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Italian Culture: Facts, customs & traditions

Italian culture is the amalgamation of thousands of years of heritage and tradition, tracing its roots back to the Ancient Roman Empire and beyond. Italian culture is steeped in the arts, family, architecture, music and food. Home of the Roman Empire and its legendary figures such as Julius Caesar and Nero, it was also a major center of the Renaissance and the birthplace of fascism under Benito Mussolini. Culture on the Italian peninsula has flourished for centuries. Here is a brief overview of Italian customs and traditions as we know them today.

Population of Italy

According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (opens in new tab), Italy is home to approximately 59.6 million individuals as of 1 January 2020. About 96 percent of the population of Italy are ethnic Italians according to Jen Green, author of "Focus On Italy (opens in new tab)" (Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2007), 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.

Of the 59.6 million people living in Italy as of 1 January 2020, 48.7 percent are men, 51.3 percent are women. 13 percent are children aged up to 15, 63.8 percent are believed to be aged 15 – 64 and 23.2 percent are 65 or older. 14,804 are 100 years old or older. The largest percentage of the population, 26.8, lives in the North West of Italy. The largest city by population is Rome with over 2.8 million residents, while the smallest municipality is Morterone with a population of just 30 people.

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.

The family structure has changed somewhat over the last 60 years. Gian Carlo Blangiardo, professor of Statistics and Quantitative Methods at the University of Milano-Bicocca and Stefania Rimoldi, researcher in demography at the University of Milano-Bicocca, explained in "Portraits of the Italian Family: Past, Present and Future (opens in new tab)" for the "Journal of Comparative Family Studies Vol. 45" (University of Toronto Press, 2014)that the mean age of a marriage is now 31 for women and 34 for men, seven years older than it was in 1975. This has been linked to an increase in cohabitation before marriage and an overall decline in the number of marriages.

Pope Francis addresses a crowd in St. Peter’s square from the balcony of the apostolic palace in August 2021. (Image credit: ALBERTO PIZZOLI / Contributor via Getty Images)

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 and other Christians make up 80 percent of the population, though only one-third of those are practicing Catholics. The country also has a growing Muslim immigrant community, according to the University of Michigan (opens in new tab). Muslim, agnostic and atheist make up the other 20 percent of the population, according to the Central Intelligence Agency (opens in new tab).

The number of Italians who attend religious services at least once a week has declined substantially from 2006 to 2020, according to Statista (opens in new tab). A little over 18 million Italians aged six and older attended weekly services in 2006, down to 12 million by 2020. 

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 the 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 (opens in new tab), 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."

Italy is also  home to many castles, such as the Valle d'Aosta Fort Bard, the Verrès Castle and the Ussel Castle.

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.

Italy has a "centuries-long operatic tradition," according to Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker in "A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years (opens in new tab)" (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015). 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 a soloist and as part of the Three Tenors.

Pizza, one of the most popular dishes in the world, has its origins in central Italy.  (Image credit: d3sign via Getty Images)

Italian food

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 parts of Italian meals. Pasta comes in a wide range of shapes, widths and lengths, including common forms such as 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.

"The etymologies of the Italian words for taste (sapore) and knowledge (sapere) suggest why we should, as scholars of Italy and Italian culture, attend to food," wrote Peter Naccarato, Zachary Nowak and Elgin K. Eckert in their book "Representing Italy Through Food (opens in new tab)" (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)

No one area of Italy eats the same things as the next. Each region has its own spin on "Italian food," according to CNN (opens in new tab). For example, most of the foods that Americans view as Italian, such 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, tomatoes dominate dishes, and they are either served fresh or cooked into sauce. Southern cuisine also includes capers, peppers, olives and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, eggplant and ricotta cheese.

Wine is also a big part of Italian culture, and the country is home to some of the world's most famous vineyards. The oldest traces of Italian wine were discovered in a cave near Sicily's southwest coast. "The archaeological implications of this new data are enormous, especially considering that the identification of wine [is] the first and earliest-attested presence of such a product in an archaeological context in Sicily," researchers wrote in the study, published online August 2017 in the Microchemical Journal (opens in new tab).

Italian fashion

Italy is home to a number of world-renowned fashion houses, including Armani, Gucci, Benetton, Versace and Prada and is a nation that takes dress very seriously. "In Sicily, they say 'Eat and drink according to your taste, dress according to other people’s tastes'," Emanuela Scarpellini, professor of modern history at the University of Milan wrote in her book "Italian Fashion since 1945 (opens in new tab)" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

"As well-known as are the designers of Italian automobiles and household furnishings, they have not surpassed such designers of clothing and accessories as Gucci, Fendi, Kirzia, Ferragamo, Pucci, Valentino, Prada, Armani, Versace, Ferré, and Dolce and Gabbana," wrote Charles L. Killinger, author of "Culture and Customs of Italy (opens in new tab)" (Greenwood, 2005). He pinpointed the last decades of the 20th century as being the boom period for ready-to-wear fashion. This capped off a general trend of improvement for the fashion industry as it was bolstered by post-war funding from America.

Doing business in Italy

Italy's official currency is the euro. 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. 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. 

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.

Additional reporting by Alina Bradford, Live Science Contributor

Additional resources and reading

Before the Romans it was the Etruscans who appear to have dominated the Italian peninsula. Learn more by finding out how scientists solved the mystery of the Etruscans' origins.

More recently, Italy was at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic, but how early was the coronavirus really circulating in Italy? Find out in this report.

Bibliography

Italian Tourism Official Website (opens in new tab)

Discover Italy: The celebration of the Epiphany (opens in new tab)

Lonely Planet: Italy (opens in new tab)

Delish: Italian Food by Region (opens in new tab)

Italian National Institute of Statistics (opens in new tab)

"Focus On Italy (opens in new tab)" by Jen Green (Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2007)

"Languages Across Europe" BBC (opens in new tab)

"Portraits of the Italian Family: Past, Present and Future (opens in new tab)" by Gian Carlo Blangiardo and Stefania Rimoldi for the "Journal of Comparative Family Studies Vol. 45" (University of Toronto Press, 2014)

"A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years (opens in new tab)" by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)

"Representing Italy Through Food (opens in new tab)" by Peter Naccarato, Zachary Nowak and Elgin K. Eckert (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)

"Italian Fashion since 1945 (opens in new tab)" by Emanuela Scarpellini (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

"Culture and Customs of Italy (opens in new tab)" by Charles L. Killinger (Greenwood, 2005)

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