THE PEOPLE AND CULTURE OF ITALY: AN EASY READ FOR FIRST TIME TRAVELLERS TO ITALY
This post about the people and culture of Italy was last updated on January 9, 2023
The people and culture of Italy are unique and fascinating. Their traditions having flourished over centuries is steeped in religion, family, art and music. Their relaxed approach and pleasure of eating good meals prepared with love and dedication speaks volume of their warm nature. When in Italy, you are never too far or need wait too long to experience a vibrant festival…One thing for sure though – the Italians do live life to the fullest! 🙂
ABOUT THIS ARTICLE ON THE PEOPLE AND CULTURE OF ITALY
The people and culture of Italy have flourished over the centuries making Italy one of world’s leading and influential countries. Italy is considered the home of Roman Empire, Renaissance and of the Roman Catholic Church, boasting a rich culture associated with religion, family, etiquette & customs, art, architecture, music and food. With the innate culture of Italy to celebrate, you are never too far or need wait too long to experience a vibrant festival or carnival thrown in respect of a saint or a local harvest. Italians do live life to their fullest and it shows!
Read along to learn more of this marvellous and scenic country. This article gives an overview of the country’s languages used and spoken, etiquette and Italy’s art, architecture and fashion. Hence, this article has you covered on everything you may need to know about the people and culture of Italy before your first visit. If you are in a rush, bookmark this article or save this article on Pinterest for later reading.
ABOUT ITALY, EUROPE
Italy, a peninsula in southern Europe is home to about 60.4 million inhabitants (2020). About 96% are Italians and the remaining 4% include North African, Italo-Albanians, Albanians, Germans, Austrian and other European groups.
Here is an overview about the people and culture of Italy.
You may like to read about the colourful towns and villages in Lake Como along with the Italian way of life in lakeside living.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE OF ITALY
The official language spoken by the nation is Italian. About 93% are native Italian speakers. There are other dialects and languages spoken by or understood by the minority of the nationals, such as French, German, Ladin, Slovene, Greek, Catalan, Croatian and Emiliano-Romagnolo.
Emiliano-Romagnolo is made up of two distinct languages, Emilian and Romagnol. This language is spoken by 1.7 million people primarily in Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. It encompasses parts of Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany and in one of the world’s smallest country, San Marino.
Friulian is a dialect spoken by 600,000 people in the Friuli region of north east Italy.
Ladin, Slovene and German enjoy equal recognition with Italian in the province of Alto-Adige.
French is legally recognised in the Alpine region of the Val d’Aosta.
Catalan is spoken by a small number of people, about 0.7% in one city on the island of Sardinia. On the rest of the island, Sardinian is spoken by over 1 million residents.
Is English spoken in Italy?
Although Italian is the widely spoken language, there are subtle signs that Italians are well-versed in English as well. English is the principal foreign language taught in almost every school in Italy, so the younger generation are able to converse well. Some Italians may say that they do not speak or understand English, but you will find that they can understand enough and able to communicate with a few words in English and accompanied by hand gestures.
If you are travelling to major cities like Rome, Milan, Florence , Venice, you may not encounter problems getting by without any Italian as a tourist. However, if you wish, you could always learn the language by signing up to a language class in Italy when you visit or do an online language course to be familiar with the language.
RELIGION, PEOPLE AND CULTURE OF ITALY
The primary religion in Italy is Roman Catholic. Rome is home to Vatican City, the hub of Roman Catholicism and where the Pope resides. About 90% of Italians are Roman Catholics. Although church attendance is low, the influence of the church is high. Office buildings have a cross or a religious statue in the lobby. There are many celebrations throughout the year honouring saints.
Easter and pre Lent celebrations are the most celebrated, best loved and ancient of traditions in Italy. The highlight is Carnavale. A vibrant celebration of dancing, masquerading and feasting takes place before Ash Wednesday. The pre Lent festivals mark an essential time in Italian culture to celebrate with food before the fasting and sacrifices of Lent is observed.
A small minority of Italians are Jews, Protestants and Muslims.
Georgina suggests: When visiting a church or when within a church setting, avoid wearing shorts and sleeves tops.
THE ITALIAN CULTURE VALUES
The Italians place family in the centre of their social structure and provide a stabilising factor for its members. Culture of Italy in the north is slightly different to the south. In the north, the nuclear family lives together while in the south, the extended family often reside together. In both situations, the family provide financial and emotional support to each other.
The expression “bella figura” – good image is important in the culture of Italy. For Italians, appearances matter and first impressions are lasting impressions. They unconsciously assess another person’s social standing in the first few minutes of their meeting. The way one dresses goes beyond the “bella figura” meaning, extending it to cover confidence, style and demeanour.
ETIQUETTE IN CULTURE OF ITALY
In meeting people, the Italians are formal. The proper etiquette involve a handshake with eye contact and a smile between strangers. Wait till invited to address on first name basis.
People dress formally when invited to business and social meetings – ties and suits for men while women dress simply but elegantly. As Italians are guided by first impressions, it is important to show propriety and respect, especially when meeting for the first time.
Here is an easy guide to gift giving generally and more specifically when giving flowers:
1 | Etiquette on gift giving
1 | When giving gifts, choose quality over quantity. For example, if you are gifting wine, choose a good vintage;
2 | Do not wrap gifts in black. Black is traditionally a mourning colour;
3 | Do not wrap gifts in purple. The colour purple is a symbol of bad luck to the Italians;
4 | Gifts are usually opened when received.
2 | Etiquette when choosing flowers:
When selecting flowers, do not choose
1 | Chrysanthemums as they are used at funerals;
2 | Red flowers – they indicate secrecy;
3 | Yellow flowers as they indicate jealousy.
GESTURES IN THE CULTURE OF ITALY
The Italians are known to say that a gesture is more valuable than a thousand words. They seem to have a gesture for almost everything with hands moving in various directions and facial expressions as they speak.
Here are some to take note of when travelling to Italy:
1 | People shake hands when arriving and leaving. Men slap each other on the back and may as well embrace if they know each other;
2 | Women kiss cheek to cheek, starting with the left;
3 | Sitting cross legged at the ankles suggests a respect for traditional values and rules of etiquette;
4 | Crossing your arms on your chest suggests defensiveness;
5 | Rubbing hands together, followed by a quick kiss of the fingertips expresses satisfaction, particularly after having a delicious meal.
Watch a short Youtube video illustrating some of the common hand gestures in Italy.
ART, ARCHITECTURE, MUSIC, LITERATURE & FASHION IN THE CULTURE OF ITALY
7.1 | Art
Every corner of Italy is painted with art! Italian art can be viewed not just in Florence, Milan, Rome, Verona and Venice but also in public buildings and churches. The artistic tradition was deeply rooted in Italian culture as early as the Neolithic Age evidenced by artefacts and ornaments.
The Renaissance marked the heyday of art culture with Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. One of the most famous piece of art is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, which was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. Another most celebrated and well known artwork in the world is Leonardo’s Last Supper painted between 1494 and 1498 on the wall of the dining room of the former Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Borromini and Bernini contributed to baroque Italy. For art lovers, Italy is a paradise with invaluable works.
Georgina suggests: Take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican — it’s absolutely breathtaking OR watch the official video from the Vatican.
Are you planning a trip to Rome?
Visit the Vatican City, the world’s smallest independent international state, a walled-off enclave within Rome. It’s home to 842 people, the Sistine Chapel, and St Peter’s Basilica including some of the world’s most important relics located inside the Vatican Museum. A guided tour here is said to worth every penny. Learn more >>
7.2 | Architecture
Architecture in Italy spans 3500 years. Showcasing a broad and diverse architectural style, from ancient Roman, to Gothic, Renaissance, Art Nouveau and modern. The Duomo di Milano is a good example of architecture spanning 600 years showcased in one building!
7.3 | Music and Dance
Music and dance are an iconic part of Italian national and ethnic identity, forming an important culture of Italy.
Italian music is generally eclectic and takes various forms from opera to folk and spans a diverse array of regional styles, instruments and dances. Italian opera is world famous and is an essential part of Italian musical culture, along with other imported genres like jazz, rock, and hip hop. Development of opera, in particular has become a national pride. Many of the world’s great musicians and composers like Giuseppe Verdi and Luciano Pavarotti are Italians.
Dances in Italy takes various form, from combat dancing to love and courting. Popular dances include:
Tarantella – A dialect form used to describe a common kind of spider, which is part of a folk ritual intended to cure the poison caused by the tarantula bites.
Weapon dance – A Tuscan regional dance, this display signify the moves of combat.
Love & Courting – Duru-duru is a display of dance known in Sardinia and is about love and courting. It can be for couples or singles.
Tammuriata – This dance is performed in Southern Italy to the sound of tambourine to the lyric song called strambotto.
7.4 | Literature
Italian literature, both written and spoken has its beginnings in the 13th century. Some of the great works includes Dante’s La Divina Commedia which was written in the 13th century. There are writings of Pietro Bembo, Nicolo Machiavelli and Ludovico Ariosto in the 16th century.
7.5 | Fashion
Fashion has been part of the culture of Italy for a long time, playing a key role in the country’s society and lifestyle. Italy is one of the leading countries in fashion with Milan considered as one of the fashion capitals in the world, alongside Paris , New York and London . Some world renowned fashion houses such as Armani, Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Prada are all Italian. Italian fashion is about craftmanship, quality and creativity. Different regions have come up with their own specialities over time.
8 | CELEBRATIONS AND THE CULTURE OF ITALY
Despite Italy’s rich and magnificent contribution to art, architecture, and music, there is also the culture of Italy to celebrate. There are hundreds of festivals, local and national that takes place across the country, in any given day to celebrate a saint or a local harvest. In villages, towns or smaller cities, people come together to take an evening stroll – a domestic ritual referred to as “passeggiata.”
It’s worth noting that given the number of holidays and celebrations that takes place throughout the country, that some attractions will have reduced opening hours or closed altogether. Check national holidays when planning your vacation to Italy.
Learn more about When is the best time to go to Italy – a detailed guide to seasons, weather, events and festivals to support your travel planning.
9 | FOOD AND CULTURE OF ITALY
Food! Glorious food in Italy!
Food! Glorious food! The food culture of Italy is part of their daily life. Italians are passionate about their food, how it is prepared, cooked and served. What ingredients are used with no compromising for a substitute! They preserve the authentic simplicity of ingredients and their art of cooking. Therefore, when it comes to food, the Italians are happiest when it’s done right.
While cooking is almost a philosophy in the culture of Italy, eating becomes the irreplaceable pillar of Italian sociability — perfect moments to talk, laugh, share and strengthen relationships.
However, Italian food are very regional. There are differences in dishes, popularity and its traditions between Northern and Southern regions of Italy. Broadly, in the north, the most common dishes are comprised of fish, potatoes, rice, sausage, pork, pasta, polenta and risotto. In the south, tomatoes are a staple, either served fresh or cooked into sauce with capers, peppers, olives and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, eggplant and ricotta cheese. In central Italy, for example, spaghetti and pizza are popular. As food is a means for maintaining ties between family and friends, there is a special meal for every occasion in Italy.
So, If you want to experience Italy, then you need to experience their food and their wine!
Read: An easy guide to the 11 fine Garda Wines.
My sincere wish is that this guide about the people and culture of Italy is valuable to you in planning your visits and has given you a better idea of what to expect when you visit Italy. I hope this guide has answered some, if not all of your questions about the people and culture of Italy.
Before you leave, take a look at other travel stories and practical info about Italy if you are planning a trip to this country. You may like my recommendations and enjoy reading the following articles also:
- Best time to visit Italy
- Complete Guide to Milan
- Getting around Milan like a local
- Best places to stay in Milan
- Best of Milan Cathedral
- Verona City Guide
- Food in Verona
- Guide to Verona Wine
- Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
- 5 Perfect Days in Lake Como
- The best 8 Lake Como towns to love
- Argegno: The perfect off-beat charm in Lake Como
For more inspiration and travel information for your trip to Italy, take a look at my Italy travel page that has detailed destination guides and experience based tips to support your travels.
Have fun and a splendid time exploring Italy 🙂
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The People and Culture of Italy | An Overview was first published at timelesstravelsteps.com
This post is regularly edited and updated. The last update was on January 9, 2023
Latitude: 41° 17′ 32.86″ N
Longitude: 12° 34′ 25.00″ E
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I shall be so looking forward to your posts on your trips.
I am certainly planning on it! I’ll be watching your tips and guides 💜
So nice you know some Italian “secret” ingredient to their cooking! 🙂 Sincerely hope that you will visit Italy soonest after lockdown.
Italy has been on my bucket list since I was a kid. My grandma and I would make homemade pasta/sauce/ravioli/tortellini/lasagna and other italian food that was passed down to her from her mother. I WILL taste the food of Italy one day after lockdown haha
So glad you love Italy as well, Ann 🙂 I love how the Italians have so many celebrations and events throughout the year which makes food to be a special occasion all the time.
Oh geez, I really really want to visit Italy again!
I have been to a few places around the mainland and Sicily, and to be honest I have loved it. I love the culture and the food!