Italy Overview: History

The following generalized outline of the highly complex history of Italy can be supplemented by the articles on individual cities and regions and by such general articles as Etruscan civilization ; papacy ; Italian art ; Italian literature ; and Renaissance .

Ancient Italy

Little is known of Italian history before the 5th cent. BC, except for the regions (S Italy and Sicily) where the Greeks had established colonies (see Magna Graecia ). The earliest known inhabitants seem to have been of Ligurian stock. The Etruscans, coming probably from Asia Minor, established themselves in central Italy before 800 BC They reduced the indigenous population to servile status and established a prosperous empire with a complex culture. In the 4th cent. BC, the Celts (called Gauls by Roman historians) invaded Italy and drove the Etruscans from the Po valley. In the south, the Etruscan advance was checked about the same time by the Samnites (see Samnium ), who had adapted the civilization of their Greek neighbors and who in the 4th cent. BC drove the Etruscans out of Campania.

The Latins, living along the coast of Latium, had not been fully subjected to the Etruscans; they and their neighbors, the Sabines , were the ancestors of the Romans. The history of Italy from the 5th cent. BC to the 5th cent. AD is largely that of the growth of Rome and of the Roman Empire, of which Italy was the core. Augustus divided Italy into 11 administrative regions (Latium and Campania, Apulia and Calabria, Lucania and Bruttium, Samnium, Picenum, Umbria, Etruria, Cispadane Gaul, Liguria, Venetia and Istria, Transpadane Gaul). By that time, at the beginning of the Christian era, all of Italy had been thoroughly latinized, Roman citizenship was extended to all free Italians, an excellent system of roads had been built, and Italy, made tax exempt, shared fully in the wealth of Rome. Never since has Italy known an equal degree of prosperity or as long a period of peace. Christianity spread rapidly.

The Barbarian Invasions

Like the rest of the Roman Empire, Italy in the early 5th cent. AD began to be invaded by successive waves of barbarian tribes—the Germanic Visigoths , the Huns , and the Germanic Heruli and Ostrogoths . The deposition (476) of Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor of the West, and the assumption by Odoacer of the rule over Italy is commonly regarded as the end of the Roman Empire. However, the Eastern emperors, residing at Constantinople (see Byzantine Empire ), never renounced their claim to Italy and to succession to the West.

On the urging of Zeno, the Eastern emperor, the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great invaded Italy, took (493) Ravenna (which had replaced Rome as capital), killed Odoacer, and began a long and beneficent rule over Italy. Roman institutions were maintained with the help of scholars and administrators such as Boethius and Cassiodorus. After Theodoric's death (526), the murder (535) of the Gothic queen, Amalasuntha , was followed by the reconquest of Italy by Emperor Justinian I of the East and his generals, Belisarius and Narses . Except, however, in the exarchate of Ravenna, the Pentapolis (Rimini, Ancona, Fano, Pesaro, and Senigallia) on the central Adriatic coast, and the coast of S Italy, Byzantine rule was soon displaced by that of the Lombards , who under Alboin established (569) a new kingdom.

The papacy emerged as the chief bulwark of Latin civilization. Gregory I (reigned 590–604), without assistance from Byzantium, succeeded in saving Rome and the Patrimony of St. Peter from the Lombard conquest, thus laying the basis for the creation of the Papal States . At the same time, he effectively freed Rome from allegiance to the Byzantine conquerors.

The Lombards warded off Byzantine efforts at reconquest and in 751 took Ravenna; their advance on Rome resulted in the appeal of Pope Stephen II to Pepin the Short , ruler of the Franks, who expelled the Lombards from the exarchate of Ravenna and from the Pentapolis, which he donated (754) to the pope. Pepin's intervention was followed by that of his son Charlemagne , who defeated the Lombard king, Desiderius, was crowned king of the Lombards, confirmed his father's donation to the papacy, and in 800 was crowned emperor of the West at Rome. These events shaped much of the later history of Italy and of the papacy. Among the direct results were the claim of later emperors to Italy and the temporal power of the popes.

Medieval Italy

In the divisions (9th cent.) of the Carolingian empire (see Verdun, Treaty of ; Mersen, Treaty of ), Italy passed to the successive emperors Lothair I , Louis II , and Charles II ; however, their control was largely nominal. Under Carloman (d. 880) and Emperor Charles III (reigned 881–87), local power became increasingly strong in Italy. Emperor Arnulf (reigned 896–99) failed to reassert authority.

From 888 to 962 Italy was nominally ruled by a series of weak kings and emperors including Guy of Spoleto, Berengar I of Friuli, Louis III of Burgundy, and Berengar II of Ivrea. The petty nobles were constantly feuding, and by the end of the period the papacy had sunk to its lowest point of degradation. The Magyars plundered N Italy, and in the south the Arabs seized (917) Sicily and raided the mainland. In 961, heeding an appeal by the pope for protection against Berengar II, the German king Otto I invaded Italy. In 962 he was crowned emperor by the pope. This union of Italy and Germany marked the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire .

Although the Alps had never prevented invaders from entering Italy, they did prevent the emperors from exercising effective control there. Again and again the emperors and German kings crossed the Alps to assert their authority; each time their authority virtually vanished when they left Italy. At best, their power was limited to the territories north of the Papal States. The popes, by exerting their influence and by arranging alliances with other powers, were important in frustrating imperial control.

Apulia and Calabria, after being briefly held again by the Byzantines, were conquered (11th cent.) by the Normans under Robert Guiscard and his successors, who also wrested Sicily from the Arabs and established the Norman kingdom of Sicily. In central and N Italy, the prevailing chaos was increased by the conflict between the emperors and the popes over investiture and by the contested succession to Tuscany after the death (1115) of Countess Matilda . Because the many petty lords were independent of imperial authority and because the cities gradually gained control over these lords, feudalism did not gain a firm foothold in central and N Italy. However, in the south the Norman kings and their successors, the Hohenstaufen and Angevin dynasties, firmly entrenched the feudal system, the worst features of which were later perpetuated by the Spanish rulers of Naples and Sicily. Thus, the great difference in social and economic structure between N and S Italy, which continued well into the 20th cent., can be traced back to the 11th cent.

The Rise of Cities

The characteristic development in central and N Italy was the rise of the city (see commune and city-state ), beginning in the 10th cent. The rise was partly political in origin—the burghers were drawing together to protect themselves from the nobles—and partly economic—contact with the Muslim world was making the Italian merchants the middlemen and the Italian cities the entrepôts of Western Europe. The survival of Roman institutions and the example of the commune of Rome facilitated the process.

To protect their commerce and their industries (particularly the wool industry) cities grouped together in leagues, which often were at war with each other. The leagues were particularly strong in Lombardy. The attempt by Emperor Frederick I to impose imperial authority on some cities led to the formation of the Lombard League , which defeated the emperor in 1176. Rivalry among the cities, however, prevented the formation of any union strong enough to consolidate even a part of Italy. In the 13th cent. the struggle between Emperor Frederick II and the papacy divided the cities and nobles into two strong parties, the Guelphs and Ghibellines . Their fratricidal warfare continued long after the death (1250) of Frederick, which marked the virtual demise of imperial rule in Italy and the ascendancy of the papacy. In 1268, Frederick's grandson, Conradin, was executed at Naples, thus ending Hohenstaufen aspirations.

The factional strife led to the rise of despots in some cities. These despots, who were of noble or bourgeois origin, were generally factional leaders, who, having obtained the magistracy, made it hereditary. Some of them managed to restore order in the cities. In many cities, however, the republican institutions were upheld with little interruption. In other cities, dynasties were established and invested (14th and 15th cent.) with titles by the emperors, who still claimed suzerainty over N Italy. The most powerful princes (e.g., the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, the Gonzaga of Mantua, the Este of Ferrara, and the dukes of Savoy ) and the most powerful republics (e.g., Florence, Venice, and Genoa) tended to increase their territories at the expense of weaker neighbors. The cities in the Papal States passed under local tyrants during the Babylonian captivity of the popes at Avignon (1309–78) and during the Great Schism (1378–1417).

By the end of the 15th cent. Italy had fallen into the following chief component parts: in the south, the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples, torn by the rival claims of the French Angevin dynasty and the Spanish house of Aragón; in central Italy, the Papal States, the republics of Siena, Florence, and Lucca, and the cities of Bologna, Forlì, Rimini, and Faenza (only nominally subject to the pope); in the north, the duchies of Ferrara and Modena, Mantua, Milan, and Savoy. The two great merchant republics, Venice and Genoa, with their far-flung possessions, colonies, and outposts, were distinct in character and outlook from the rest of Italy.

Constant warfare among these many states resulted in political turmoil, but did little to diminish their wealth or to hinder their cultural output. The wars were generally fought in a desultory manner by hired bands led by professional commanders (see condottiere ). Compared to the Black Death, the plague that ravaged Italy in 1348, the local wars did little harm. Material prosperity had been furthered considerably by the Crusades; by the expanding trade with the Middle East; and by the rise of great banking firms, notably in Genoa, in Lucca, and in Florence (where the Medici rose from bankers to dukes). The prosperity facilitated the great cultural flowering of the Italian Renaissance, which permanently changed the civilization of Western Europe.

Political Disintegration and Rebirth

The Renaissance reached its peak in the late 15th cent. Meanwhile, Italy's political independence was threatened by the growing nations of France, Spain, and Austria. Quarrels among Italian states invited foreign intervention. The invasion (1494) of Italy by Charles VIII of France marked the beginning of the Italian Wars , which ended in 1559 with most of Italy subjected to Spanish rule or influence. Early in the wars, in which France and Spain were the main contenders for supremacy in Italy, several Italian statesmen, notably Machiavelli , came to the belief that only unity could save Italy from foreign domination. Pope Julius II consolidated the Papal States, but his Holy League , devised (1510) to drive out the French, failed to create a wider Italian unity.

After 1519 the Italian Wars became part of the European struggle between Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V . By the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), Spain gained the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples and the duchy of Milan. Foreign domination continued with the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14; see also Utrecht, Peace of ) and the War of the Polish Succession (1733–35). By 1748, Naples, Sicily, and the duchies of Parma and Piacenza had passed to branches of the Spanish Bourbons, and the duchies of Milan, Mantua, Tuscany, and Modena to Austria. Remaining independent were the Papal States, the declining republics of Venice, Genoa, and Lucca, and the kingdom of Sardinia (see Sardinia, kingdom of ), created in 1720 by the union of Piedmont, Savoy, and Sardinia under the house of Savoy.

These centuries of political weakness were also a period of economic decline. The center of European trade shifted away from the Mediterranean, and commerce and industry suffered from the mercantilist policies of the European states. Taxes rose under Spanish rule, the amount of land under cultivation declined, the population decreased, and brigandage increased. Nevertheless, Italy continued to have considerable influence on European culture, especially in architecture and music. Yet to subsequent generations in Italy (especially in the 19th cent.), preoccupied with the concepts of national independence and political power, the political condition of 18th-century Italy represented national degradation. The French Revolution rekindled Italian national aspirations, and the French Revolutionary Wars swept away the political institutions of 18th-century Italy.

Napoleonic Triumph and the Rebirth of Italy

General Bonaparte (later Napoleon I ), who defeated Sardinian and Austrian armies in his Italian campaign of 1796–97, was at first acclaimed by most Italians. Napoleon redrew the Italian map several times. Extensive land reforms were carried out, especially in N Italy. The Cispadane and Transpadane republics, established in 1796, were united (1797) as the Cisalpine Republic , recognized in the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797). In 1802 the Cisalpine Republic, comprising Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, was renamed the Italian Republic; in 1805 it became the kingdom of Italy (enlarged by the addition of Venetia), with Napoleon as king and Eugène de Beauharnais as viceroy.

From 1795 to 1812, Savoy, Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany, Parma, and the Papal States were annexed by France. In 1806, Joseph Bonaparte was made king of Naples; he was replaced in 1808 by Joachim Murat , Napoleon's brother-in-law. Sardinia remained under the house of Savoy and Sicily under the Bourbons. Napoleon's failure to unite Italy and to give it self-government disappointed Italian patriots, some of whom formed secret revolutionary societies such as the Carbonari , which later played a vital role in Italian unification.

The Congress of Vienna (1814–15) generally restored the pre-Napoleonic status quo and the old ruling families. However, Venetia was united with Lombardy as the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom under the Austrian crown, and Liguria passed to Sardinia. Naples and Sicily were united (1816) as the kingdom of the Two Sicilies . Austrian influence became paramount in Italy. Nevertheless, the efforts of Metternich and of the Holy Alliance (e.g., in quelling insurrections in Naples and in Palermo) could not suppress the nationalist movement. The Risorgimento , as the movement for unification was called, included three groups: the radicals, led by Mazzini , who sought to create a republic; the moderate liberals, who regarded the house of Savoy as the agency for unification; and the Roman Catholic conservatives, who desired a confederation under the presidency of the pope. In 1848–49, there were several short-lived revolutionary outbreaks, notably in Naples, Venice, Tuscany, Rome, and the kingdom of Sardinia (whose new liberal constitution survived).

Unification was ultimately achieved under the house of Savoy, largely through the efforts of Cavour , Garibaldi , and Victor Emmanuel II , who became king of Italy in 1861. At that time, the kingdom of Italy did not include Venetia, Rome, and part of the Papal States. By siding against Austria in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Italy obtained Venetia. To Napoleon III of France, who had helped Sardinia defeat Austria in 1859, Sardinia had ceded Nice and Savoy. The protectorate of Napoleon III over the Papal States delayed the Italian annexation of the city of Rome until 1870. Relations between the Italian government and the papacy, which refused to concede the loss of its temporal power, remained a major problem until 1929, when the Lateran Treaty made the pope sovereign within Vatican City. After 1870, Austria still retained areas with largely Italian populations (e.g., S Tyrol and Trieste); Italian agitation for their annexation (see irredentism ) went unfulfilled until World War I.

1861 to the Rise of Fascism

From 1861 until the Fascist dictatorship (1922–43) of Benito Mussolini, Italy was governed under the liberal constitution adopted by Sardinia in 1848. The reigns of Victor Emmanuel II (1861–78) and Humbert I (1878–1900), and the first half of the reign of Victor Emmanuel III (1900–1946) were marked by moderate social and political reforms and by some industrial expansion in N Italy (mainly in the 20th cent.). Periodic social unrest was caused by the dislocations attending industrialization and by occasional economic depression. In the underdeveloped south, rapid population growth led to mass emigration, both to the industrial centers of N Italy and to the Americas.

The outstanding statesmen of the pre-Fascist period were Agostino Depretis , Francesco Crispi , and Giovanni Giolitti . Colonial expansion was emphasized under Crispi, but was otherwise sporadic. A severe setback to Italian colonial aspirations was the establishment (1881) of a French protectorate over Tunisia ; it was an important motive for the conclusion (1882) of Italy's alliance with Germany and Austria (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente ). Later, Italy acquired part of Somaliland in 1889 and Eritrea in 1890, but further advances in NE Africa were checked by the Ethiopian victory (1896) at Adwa . Libya and the Dodecanese were conquered in the Italo-Turkish War (1911–12).

In World War I, Italy at first remained neutral. After the Allies offered substantial territorial rewards, Italy denounced the Triple Alliance and entered (1915) the war on the Allied side. Although the Italians initially suffered serious reverses, they won (1918) a great victory at Vittorio Veneto , which was followed by the surrender of Austria-Hungary. At the Paris Peace Conference, Italy obtained S Tyrol, Trieste, Istria, part of Carniola, and several of the Dalmatian islands. Italian possession of the Dodecanese was confirmed. However, these terms granted far less than the Allies had secretly promised in 1915. Italian discontent was evident in the seizure (1919) of Fiume (see Rijeka ) by a nationalist band led by Gabriele D'Annunzio .

Within Italy, political and social unrest increased, furthering the growth of Fascism. The Fascist leader (Ital. Il Duce) Mussolini , promising the restoration of social order and of political greatness, directed (Oct. 27, 1922) a successful march on Rome and was made premier by the king. Granted dictatorial powers, Mussolini quashed opposition to the state (especially that of socialists and Communists), regimented the press and the schools, imposed controls on industry and labor, and created a corporative state controlled by the Fascist party and the militia. The Fascist economic program as a whole was a failure, but some programs of lasting value (e.g., the draining of the Pontine marshes and the construction of a network of superhighways) were undertaken. The problems caused by an increasing population were aggravated by drastic immigration restrictions in the United States and by the economic depression of the 1930s.

World War II

Mussolini followed an aggressive foreign policy, and after 1935 he turned increasingly to militarist and imperialist solutions to Italy's problems. Italy conquered Ethiopia in 1935–36, easily overcoming the ineffective sanctions imposed by the League of Nations (from which Italy withdrew in 1937). At the same time, Italy drew closer to Nazi Germany and to Japan; in 1936, Italy formed an entente with Germany (see Axis ). Italy intervened on the Insurgent side in the Spanish civil war (1936–39), and in 1939 it seized Albania .

At the outbreak of World War II, Italy assumed a neutral stance friendly to Germany, but in June, 1940, it declared war on collapsing France and on Great Britain. In 1940, Italian forces were active in North Africa (see North Africa, campaigns in ) and attacked Greece; however, they were unsuccessful until German troops came to their aid in early 1941. Later in 1941, Italy declared war on the Soviet Union and on the United States. Soon Italy suffered major reverses, and by July, 1943, it had lost its African possessions, its army was shattered, Sicily was falling to U.S. troops, and Italian cities (especially ports) were being bombed by the Allies.

In July, 1943, discontent among Italians culminated in the rebellion of the Fascist grand council against Mussolini, Mussolini's dismissal by Victor Emmanuel III, the appointment of Badoglio as premier, and the dissolution of the Fascist party. In Sept., 1943, Italy surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, while German forces quickly occupied N and central Italy. Aided by the Germans, Mussolini escaped from prison and established a puppet republic in N Italy. Meanwhile, the Badoglio government declared war on Germany, and Italy was recognized by the Allies as a cobelligerent. The Allied Italian campaign was a slow, grueling, and costly struggle (see Cassino ; Anzio ). The fall of Rome (July, 1944) was followed by a stalemate. In Apr., 1945, partisans captured and summarily executed Mussolini. In May, 1945, the Germans surrendered.

After the war, Italy's borders were established by the peace treaty of 1947, which assigned several small Alpine districts (see Brigue and Tende ) to France; the Dodecanese to Greece; and Trieste, Istria, part of Venezia Giulia, and several Adriatic islands to Yugoslavia (now in Slovenia and Croatia) and to the Free Territory of Trieste. In 1954, Trieste and its environs were returned to Italy. As a result of the war, Italy also lost its colonies of Libya, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland.

Postwar Italy

In 1944 the unpopular Badoglio cabinet had resigned, and thereafter various coalition cabinets followed each other until Dec., 1945, when Alcide De Gasperi , a Christian Democrat, became premier. De Gasperi remained an important influence on Italian politics until his death in 1954. In May, 1946, Victor Emmanuel abdicated, having previously transferred his powers to his son, Humbert II . After a month's rule, Humbert was exiled when the Italians in a plebiscite voted by a small majority to make the country a republic. A new republican constitution went into effect on Jan. 1, 1948.

Following the war, Italy became firmly tied to the West, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 and the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1958. It was admitted to the United Nations in 1955. In internal politics, Italy's Christian Democrats, Communists, and Socialists emerged from the war as the chief parties. The split of the Socialists into the majority Socialists (the left wing) and the minority Social Democrats (the right wing) enabled the Christian Democrats to maintain power at the head of successive coalition governments with the Social Democrats (until 1959) and other center parties and to exclude the Communists from the government. However, in the postwar years the Communists dominated the local politics of Tuscany, Umbria, and Emilia-Romagna.

In 1962, Premier Amintore Fanfani , a Christian Democrat, formed a center-left coalition with a cabinet that again included the Social Democrats, as well as the parliamentary support of the Socialist party, led by Pietro Nenni . However, Fanfani's government fell after general elections in 1963 and there was considerable uncertainty before Aldo Moro , also a Christian Democrat, was able to form a center-left coalition in late 1963. The Moro government fell in 1964 and in 1966, but on each occasion was re-formed after a brief hiatus. In late 1966, N and central Italy suffered severe flooding, with resulting damage to art treasures and libraries, especially in Florence.

The Continuing Political Seesaw

Beginning in the late 1960s, there was considerable industrial unrest in the country as workers demanded higher wages and better social services. Following the general elections of May, 1968, the Moro government fell again and a government crisis began that was only ended in Dec., 1968, when Mariano Rumor , a Christian Democrat, formed a coalition government with Socialist support. After Rumor's coalition fell for a third time in July, 1970, he was replaced as premier by Emilio Colombo , also a Christian Democrat.

Colombo resigned in Jan., 1972. After a long period of crisis, Giulio Andreotti , also a Christian Democrat, formed a new coalition government in June, 1972; for the first time in 10 years, the government had a center-right, rather than a center-left, character. But this combination also did not last long and was replaced (July, 1973) by a slightly left-of-center coalition headed by Rumor. In Mar., 1974, Rumor resigned, but he soon formed another center-left cabinet, the 36th government since the fall of Mussolini in 1943. In mid-1974, Italy faced an economic crisis; an austerity program was initiated in an attempt to reduce the soaring inflation rate and the overwhelming foreign trade deficit. Rumor's administration resigned again in October and was replaced by Moro.

Many other governments followed but had little success dealing with economic decline, corruption, and lawlessness. Growing popular dissatisfaction with Italy's chaotic political situation helped the Communists achieve a measure of participation in the government coalition in 1977. The extreme left and right, excluded by the coalition between Christian Democrats and Communists, accounted for a steady increase in political violence that terrorized politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, and members of the judiciary. In 1978 former premier Moro was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigade, a left-wing terrorist group.

Center-left coalitions dominated by the Christian Democrats continued to hold power until 1983, when the republic's first Socialist-led coalition took power under Premier Bettino Craxi . The continuing sluggishness of the economy caused Craxi to institute another austerity budget, which included tax increases, service cuts, and wage adjustments. Craxi led the government for four years, until he resigned in 1987 and was replaced by Christian Democrat Giovanni Goria . Ciriaco De Mita succeeded Goria in 1988, and was himself succeeded in 1989 by Giulio Andreotti, who at the age of 70 became premier for the sixth time. In 1991 the Italian Communist party changed its name to the Democratic Party of the Left. In the 1992 elections the Christian Democrats barely maintained their coalition with the Socialists, the Liberals, and the Social Democrats. Socialist Giuliano Amato was named premier.

Corruption probes, begun in 1992 and headed by Amato, led to the arrest of hundreds of business and political figures and the investigation of many others, including several party leaders and former premiers. In 1993 Premier Amato resigned and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi , head of Italy's central bank, succeeded him. In addition, legislation largely ending proportional representation in parliament was passed. The Christian Democratic party changed its name to the Italian Popular party in 1994, but after a split in 1995, the center-right faction became the United Christian Democratic party.

In new elections in Mar., 1994, a coalition of conservatives and neofascists won a majority in parliament. Billionaire industrialist Silvio Berlusconi of the fledgling conservative party Forza Italia became premier, but his coalition government disintegrated in Dec. It was succeeded by a nonpolitical center-left government under Lamberto Dini, and then, after elections in Apr., 1996, by a center-left government under Romano Prodi that included the Democratic Party of the Left. Following a series of upheavals over austerity measures put in place to prepare for European economic union, Prodi's government collapsed in Oct., 1998.

Massimo D'Alema , of the Democrats of the Left (the former Democratic Party of the Left), became premier (1998) as head of a new coalition government that included several political parties. Parliament named former premier Ciampi as president in May, 1999, replacing Oscar Luigi Scalfaro , who had held the office since 1992. In Apr., 2000, D'Alema resigned after his coalition suffered loses in regional elections. Socialist and former premier Giuliano Amato, D'Alema's finance minister, formed a new center-left government that was substantially similar to D'Alema's.

Parliamentary elections in 2001 gave Berlusconi's conservative coalition a solid victory, and he became premier of a center-right government for a second time, ending six years of liberal rule. In 2003 parliament passed a law making the premier and other top Italian officials immune from prosecution while in office. The law was seen as a heavy-handed move to end Berlusconi's trial for bribery, and provoked an outcry from many in Italy. The constitutional court overturned the law, however, allowing the trial to proceed, and he was acquitted (2004) of bribery; other charges were dismissed.

Losses by the governing coalition in local elections forced Berlusconi to resign in Apr., 2005, and re-form his government. Later in the year Berlusconi secured passage of electoral changes that reestablished proportional representation as a basis for electing national legislators; the changes were designed to minimize his coalition's losses in the 2006 elections. In the Apr., 2006, elections Berlusoni's coalition narrowly lost to a center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi. Berlusconi challenged the results, alleging irregularities, but Italy' supreme court confirmed them later in the month. In May, Giorgio Napolitano , of the Democrats of the Left, was elected to succeed Ciampi as Italy's president, and Prodi subsequently formed a government. A government reorganization plan that would have increased the premier's powers and the autonomy of Italy's regions was defeated in a referendum in June, 2006; the plan had been proposed by Berlusconi's coalition.

In Feb., 2007, Prodi's government lost a foreign policy vote in Italy's senate and resigned, but the following week he re-formed his government and won a confidence vote. Later in the year the Democratic party was formed through the merger of the Democrats of the Left and center-left former Christian Democrats. Prodi's coalition unraveled in Jan., 2008, and he resigned after losing a confidence vote. Parliamentary elections were held in April, and resulted in a solid victory for Berlusconi's coalition; Berlusconi again became premier. In Sept., 2008, years of negotiation with Libya over compensation for three decades of Italian colonial rule ended with Italy agreeing to pay for 20-year, $5 billion compensation package.

In 2010, Italy, like many eurozone nations, was forced to adopt austerity measures to reduce government deficits that had increased as a result of the 2008–9 global downturn, but the proposed legislation provoked strong oppostion. A number of financial scandals involving government ministers as well as personal scandals involving Berlusconi also led to a loss of popularity for his government. There were increasing tensions and ultimately splits within the governing coalition during 2010; the government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in December, and again in Oct., 2011.

In 2011 the government suffered losses in local elections (May) and in referendums on several pieces of legislation (June). As concerns over the country's financial situation increased in mid-2011, the government adopted an austerity budget in July, which was subsequently revised as Italy's difficulties with the bond markets continued and the European Central Bank made aid contingent on increased austerities. Berlusconi struggled to hold his splintering coalition together, and was finally forced from office (Nov., 2011) by the erosion of market and EU confidence in his economic and financial policies.

Mario Monti , an economist and former member of the European Commission, became premier of a nonpartisan government consisting of technocrats, and subsequently won passage of austerities and economic reforms. Italy continued to face recurring pressures in the bond markets during 2012, which led to the adoption of additional measures. In Dec., 2012, Monti's government lost the support of Berlusconi's party, and he submitted his resignation; the president dissolved parliament and called new elections for Feb., 2013.

The Democratic party–led center-left coalition won a lower house majority, but only a plurality in the senate. The popular vote was closer, however, with Berlusconi's coalition narrowly behind, followed by comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (the largest party in terms of votes); Monti's coalition was fourth. A new government proved difficult to form, with the Democratic leader, Luigi Bersani, resisting a coalition with Berlusconi, and the Five Star Movement refusing to take a secondary role in a coalition. The election of a new president also proved contentious. Napolitano was reelected (April) after party leaders appealed to him to become a candidate for a second term; he became the first Italian president to be reelected. Party disagreements led Bersani to step down as Democratic leader, and Napolitano appointed the deputy leader, Enrico Letta , as premier. Letta quickly formed a broad coalition that included the Democrats and Berlusconi's and Monti's parties. In the subsequent local elections (May–June) the center-left coalition did well while the Berlusconi's party and the Five Star Movement did poorly. In September Berlusconi withdrew support for the government over an impending vote that removed (November) him from the senate (because of his criminal convictions), but a revolt in his party forced him to support the government in a confidence vote in October. Berlsuconi's party subsequently withdrew (November) from the government, but his party split and the government survived a confidence vote.

In early 2014 the new leader of the Democrats, Matteo Renzi , became increasingly critical of the Letta government, which he accused of proceeding too slowly with reforms and failing to improve the economy. In February Letta resigned, and Renzi, who had been mayor of Florence and had never served in the parliament, became premier. Renzi subsequently sought a series of government reforms, and won passage of cuts in local government in April; labor reforms were passed later in the year.

In Jan., 2015, Napolitano resigned as president for health reasons; Sergio Mattarella, a former government minister and justice of the constitutional court, was elected to succeed him. The following May, Renzi pushed through a revision of the electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies that retained the proportional system (overturned in part by the constitutional court in Jan., 2017), and in Apr., 2016, he succeeded in securing legislative approval of significant constitutional changes to weaken the Senate and reduce the power of the regions. In the June, 2016, local elections, the Five Star Movement made gains against the Democrats. After a referendum in Dec., 2016, in which voters resoundingly rejected Renzi's proposed constitutional changes, he resigned as premier and was succeeded by Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni .

Local elections in June, 2017, were marked by center-right gains. In Oct., 2017, a new mixed constituency and proportional voting system that encouraged the formation of electoral coalitions was enacted by the parliament; the Five Star Movement, which had said it would not form such alliances, denounced the voting system. Parliamentary elections in Mar., 2018, resulted in a potentially deadlocked legislature. The center-right coalition won the largest bloc of seats, with the right-wing League becoming its leading party, displacing Forza Italia; the Five Star Movement placed second but was the largest single party; and the Democrats center-left coalition was third. Ultimately the Five Star Movement and the League agreed to form a coalition and, in June, Giuseppe Conte, a law professor who was a member of neither party, became premier of a populist government.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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