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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, family, 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

About 96 percent of the population of Italy is Italian, though there are many other ethnicities that live in this country. North African Arab, Italo-Albanian, Albanian, German, Austrian and some other European groups fill out the remainder of the population. Bordering countries of 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. About 93 percent of the Italian population speaks Italian as native language, according to the BBC.  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.

Family life in Italy

"Family is an extremely important value within the Italian culture," Talia Wagner, a Los Angeles based marriage and family therapist, told Live Science. Their family solidarity is focused on extended family rather than the west's idea of "the nuclear family" of just a mom, dad and kids, Wagner explained.

Italians have frequent family gatherings and enjoy spending time with those in their family. "Children are reared to remain close to the family upon adulthood and incorporate their future family into the larger network," said Wagner.

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, located in the heart of Rome, is the hub of Roman Catholicism and where the Pope resides.  Roman Catholics make up 90 percent of the population, though only one-third of those are practicing Catholics, while the other 10 percent is composed of Protestant, Jewish and a growing Muslim immigrant community, according to the University of Michigan

Art and architecture in Italy

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. The word, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is derived from Latin and meant "royal palace." The word is also from the Greek basilikē, which is the feminine of basilikos which means "royal" or basileus, which means "king."

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. 

For Italians, food isn't just nourishment, it is life. "Family gatherings are frequent and often centered around food and the extended networks of families," said Wagner.

No one area of Italy eats the same things as the next. Each region has its own spin on "Italian food," according to CNN. For example, most of the foods that Americans view as Italian, such as spaghetti and pizza, come from central Italy. 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. "Many families that immigrated from Italy are traditionalists by nature, with the parents holding traditional gender roles. This has become challenging for the younger generations, as gender roles have morphed in the American culture and today stand at odds with the father being the primary breadwinner and the undisputed head of the household and the mother being the primary caretaker of the home and children," said Wagner. 

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.

The celebration of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, is much like Christmas. Belfana, an old lady who flies on her broomstick, delivers presents and goodies to good children, according to legend. 

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

Additional reporting by Alina Bradford, Live Science Contributor

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Kim Ann Zimmermann

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a contributor to Live Science. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Glassboro State College.
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