Take the art works of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tintoretto and Caravaggio, the operas of Verdi and Puccini, the cinema of Federico Fellini, add the architecture of Venice, Florence and Rome and you have just a fraction of Italy’s treasures from over the centuries.
While the country is renowned for these and other delights, it is also notorious for its precarious political life and has had several dozen governments since the end of World War II.
The Italian political landscape underwent a seismic shift in the 1990s when the “Clean Hands” operation exposed corruption at the highest levels of politics and big business. Several former prime ministers were implicated and thousands of businessmen and politicians were investigated.
Italy was one of the six countries which signed the 1951 Paris Treaty setting Europe off on the path to integration. It has been staunchly at the heart of Europe ever since, although in the early 2000s the government of Silvio Berlusconi adopted a more Eurosceptic stance.
Mr Berlusconi sought to align Italy more closely to the US, breaking ranks with the country’s traditional allies, France and Germany, in his support for the US-led campaign in Iraq.
The Europhile Romano Prodi, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2008, pulled Italian troops out of Iraq and set about restoring good relations with other EU member states.
Italy is the fourth largest European economy and for long enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in Europe, despite the decline in traditional industries such as textiles and car manufacturing as a result of globalisation.
But it became one of the first eurozone victims of the global financial crisis of 2008. By the end of 2011, Italy had one of the highest levels of public debt – a towering 118% of GDP (annual economic output) – in the eurozone.
There is concern over Italy’s birth rate – the lowest in Europe – and the economic implications of an ageing population.
Source: BBC World Country Profiles (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/country_profiles/default.stm)