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Italian Culture: Facts, Customs & Traditions

Rome panoramic, Vatican City
A panoramic view of Rome from St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
Credit: Boris Stroujko | Shutterstock

Italian culture is steeped in the arts, architecture, music and food. Home of the Roman Empire and a major center of the Renaissance, culture on the Italian peninsula has flourished for centuries. Here is a brief overview of Italian customs and traditions.

Population of Italy

The major ethnic group is Italians, who make up about 96 percent of the population. North African Arab, Italo-Albanian, Albanian, German, Austrian, and some other European groups fill out the remainder of the population.

The population is most dense in Northern Italy, where almost one-half the population lives in one-third of the country. Bordering countries — France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia to the north — have influenced Italian culture, as have the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Sicily and Sardinia.

Languages of Italy

The official language of the country is Italian. There are a number of dialects of the language spoken in the country, including Sardinian, Friulian, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Venetian and Calabrian. Milanese is also spoken in Milan.

Other languages spoken by native Italians include Albanian, Bavarian, Catalan, Cimbrian, Corsican, Croatian, French, German, Greek, Slovenian and Walser.

Sunset in Tuscany, Italian culture
The sun sets at Lucca in Tuscany.
Credit: Elenamiv | Shutterstock

Religion in Italy

The major religion in Italy is Roman Catholicism. This is not surprising, as Vatican City is the hub of Roman Catholicism and where the Pope resides. However, the second largest religion in Italy is Islam. Immigrants and the children of immigrants make up the majority of the Muslim population.

Other Christian denominations have a small representation, with Jehovah’s Witnesses being the largest contingent of non-Catholic Christians.

Jews have been present in Rome since before the birth of Christ, and many Jewish refugees fled to Italy from Nazi Germany. Heavy emigration since World War II has left only a small community of Jews in Italy today.

Art and architecture In Italy

Until the mid-17th century, the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church put Italy on the map as the hub of Western culture. Famous painters, sculptors and architects thrived, especially in Rome.

Italy has given rise to a number of architectural styles, including classical Roman, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical. Italy is home to some of the most famous structures in the world, including Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The concept of a basilica — which was originally used to describe an open public court building and evolved to mean a Catholic pilgrimage site — was born in Italy.

Florence, Venice and Rome are home to many museums, but art can be viewed in churches and public buildings. Most notable is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, painted by Michelangelo sometime between 1508 and 1512.

Opera has its roots in Italy and many famous operas — including "Aida" and "La Traviata," both by Giuseppe Verdi, and "Pagliacci" by Ruggero Leoncavallo — were written in Italian and are still performed in the native language. More recently, Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti made opera more accessible to the masses as part of the Three Tenors.

Italy is home to a number of world-renowned fashion houses, including Armani, Gucci, Benetton, Versace and Prada.

italian foods, italian cuisine, italian culture
Staples of Italian cuisine include roasted peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, pasta, prosciutto, garlic, cheese and capers.
Credit: kuvona | Shutterstock

Italian cuisine

Italian cuisine has influenced food culture around the world and is viewed as a form of art by many. Wine, cheese and pasta are important part of Italian meals. Pasta comes in a wide range of shapes, widths and lengths, including penne, spaghetti, linguine, fusilli and lasagna.

In the North of Italy, fish, potatoes, rice, sausages, pork, and different types of cheeses are the most common ingredients. Pasta dishes with tomatoes are popular, as are many kinds of stuffed pasta, polenta and risotto.

In the South, dishes are dominated by tomatoes — either served fresh or cooked into sauce — and also includes capers, peppers, olives and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, eggplant and ricotta cheese.

Doing business in Italy

Italians are known for their family-centric culture, and there are a number of small and mid-sized businesses. Even many of the larger companies such as Fiat and Benetton are still primarily controlled by single families.

Meetings are typically less formal than in countries such as Germany and Russia, and the familial structure can give way to a bit of chaos and animated exchanges. Italian business people tend to view information from outsiders with a bit of wariness, and prefer verbal exchanges with people that they know well.

Italian holidays

Italians celebrate most Christian holidays, including Christmas and Easter. Pasquetta, on the Monday after Easter, typically involves family picnics to mark the beginning of springtime.

November 1 commemorates Saints Day, a religious holiday during which Italians typically decorate the graves of deceased relatives with flowers.

Many Italian towns and villages celebrate the feast day of their patron saint. September 19, for example, is the feast of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Napoli.

April 25 is the Liberation Day, marking the 1945 liberation ending World War II in Italy in 1945.

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