfident by his party's 41% win in the 2014 European elections, overplayed his hand by linking his political fate to the referendum result. As a result, all who had anything against him, including a minority within his own party, voted against, not for reforms but to get Renzi out. The vote ended with 60% against and only 40% in favor and Renzi was forced to resign.

Migrant Flow

Since then, his former foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni has taken over the business. Gentiloni is broadly continuing Renzi's policy, without making much of a fuss and especially as an interim pope in the run-up to the March 2018 elections. On one policy point, his cabinet has made clear progress, that of large-scale immigration from North America. Africa, especially Libya. Since the Arab Spring and the collapse of Colonel Gaddafi's regime in 2011, a criminally-organized flow of mostly African migrants to Italy – more than 150.000 in 2016 alone – has started through the Sicily Channel.

Paolo Gentiloni next to Donald Trump
Paolo Gentiloni alongside Donald Trump (source: YouTube)

After years of repeated requests to the other EU states to take in at least some of them had little effect, Interior Minister Marco Minniti changed course in the summer of 2017: he reached an agreement with mayors. and tribal leaders within Libya to guard both the country's southern border and the coastal strip in exchange for economic aid projects. According to critics, he struck a deal with criminals, but the migrant flow from Libya has since decreased by about 80%.

The Rise of the Populists: Five Star Movement and Lega

The 10s of the present century will probably go down in history as the decade of populism. Across Europe and beyond, movements emerged that rebelled against traditional politics, offered simple solutions to complex issues, and whose leaders were in direct contact with their rapidly expanding following through the new social media.

In Italy the main exponent of this movement was the Five Stars movement (M5S: Five Star Movement). The M5S owes its origin to Gianroberto Casaleggio, who died in 2016, a visionary computer scientist who believed in a direct democracy in which citizens make their proposals on all possible matters known via the web, without the intervention of parties and parliament, on which decision-making would then also take place. take place. In 2005 he met Beppe Grillo, a gifted actor and comedian who had been banned from national TV for years because of his sharp criticism of politicians of different colors.

Beppe Grillo (photo: Wikimedia)

Grillo became the figurehead of a new grassroots movement, and his razor-sharp anti-political blog – the content of which was entirely provided by Casaleggio staff, who himself remained in the background – became a magnet for citizens to embrace traditional politics with its Byzantine power games and 'us knows us'. ' setting were fed up. That this was a widespread feeling was shown in 2007 by the success of The Caste (The Caste) by journalists Gianantonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo, in which the privileges, top salaries, favoritism and corruption of politics were mercilessly exposed with many examples. The book sold millions of copies and that same year Grillo caused a furore with his V-Day, a series of public performances in crowded squares in which the V stands for Fuck you (suck it up) and was directed against all politicians, without exception.

In 2009 the foundation of the Five Star Movement followed, in which the five stars stand for the first action points of the M5S: sustainable transport, sustainable development, internet for all, ecology and public water supply. The newcomer to the Roman political arena clearly presented itself as a movement and not as a party. Rightly so, because instead of a party with a clearly defined program, the M5S was an aggregation of all kinds of action groups that did not find a response from the existing parties and that were mainly against something:

  • Against the HSL Turin-Lyon.
  • Against the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (planned by Apulia).
  • Against the privatization of drinking water.
  • Against compulsory vaccination.
  • Against the 'dictatorship of Brussels' and the euro.
  • And especially against all existing parties with which the movement – ​​which, according to Grillo, aimed for 51% – ruled out any collaboration in advance.

What united the supporters was mostly the protest, in addition to a vaguely green and social feeling and more right-wing stances on other issues, especially migration. As an opposition movement, the M5S got away with it well, but when it had to take government responsibility, the problems quickly piled up. But that only happened in 2018.

In regional elections in 2010 and 2012, the M5S continued to achieve better results and subsequently obtained the highest number of votes in the 2013 parliamentary elections with more than 25%. She did not enter the government because she remained underrepresented by the electoral system, which gave a hefty seat premium to the largest list connection (in this case the center-left), while the M5S rejected any form of coalition on principle and was therefore unwilling to deal with to join the Partito Democratico. Instead, a government was formed of a 'grand coalition' of PD and various centre-right parties, which gradually crumbled in the following years, but was still able to complete the five-year term.

In the meantime, very young newcomers such as Luigi Di Maio, Alessandro Di Battista and Paola Taverna were often given the opportunity to present themselves in the M5S factions in the House and Senate as eloquent ruthless scourges of the parliamentary old bite. Shiny Promises as a Citizenship Income (CBI) for everyone and lowering the retirement age – drastically increased in previous years – did the rest. In the parliamentary elections of March 4, 2018, the M5S emerged as the largest by far. And because the electoral system had meanwhile also been changed in a more proportional sense, she also received the largest fraction, both in the House and the Senate.

Meanwhile, the M5S as a populist movement was soon rivaled by the rapidly growing Lega. This was mainly thanks to its charismatic leader Matteo Salvini, who in a few years managed to transform the Lega Nord, founded in 1990, from a languishing northern Italian autonomy movement into a far-right national people's party, modeled on Le Pen's Front National or the National Front. PVV of Wilders. On taking office as leader in 2013, Salvini found a splinter party that fell only 4% in that year's elections and was riven by internal conflict and corruption scandals. Salvini drastically changed tack by no longer emphasizing Italy's north-south contradiction, but by raising a relatively new theme for Italy: that of the exponentially increased illegal immigration since the Arab Spring of 2011.

Matteo Salvini (Photo: Wikimedia ©_ANGELO_TRANI)

The Lega went on without the adjective Nord, and the "rampant invasion" of Muslims and other alien elements became Salvini's main propagandistic theme, along with other lures like tax cuts and early retirement. In doing so, he unintentionally received a welcome boost from Europe, which turned out to be unwilling to share in the nuisance caused by the influx. It gave the Lega a hefty win in the 2018 elections and made Salvini the undisputed leader of the right, above the now very old Berlusconi and his languishing Forza Italia and the (then) small right-wing nationalist formation Fratelli d'Italia. from newcomer Giorgia Meloni.

From yellow-green to yellow-red

The parliamentary elections of March 4, 2018 triggered a threefold political earthquake. The M5S achieved a monster victory with more than 32% and the Lega also made a big leap forward to 17%. On the other hand, there was a heavy loss of the PD, the party of Prime Minister Gentiloni, whose government had burned through another year rather uninspired after the lost referendum in December 2016 (with perhaps the exception of Minister Minniti's tougher immigration policy, which, however, was too much for public opinion. came late). At first sight, the parliament thus became hopelessly divided between three mutually exclusive blocs: two about the same size, the M5S and a right-wing coalition of Lega with Forza Italia and Fratelli d'Italia, and a smaller bloc of PD and a few small leftists. parties.

After three months of negotiations, a coalition emerged on June 1, one that almost no one had thought possible shortly before. The M5S resented its refusal to negotiate deals with other parties (as it would deny much of its original aims in the following months) and the League broke away from the right-wing coalition to deal with the hitherto denounced M5s to go into sea. The 'green and yellow' coalition, so named after the party colors of Lega and M5S respectively, was a typical marriage of convenience. Instead of a government program, a 'government contract' was written, summarizing the main issues of both parties. And because neither awarded the other the premiership, an unknown legal scholar, Giuseppe Conte, was hired as head of government at the suggestion of one of the M5S ministers. He was formally assisted by deputy prime ministers, party leaders Matteo Salvini (Lega) and Luigi Di Maio (M5S), who were really in charge.

Political scientists were stunned by what, at first glance, seemed like the union of the incompatible: the far-right Lega, representing small business owners and their employees from the affluent North, and the more left-wing M5S, with its ranks of low-ranking officials, underpaid educators. and the unemployed from the poor South, that couldn't be true! Still, the combination was less illogical than it seemed. Both opposed the traditional parties, were Euro-critical, the ideas on migration did not differ much in practice and both were driven by a burning desire to come to power.

Thus it happened that the green-yellow cabinet gave effect to the main desires of both:

  • Introduction of 'citizenship income' as the theme of the M5S.
  • Tax reduction for small self-employed, a wish of the Lega.
  • And a partial reduction in retirement age, at the suggestion of both.

This marked a radical break with the previous policy of austerity and in-depth investment, which the EU had been pushing for years because of Italy's government debt of more than 130% of GNP, but because both M5S and Lega were critical of Brussels, that doesn't matter much.

The M5S was the larger party in both parliament and cabinet, but the political center of gravity soon shifted to Salvini, who proved much more shrewd than his young colleague Di Maio, and used his position as interior minister for a permanent campaign. against immigration and for themselves. Salvini closed borders and ports, ended reception facilities and introduced heavy fines for organizations that picked up refugees from the sea. In doing so, he did not neglect to criticize the 'selfishness' of the other EU member states, who still wanted to take in little more than a symbolic share (and often not even that) of the migrants washed ashore in Italy. He further boosted the media attention he gained with almost daily propaganda speeches across the country and a carpet bombardment of professionally crafted posts (often starring criminal foreigners) on social media. Salvini was not often to be found in his ministry, but his popularity skyrocketed, so that in the summer of 2019 the League was at 34% in the polls.

That was largely at the expense of the M5S. Its leader Di Maio, as Minister of Economic Development, was successful in introducing the Basic income, in practice a social assistance benefit of which about 1,2 million families now use, but the search for jobs for these people was a total failure. Furthermore, the movement (now increasingly more party in the classical sense) could only boast of a few populist successes in the fight against the 'caste', such as lowering the pensions of former parliamentarians and the reduction of the House of Representatives – only made law at the end of 2020 and Senate (from 630 and 315 members to 400 and 200, respectively).

At the same time, it had to take one programmatic defeat after another: the construction of the HSL in Piemonte and that of TAP in Apulia continued and the rude way in which Salvini dealt with the migrants particularly upset the left wing of the M5S. The movement itself also did not go well. Little came of direct web democracy. Founder and foreman Grillo became less and less involved in his creation and Davide Casaleggio, who succeeded his father Gianroberto, who died in 2016 (without election: that's how it goes in Italy) as digital guide, turned out to be more of an accountant than a seer. The leaders of the movement, who now also behaved like the classical party potentates so despised before, became embroiled in heated debates about the cause and remedy of the downturn. And in the polls, the M5S fell to 16%, halving within a year.

The result was increasing irritation between the two partners. Within the M5S, distaste for the Lega and its way of "eating" its partner grew, while Lega supporters began to object to the continued opposition of the now over-represented M5S. The M5S did not let it come to a crisis that would have cost it half of its seats, but that problem did not apply to Salvini, who wanted to cash in on his virtual profit. Therefore, in the middle of the holiday month of August, he overthrew the cabinet, intending to force snap elections, followed by the formation of a new cabinet led by himself. But things turned out differently. Salvini had overplayed his hand.

Giuseppe Conte (Photo: Wikimedia)

After a series of stormy developments in the otherwise politically dead month of August, Giuseppe Conte was sworn in again as prime minister on September 5, 2019, but this time at the head of a coalition of M5S and PD, alongside two smaller left-wing parties. In Italy, crises are often resolved in private, without by-elections, but such a radical maneuver as this one was unprecedented in Italy and certainly not foreseen by Salvini. PD and M5S were thus spared an electoral drama, while Europe breathed a sigh of relief and the stock markets reacted with a drastic drop in Italian government bond yields. This time no deputy prime ministers were appointed, so that the now politically grown Conte could now effectively act as head of government. PD leader Zingaretti remained outside the cabinet (but kept his post as governor of Lazio) and M5S leader Di Maio kept himself in the lee of the tribal struggles within his party as foreign minister.

Conte 2 and Corona

The new cabinet maintained the 'citizen income', which would later bring souls to many poor families during the epidemic. Salvini's harsh immigration laws were relaxed, albeit only after long opposition from the M5S right wing. And the reduction of the retirement age expired in 2021, only to be partially reversed by the Draghi government. The new government was almost immediately weakened by a split within the PD, where former party leader Matteo Renzi resigned to set up the Italia Viva party, which beckons to the centre. IV had 26 MPs and 14 senators, who did not give up their support and participation in the red-and-yellow government, but would ultimately ensure the fall of the Conte 2 cabinet.

The Conte 2 cabinet was not given much time to implement a new policy. Shortly after taking office, Italy, a few weeks ahead of the rest of Europe, was overtaken by the Covid 19 pandemic, which would dominate social and political life for two years. On February 18, 2020, the first Italian patient was admitted in Codogno in Lombardy. Then current affairs were dominated by the virus: the rapid spread, the overcrowded hospitals, the images of coffins in the church and army vehicles used as hearses, the second wave after the summer of 2020, the third in the spring of 2021, the lockdowns and finally the gradual vaccination of the population over the course of 2021 and 2022. In retrospect, Italy has not fared badly compared to other countries, with a strict policy that is estimated to have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and a relatively small number virus deniers. This led to an increasing popularity of the previously rather colorless Conte, who, as a strict but understanding parent, regularly reminded his compatriots of the usefulness and necessity of face masks, keeping their distance, staying at home and closing cafes and restaurants from the TV screen. Minister of Health Speranza, from the left-wing splinter LEU, also turned out to be a skilled crisis manager.

Conversely, corona has proven to be damaging to Salvini's reputation. His main theme - immigration - was snowed under in the public debate by the health situation and because he was no longer a minister, he lost much of his media attention. He tried to win something back there by systematically criticizing the government's covid policy, not hesitating to rub shoulders with the 'no vax' extremists who most Italians didn't like. Thus, the Lega steadily fell in the polls. But that did not benefit the government parties, but especially the far right Fratelli d'Italia. Party leader Giorgia Meloni also fought hard opposition, but took a more loyal stance than Salvini in the fight against the virus, and quickly developed into the new idol of the right.

The Conte 2 government, and the prime minister personally, received a lot of admiration during the negotiations on EU Next Generation, the European recovery plan for after the covid epidemic. Brussels made no less than 209 billion euros in aid – in the form of grants and soft loans – available to Italy, much more than to other member states. But this meant that the government and parliament were faced with the difficult task of spending that European money wisely. The European billions offer a unique opportunity to realize structural reforms to transform the slow and deficient country in many ways – bureaucracy, judiciary, education, transport, digitalisation, competition and meritocracy – into a modern nation at the forefront of Europe. So a good and sustainable plan had to be put on the table, while Italian administrators have never been very strong in long-term planning. Nevertheless, the Conte 2 government managed to present a National Plan for Recovery and Resilience (PNRR) in January 2021, which was approved by Brussels. But that was also her last achievement. Italia Viva, Renzi's party that had previously opposed it, refused to approve the PNRR and withdrew its ministers from the cabinet. With that, the crisis was a fact and Conte was forced to resign.

The interlude Mario Draghi 

With that, the ball was up to President Mattarella, who under normal circumstances could have dissolved parliament to call early elections. But to avoid a grueling electoral battle in a critical period, the head of state opted for a different solution, which had often been used in Italy when the politicians had made efficient government of the country impossible by their squabbles: that of a transitional government, led by authority over the parties. For example, renowned economists such as Dini, Ciampi and Monti had previously been approached as rubble clearers. Now it was the turn of Mario Draghi, the former director of the European Central Bank, who received the formation order from Mattarella and took office on February 13, 2021 as prime minister of an almost wall-to-wall cabinet in which the most important portfolios fell to non-partisan technicians: Finance , Home Affairs, Justice, Innovation, Infrastructure, Innovation and Education. Only Fratelli d'Italia was left out, giving its leader Giorgia Meloni every opportunity to work his way into the limelight as opposition leader.

The near-national cabinet was tasked with completing the fight against the virus and putting the economic recovery plan on track. With his solid background and international standing, Draghi was hailed in Rome, Brussels and Washington as the only one who could do the job and it was expected that he would sit out until the March 2023 elections. But it was not to be. Within the M5S there was opposition to the participation in the government of the big banker and after the polls predicted an increasing gain from the right, the Lega and Forza Italia also resisted. When it turned out that he could no longer count on the support of those three parties, Draghi called it a day. On July 21, 2022, he stepped down and handed over his position to Meloni three months later. In the 20 months of its existence, the Draghi government initiated important – but still unfinished – reforms in the fields of public administration, justice, competition and taxation. After the outbreak of war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he pushed for strong support to Kyiv, including arms deliveries, despite opposition from M5S and Lega. He also succeeded in reducing Italy's dependence on Russian gas from more than 40% to almost zero through agreements with Algeria and Kazakhstan, among others. Due to his decisiveness and unconditional European and Atlantic commitment, Draghi became one of the most respected European leaders, alongside French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz. Italy's star also rose with him. Until he fell and his successor was no longer invited to Franco-German get-togethers.

Giorgia Meloni, the new star

The elections of September 25, 2022 ended in a glorious victory for the right-wing coalition of Fratelli d'Italia, Lega and Forza Italia, which received a large majority in both the Chamber and the Senate. It was also a victory for Meloni personally, who in a few years had managed to take her party from a measly 4% to 28%. In one fell swoop, FdI became by far the largest party, even larger than the two coalition partners – FI and Lega – combined. Her team of ministers, who took office on October 22, 2022, is therefore the most right-wing of Italy's 68 post-war cabinets. Because the roots of Meloni's party lie in neo-fascism (but not only there), there was a fear, especially abroad, that Italy under her leadership would aim for a right-wing authoritarian regime like that of Orban in Hungary.

So far (spring 2023) that fear has not come true. Giorgia Meloni has proven its ability to distinguish between populist campaign rhetoric and practical policy. Her government stands for proud nationalism, a critical attitude within Europe and a tough anti-immigration policy (which already led to several mass drownings off the Italian coast in the spring of 2023). She also wants to abolish social assistance and consultations on the introduction of a minimum wage have been halted, while the reins in the fight against tax evasion are (unofficially) being relaxed and this government does not attach great importance to free competition either. Gay marriage, euthanasia, liberalization of soft drugs and other fun things for left-wing people have also been removed from the Italian political agenda for the time being. But the PNRR recovery plan drawn up by Draghi et al. is being broadly implemented and Meloni does not intend to withdraw support for Ukraine, despite the open support for Putin on the part of her coalition partners Salvini and Berlusconi. The right-wing victory has brought at least one positive fact: the large parliamentary majority on which it relies will probably keep the Meloni government going for a few more years and that will at least benefit political stability.

This information has been written and checked by Aart Heering, journalist and historian.