People and Culture of Italy | An Overview

The People and Culture of Italy | An Overview

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! 🙂

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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!

What to expect

Read along to learn more of this marvellous and scenic country. This article gives an overview of the country’s geography, the 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 visit. If you are in a rush, you could skip ahead to a section you prefer by navigating the table of contents below or save this article on Pinterest for later read.

people and culture of Italy

About Italy, Europe

A la Carte| Map of Italy - Best time to go to Italy

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. A Complete One-stop resource page tells you more about Italy.

For now, here is an overview on people and culture of Italy.

People and Culture of Italy | Language

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.

People and Culture of Italy | Religion

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.

Pro tip: When visiting a church or when within church settings, avoid wearing shorts (for men) and avoid sleeveless tops (for women).

People and Culture of Italy | Family Values & Style

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.

People and Culture of Italy | Etiquette

people and 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.

Men and women 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:

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.

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.

People and Culture of Italy | Gestures

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 and Fashion

Art

Every corner of Italy is painted with art! Italian art can be viewed not just in Florence, Milan, Rome 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.

Take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican – it’s absolutely breathtaking! OR watch the official video from the Vatican

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!

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.

Dance

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.

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.

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.

Celebrations

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.

Food

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!


Your turn… 🙂

What do you think? Is this post valuable to you in planning your visits to Italy? If so please let me know in comments below. What have I missed – any suggestions you would like to add to this overview on people and culture of Italy? Please let me know the Contact Form, I would love to hear from you. Your suggestions shall be included as Reader Recommendations.

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Have fun and a splendid time exploring Italy 🙂

xoxo

ITALY

Latitude: 41° 17′ 32.86″ N
Longitude: 12° 34′ 25.00″ E

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The People and Culture of Italy | An Overview first published at timelesstravelsteps.com and is regularly updated. Last update Aug 8, 2021

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The culture of Italy is unique and fascinating having flourished over the centuries steeped in religion, family, art & music. Here's an overview for you via @GGeorgina_timelesstravelsteps/The culture of Italy is unique and fascinating having flourished over the centuries steeped in religion, family, art & music. Here's an overview for you via @GGeorgina_timelesstravelsteps/

5 Etiquette to observe at a Shinto shrine in Japan

5 Etiquette to observe at a Shinto shrine in Japan

Travel to Japan and you are certain to come across torii gates in bright orange. Some of these torii gates are in water, sometimes singular as an entrance or there may be thousands lined-up a hill. It signifies the entrance to a Shinto shrine. The Fushimi Inari is one of the most popular shrines and touristic destinations in Kyoto. – it has ten thousand bright orange torii gates lined up a mountain! In addtion, there are many Buddhist temples in Japan. Popular ones being in Nara, Uji and Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, Japan. Together, there are about 160,000 shrines and temples dotted around this beautiful country. You are certain to visit one of these places with a torii gate or a sanmon at a Buddhist temple.

When visiting a Shinto shrine, you may wish to observe the etiquette that goes with the culture in Japan. The 5 etiquette to observe at a Shinto shrine in this article is designed as a guide for when you visit Japan.

Differences between a Shrine, a Temple and Shintoism in Japan – A quick overview

Initially, I found it hard to distinguish between shrines and temples as the etiquette are similar. Nevertheless, there is a slight difference in the etiquette and the rituals you need to observe. As always, it is a matter of choice for visitors to either observe these rituals or not to. You may wish to observe the etiquette, either because you simply want to or out of respect for the Japanese culture. Whatever your reasons may be, it is good to know what to do when you are at a shrine or a temple. However, this post is aimed at etiquette and rituals that relates to a Shinto shrine only.

The next paragraph gives a brief overview on the differences between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple.

Shrine v. Temple

Briefly, shrines are associated with Shintoism and temples with Buddhism. The word for a shrine is ‘jinja’ or ‘jingu’ and for a temple is ‘o-tera’. A shrine is marked by a torii gate, mostly in bright orange, dividing the sacred ground from the outside world whereas a temple is marked by a house-like structure called a sanmon. More often than not, you will find Buddhist statutes and images in a temple but none like that in a shrine. What this means is that a shrine is a place where gods reside, and a temple is a place where Buddhas reside.

The torii gates at Fushimi Inari, Kyoto, Japan
The Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha line-up the hill, Kyoto. © georgina.daniel, timelesstravelsteps
Kiyomizudera.Kyoto.
A sanmon and a pagoda resembles Buddhism | Kiyomizudera, Kyoto by Pexels
Kiyomizu Dera Temple:, Kyoto: Koyasu Pagoda - The place couples or women go to so they are blessed with easy and safe childbirth.
Kiyomizu Dera Temple:, Kyoto: Koyasu Pagoda – The place couples or women go to so they are blessed with easy and safe childbirth.

Shintoism in Japan – A simple overview

The word “Shinto” literally means the way of kami (kami = gods). Unlike other religion, the Shinto faith has no origin, meaning it has no founder or prophets. There is no coded text that outlines Shinto’s principles. With Shintoism, there is no head shrine but there are a collection of shrines honouring local deities.

Thus, the key concepts of Shintoism is based on purity, harmony, family respect and subordination of the individual before a group. Given the lack of definition, hence the resulting flexibility in its concepts may, perhaps be one reason for its longevity. It is said that the Shinto faith is so deeply rooted in Japanese history that it is the indigenous religion of Japan. It cannot therefore, be separated from Japan or the Japanese people as an independent body of thinking. The Shinto faith is of the Japanese character whether the individual claims a religious affiliation or not.

Shintoism went through some changes during the Meiji period. It was somewhat consolidated and became the state religion with the emperor as its head. Legend has it that the emperors of Japan are direct descendants of their first Emperor Jimmu Tenno, the great-grandson of Amaterasu-Omikami, who was present at the founding of Japan. All this means is that the Emperor rules Japan, as it should be because the gods want it that way! Shinto believers’ belief that the gods and spirits (kami) exists in the same world as us, so, they are all around, interacting and existing in places and objects, thus the freedom of their religion.

Tradition rather than belief

Japan is a nation of traditionalists, so praying at the temples or shrines is a matter of fulfilling a tradition rather than belief in the religion. During my stay in Japan for almost 6 months, I visited both shrines and temples and I was drawn to Shintoism. So, in this article, as mentioned, I note the etiquette at a Shinto shrine. If you follow these steps, I am sure that you will be fine.


If you are interested in finding out more on Shintoism in Japan, I have selected a few books that provides a good degree of information. You can find them here


Etiquette at a Shinto Shrine

Etiquette 1 – Bow and walk on either side

As mentioned earlier, the entrance to a Shinto shrine is marked by a torii gate, keeping the outside world from the holy ground of the gods.

When you are at the torii gate, you must first bow before entering the grounds and proceed to walk either on the left or the right. One should not walk in the middle as this is where the gods walk. Many tourists or visitors (me included!) who are unfamiliar with this etiquette do not observe this.

This is the 12 meter (40-foot) high Torii gate which marks the entrance to the Meiji Shinto Shrine. There are clear designated footpaths on the left and the right for visitors .
This is the 12 meter (40-foot) high Torii gate which marks the entrance to the Meiji Shinto Shrine, Tokyo. There are clear designated footpaths on the left and the right for visitors . Photo by Georgina_Daniel © timelesstravelsteps

When you are inside the grounds, make your way to the Shinto shrine but before you come before the gods, you need to observe the 2nd etiquette at the chozuya.

Etiquette 2 – Purify yourself with 3-step ritual at the chozuya

Just before the entrance to the Shinto shrine, you will come across a chozuya. A chozuya is a small pavilion with ladles, usually made of bamboo, which lies on a central rest. This is where you purify yourself before approaching the main shrine to pray to the gods.

Chozuya | Etiquette at a Shinto shrine
Ladles made of bamboo at a Chozuya, purification station before a Shinto shrine.
Purification station.Chozuya | Etiquette at a Shinto Shrine
A small purification station before a Shinto shrine

The etiquette at the Chozuya can be summarised into the following 3-step rituals:

i)    Using your right hand, scoop a ladle of water and pour over your left hand;

ii)   Do the same but this time over the right hand;

iii) Finally, you need to clean your mouth. To do this, using the ladle, pour some water into a cupped hand, swill it in your mouth and spit it out onto the ground.

Don’t wash your mouth directly from the ladle.

Etiquette at a Shinto shrine: Cleansing station at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo
Etiquette at a Shinto shrine: Cleansing station at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo | Photo by Georgina_Daniel © timelesstravelsteps

When you have completed these 3-step rituals, make your way to the shrine to observe the next etiquette – to pay your respects to the gods. Here, observe the following  7-step rituals:

Etiquette 3 – Pay your Respects with this 7-step ritual at the shrine

i)    When you reach the shrine, bow slightly;

ii)  Toss a coin into the box in front of you, the offertory box. The amount does not matter;

iii)   Ring the bell (if one is available), at least two or three times to let the gods know that you are there to pray;

Etiquette at a Shinto shrine
At the Shinto shrine, observe the etiquette to ring the bell to let the gods know you are there to pay your respects. Photo © timelesstravelsteps

Once you have rung the bell and let the gods know you are there, follow the following four simple steps.

iv)  Bow deeply (at a 90-degree angle) twice;

v)   Clap twice;

vi)  Thank the gods, pay your respects;

vii) Bow deeply, once.

After paying your respects to the gods, you may want to do Ema.

Etiquette 4 – Write your wishes on Ema

Once you have paid your respects, you may want to write your wishes on a Ema. Ema, literally means horse picture. It is a small wooden plaque, which you buy to write your wishes and to hang them to be received by the gods. You can buy Ema of various sizes.

It has been said that the kami travelled by horse and the more affluent members of society, at one time, gifted an animal to the shrine to offer them as means of transport and to pray for their coming. However, over time, the customs evolved into offering a picture of a horse instead.

After paying respects at a Shinto shrine, follow the etiquette on Ema - you buy these wooden plaque to write your wishes and hang them to be received by the gods.
After paying respects at a Shinto shrine, follow the etiquette on Ema – you buy these wooden plaque to write your wishes and hang them to be received by the gods. Picture by Georgina_Daniel © timelesstravelsteps

Ema, is a rather popular activity among older teens who are keen to wish for their education success or career prospects, couples who wish for long-term happiness and older generation who wish for good health.

After Ema, you may want to find out about what fortunes are ahead.

Etiquette 5 – Omikuji (100 Yen fortunes)

You can purchase a slip of paper for 100 yen with fortunes (or misfortunes) written on them which awaits you in all aspects of your life from career, love, health, friendship and education. These are called ‘omikuji’. You can either keep them or tie them to a rope or branches of a tree near the shrines.

Heian Shrine, Kyoto
Heian shrine, Kyoto: Omikuji – 100 Yen fortunes or misfortunes written on paper can be tied to branches of trees near the shrine. Photo by Georgina_Daniel © timelesstravelsteps

Learn more about the Top 5 in Kyoto which you would’t want to miss!


Selected books on Shintoism

Click image above to download on Kindle £2.48

Click image above to download on Kindle £6.49

Click image above to download on Kindle £2.49

Finally…

With over 160,000 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples dotted all over Japan, I am sure that you will visit one when you are there. I learnt more of the Japanese culture and the differences between the two religions as I continued to visit as many shrines and temples as I could during my stay in Japan. For the Japanese, observing the etiquette at the Shinto shrines or the Buddhist temples was more of a habit than being religious. So, there are no strict rules to observe these etiquette and you do not have to if you do not want to.

I found observing these etiquette were fun and interesting. It broke the habit of just taking photographs! You should try them when you next visit a Shinto shrine and return here to share your experiences.


Is this post valuable to you in planning your visit to a Shinto shrine in Japan? If so please let me know in comments below or via Contact Form, I would love to hear from you. Scroll all the way down for more ideas and inspiring travel stories. Subscribe to join us at Timeless Travel Steps to receive all the latest news and events. As always,

Have an awesome time discovering Japan!

February 2021, Update


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Etiquette at a Shinto shrine
Etiquette at a Shinto shrine
Etiquette at a Shinto shrine

One glass of water doesn’t equal another. One may just appease the thirst, the other you may enjoy thoroughly. In Japan, people know about this difference. – Jil Sander

I look forward to connecting with each of you


5 Etiquetter to observe when visiting a Shinto shrine in Japan. A step-by-step easy to follow guide for complete beginners. via @GGeorgina_timelesstravelsteps/5 Etiquetter to observe when visiting a Shinto shrine in Japan. A step-by-step easy to follow guide for complete beginners. via @GGeorgina_timelesstravelsteps/