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The Italian people ( ) are an ethnic group, in the sense of sharing a common Italian culture, descent, and speaking the Italian language as a mother tongue. Within Italymarker, Italians are defined by citizenship, regardless of ancestry or country of residence, and are distinguished from people of Italian descent, and historically, from ethnic Italians living in the unredeemed territories of the Italian peninsula.

Because of wide-ranging and long-lasting diaspora, over 70 million people of Italian or part Italian ancestry live outside of Italymarker. Nearly two-thirds of Italian descendants live in South America (primarily Brazilmarker and Argentinamarker). About 20 million live in North America and nearly 1 million live in Oceania. In the Americas, most descendants' origins go back several generations and they have assimilated into their respective national identities. Most do not speak the Italian language.


The Italian people have somewhat varied European origins apart from the original Ancient Italic peoples: Northern Italy had a strong Celtic presence in Cisalpine Gaul until the Romans conquered and colonized the area in the second century; the central portion of the Italian peninsula was inhabited by the Etruscansmarker and Italic people; and southern Italy and Sicily was settled significantly by Greeks (see Magna Graecia).

The Romans romanized the entire peninsula and preserved common unity until the fifth century AD. In the later centuries of the Western Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula was infiltered by Germanic peoples crossing the Alps, establishing settlements in north-central Italy and to a much lesser degree in the south. The Germanic tribes underwent rapid Romanization.

The Byzantine Greeks were an important power in southern Italy for five centuries, fighting for supremacy first against the Ostrogoths and later against the Lombards of Beneventomarker. Greek speakers were fairly common throughout Southern Italy and Sicily until the eleventh century when Byzantine rule ended: a few small Greek-speaking communities still exist in Calabria and Apuliamarker

In 827 AD, the island of Sicily was invaded starting a period of Arab influence in Sicily. Arabs controlled Sicily until the Norman Christians conquered much of southern Italy and all of Sicily in 1091 AD.

There are also still small Greek fishing villages in Calabria, Maltese-Italian residents whose family originated from Maltamarker under Italian and then British rule from the 18th to the mid 20th centuries, and Catalan communities in Sardinia to this day.

For more than 500 years (12th to 17th centuries) after Norman rule, Swabian (German) and Angevin (French) swapped control of regions in Italy, predominately southern Italy and Sicily. During the 11th through 16th century the majority of city-states from Northern and Central Italy remained independent, nurturing the era now known as the Renaissance. Habsburg Spain and Bourbon Spain dominated in southern Italy. From the 16th C. right through to unification, most of the Italian states were controlled by the emerging European political powers, most notably the Austrian Habsburgs, Spain, and by the 19th C., Napoleonic France.

In 1720, Sicily came under Austrian Habsburg rule and was swapped between various European powers until Giuseppe Garibaldi conquered Sicily and southern Italy, allowing for the annexation of the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies into the new Italian state in 1860 (see Risorgimento).

Since the 19th century, the economic conditions of the agrarian southern and north-eastern regions resulted in mass migration from these regions to the Americas, industrial parts of northern Italy, and to other parts of Western Europe such as France and Belgium. By the 1970s economic conditions in the poorer regions of Italy improved to the point that even the less-developed regions of South Italy received more immigrants than it sent outwards.

Today, the population of Italy is less concentrated in large cities than in other European countries, with 67% of Italiansmarker living in a major urban area- compared to 76% of Frenchmarker, 88% of Germansmarker and 90% of Britonsmarker. The vast majority of Italians live outside of the large (over 1,000,000 population) cities.


From the Lombard invasion until the mid-nineteenth century, Italy was not the nation-state it is today. The Italian regions were fractured into various kingdoms, duchies, and domains. As a result, Italian dialects or regional minority languages and customs evolved independently. While all Italian states were similar and they retained basic elements of Roman language and culture, each developed its own regional culture and identity. As a result, even to this day, Italians define themselves primarily by their home region, province or city, and many still speak a local dialect or regional language in addition to standard Italian. Regional diversity is important to many Italians, and some regions also have strong local identities.


In Italy, Standard Italian has steadily replaced the numerous dialects and Italic languages such as Gallo-Italic, Sicilian, Venetian, Sardinian, Friulian, Ladin, Franco-Provençal and Neapolitan. Standard Italian originated in literature of the 12th to 15th centuries, and was based on the dialects of Tuscany, along with influences of Sicilian and Venetian. In the 19th century, Standard Italian became more common and helped unify the country.

Some non-Italian speaking minorities live in Italy and are Italian citizens. Thousands of German Bavarian speakers remain in the extreme northern province of Bolzano-Bozen. Portions of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region have a small Slovene-speaking minority of Slavic origin. A small cluster of French-speaking people live in the region of Aosta Valleymarker and a small Catalan-speaking enclave in Sardinia goes back five centuries after first settled by Catalans from Cataloniamarker in Spain. In addition, two minor Italic languages are spoken outside of modern Italy — Corsican in Corsicamarker, France and Romansh in eastern Switzerland. In Istriamarker and Dalmatia there are significant Italian communities. There are several small clusters of Albanian-speaking (Arbëreshë) communities in southern Italy, small pockets of language which belong to the 15th century Skanderbegians who fled Albania.


The most popular religion amongst Italians is Roman Catholicism. This reflects the enormous historical influence the Roman Catholic Church has had over the Italian peninsula, home to the popes and the contemporary Vatican Citymarker- headquarters of the Catholic Church. The majority of popes have been Italian and, for a long period of Italian history, they exercised temporal control over much of the peninsula (most notably the Papal statesmarker).A minority of Italians practice other religions, such as Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox, Islam, and Judaism.


The people of Italy have contributed significantly to world culture and scientific, and technological, progress continuously since ancient times. In the Arts, Italy gave birth to some of the most widely known sculptors, painters, architects, and the historically remarkable movement of Renaissance. Notable examples of Italian artists include Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. In literature, poet Dante and playwright and novelist Pirandello made cornerstone contributions to their fields. Italian composers, such as Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini, contributed to the evolution of western music, in whose context Italians are credited for the creation of the opera. Some of the most famous luthiers are Italians, like Andrea Amati, Antonio Stradivari, and the Guarneri family.


Famous Italian scientists include Leonardo da Vinci, a genius in several scientific disciplines, Galileo, the first to describe the laws of movement and use explicitly the experimental method, Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electric battery, Antonio Meucci, inventor of the telephone (though his role in the invention was long disputed in the United States), Antonio Pacinotti, inventor of the direct-current electrical generator, or dynamo, and of the electric engine, Galileo Ferraris, inventor of the alternating-current motor, Eugenio Barsanti and Felice Matteucci, who patented the first working efficient internal combustion engine, Guglielmo Marconi, the first to develop the wireless broadcasting, known as radio, Enrico Fermi the discoverer of neutron chain reaction and builder of the first atomic pile.

Italian contributions to architecture and engineering are numerous since ancient times. Renowned architects include Brunelleschi, Bernini and Palladio.

The rise of humanism and modern commerce can be attributed to conditions found in Italy during the Renaissance. This ambience also lead to the rise of the "universal man", of which Leonardo da Vinci often is considered as the prime example.

Populations with Italian ancestry

Over 70 million people of Italian ancestry live outside of Italy, with about 48 million living in South America (primarily Brazilmarker and Argentinamarker), about 19 million living in North America (United Statesmarker and Canadamarker), 850,000 in Australia and millions of others living in other parts of Europe (primarily Francemarker, Germanymarker and Switzerlandmarker). Most Italian citizens living abroad live in other nations of the European Union.

There is a history of Italians working and living outside of the Italian peninsula since ancient times. Italian bankers and traders expanded to all parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, sometimes creating outposts. In medieval times, there was a significant permanent presence in Flanders, Lyonmarker, Parismarker and outposts were created throughout the Mediterraneanmarker and the Middle East. Since the Renaissance, the services of Italian architects and artists were sought by many of Europe's royal courts, as far as Russiamarker. This migration, though generally small in numbers, and sometimes ephemeral, pre-dates the unification of Italian states.

Italy became an important source for emigrants after about 1870. More than 10 million Italians emigrated between 1870 and 1920. In the beginning (1870-1880), the main destination of the migrants were other European countries (France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgiummarker, the United Kingdom and Luxembourgmarker), where most Italians worked for some time and then returned to Italy. During this time many Italians also went to the Americas, especially to Brazilmarker, Argentinamarker and the United States. From about 1880 until the end of the early 1900s, the main destinations for Italian immigrants were Brazil, Argentina as well as Uruguay. Smaller migration patterns of Italians went to Mexicomarker, the United Statesmarker, and Corsicansmarker constituted a large proportion of immigrants to Puerto Rico (see Corsican immigration to Puerto Rico).


Italian communities once thrived in the former African colonies of Eritreamarker (50,000 Italian settlers in 1935), Somaliamarker and Libyamarker (150,000 Italians settled in Libya, constituting about 18% of the total population).. A significant portion of the pied-noir community of French Algeriamarker was also of Italian descent, though much of this population naturalized as French citizens, and most migrated to France after Algerian independence.

Today, there are still some Italian descendents remnant in African nations since colonial days, although most returned to Italy or moved elsewhere after the second world war. There is a significant post-colonial immigrant community, however, in South Africa.


Italian immigration to Argentinamarker began in the nineteenth century, just after Argentina won its independence from Spain. There are many reasons explaining the Italian immigration to Argentina: Italymarker was enduring economic problems caused mainly by the unification of the Italian states into one nation. The country was impoverished, unemployment was rampant, certain areas witnessed overpopulation, and Italy was subject to significant political turmoil. Italians saw in Argentina a chance to build for themselves a brand new life.

The Argentinemarker government wanted to populate the new lands they acquired from the wars, such as the Conquest of the Desert and War of the Triple Alliance, to legitimize Argentine claims on those lands from the neighbouring nations. Argentina required a labour force for its growing industrial and agricultural economy. The Argentine government welcomed the immigrants for racial reasons, because many Argentine politicians considered the Indigenous and the Mestizo to be inferior and could not be trusted. These politicians also believed that Argentina should be a White nation, so following 19th century positivist ideas, the Argentine government encouraged and promoted European immigration.

Australia and New Zealand

Italians arrived in Australia most prominently in the decades immediately following the Second World War, and they and their descendents have had a significant impact on the culture, society and economy of Australia. The 2006 Census counted 199,124 persons who were born in Italy, and Italian is the fifth most identified ancestry in Australia with 852,418 responses. Italian Australians experienced a relatively low rate of return migration to Italy.

The first Italian to reach New Zealandmarker was Antonio Ponto, who sailed on the Endeavour with Captain James Cook in 1769. In 1860, nine Italian friars were charged with reviving a Catholic mission to Māori in Hokianga and the Bay of Islandsmarker. A small migratory influx of Italian immigrants to New Zealand first began in the late 19th century, as a result of the poor living conditions in the newly united Kingdom of Italy. Italians were primarily employed in fishing, tomato growing, dairy farming, market gardening and mining. There are now 3,636 people of Italian ancestry living in New Zealand.


Brazilmarker is home to over 32 million Italian Brazilians, the largest number of people with full or partial Italian ancestry outside of Italy. The country was in need of workers to embrace the vast coffee plantations, and Italian immigrants became a main source of manpower for its agriculture and industry.


A substantial influx of Italian immigrants to Canada began in the early twentieth century when over a hundred thousand Italians moved to Canada. These were largely peasants from the poorer southern portion of Italy. They mainly immigrated to Torontomarker and Montrealmarker, both of which soon had large Italian communities. Smaller communities also arose in Hamiltonmarker, Vancouvermarker, Windsormarker, Niagara Fallsmarker, Ottawamarker, Sherbrookemarker, Quebec Citymarker, Sudburymarker and the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean area. Many also settled in mining communities in British Columbiamarker, Albertamarker, Cape Breton Islandmarker and Northern Ontario. The Northern Ontario cities of Sault Ste.marker Mariemarker and Fort Williammarker were quite heavily populated by Italian immigrants. In the post-war years (1945-early 1970s) another influx of Italians emigrated to Canada, again from the south but also from Veneto and Friulimarker and displaced Italians from Istria. There was a Royal Commission appointed to Inquire into the Immigration of Italian Labourers to Montreal and alleged Fraudulent Practices of Employment Agencies in 1905, which exposed the abuses of immigration agents known as padroni.


Italian migration into what is today Francemarker has been going on, in different migrating cycles, for centuries, beginning in prehistoric times right to the modern age. In addition, Corsicamarker passed from the Republic of Genoa to France in in 1770, and the area around Nicemarker and Savoy from the Kingdom of Sardinia to France in 1860.

Initially, Italian immigration to modern France (late 18th to the early 20th C.) came predominantly from northern Italy (Piedmont, Veneto), then from central Italy (Marche, Umbria), mostly to the bordering southeastern region of Provence. It wasn't until after World War II that large numbers of immigrants from southern Italy immigrated to France, usually settling in industrialised areas of France, such as Lorrainemarker, Parismarker and Lyonmarker. Today, it is estimated that as many as 5 million French nationals have Italian ancestry going back three generations.

Istria and Dalmatia

In both the Slovenianmarker and Croatianmarker portions of Istriamarker, as well as in the city of Rijekamarker (Fiume), "Italian" can refer to autochthonous speakers of the Venetian language, natives in the region since before the inception of the Venetian Republic, and also to descendants of Italians that migrated to the area in the early to mid 20th C. when it was a part of Italy. It can also refer to Istrian Slavs who adopted the Italian culture and language as they moved from rural to urban areas, or from the farms into the bourgeoisie, since the time of the Austrian Empiremarker through to the period of annexation to Italy. In the aftermath of the Istrian exodus following the Second World War, most Italian speakers consider themselves ethnic Italian and are today located in the south and west of Istria, and number about 35,000. The number of inhabitants with Italian ancestry is likely much greater but undeterminable.

The Dalmatian cities retained their Romanic culture and language in cities such as Zadarmarker (Zara), Split marker (Spalato) and Dubrovnikmarker (Ragusa). The 1816 Austro-Hungarian census registered 66,000 Italian-speaking people amongst the 301,000 inhabitants of Dalmatia, or 22% of the total Dalmatian population. Today, they number under 1,000.


In Switzerlandmarker, Italian immigrants (not to be confused with a large autochthonous population of Italophones in Ticinomarker and Grigionimarker) reached the country starting in the late 19th century, most of whom eventually came back to Italy after the rise of Italian Fascism. Future Fascist leader Benito Mussolini emigrated in Switzerland in 1902, only to be deported after becoming involved in the socialist movement. A new migratory wave began after 1945, favoured by the lax immigration laws then in force. At first the Swiss government encouraged the arrival of guest workers, assigning them different types of work permits, some forbidding job switching, ranging from the "frontaliere" permit given to Italians living near the Swiss border to the "C" permit granting the same status of a Swiss citizen minus the political rights. In 1970 there were a million immigrants in Switzerland, 54% of whom were Italians. Rising friction with the indigenous majority even led to the creation of an "anti-Italians party" in 1963. As every other immigrant group at the time, Italians were faced with a policy of forced integration, later satirised in the highly successful 1978 comedy film Die Schweizermacher (literally The Swissmakers), that went to become the fifth most-watched film of all time in Switzerland Italians have long been the largest immigrant group in Switzerland, only surpassed by Serbo-Croatians in the 1990s. Italians remain a large minority, numbering in 2007 about 300,000 people, excluding holders of dual citizenship. There is currently (as of 2008) a small resurfacing of Italian immigration, when after decades the migratory balance of Italians returned positive (2,213 new immigrants to Switzerland).

United States

Starting in the late 19th century until the 1950s, the United States became a main destination for Italian immigrants, most settling originally in the New York metropolitan areamarker, Bostonmarker, Philadelphiamarker, Pittsburghmarker, San Franciscomarker and Chicagomarker. Many Italian Americans still retain aspects of their culture. This includes Italian food, drink, art, annual Italian American feasts, and a strong commitment to extended family. Italian Americans influenced popular music in the 1940s and as recently as the 1970s, one of their major contributions to American culture. In movies that deal with cultural issues, Italian American words and lingo are sometimes spoken by the characters. Although most will not speak Italian fluently, a dialect of sorts has arisen among Italian Americans, particularly in the urban Northeast, often popularized in film and television.

Rest of Europe

In a wave of temporary Italian migration, from 1920 to the early 1970s (peaking in the periods of WWI and WWII), Italian "guest workers" went mostly to Austriamarker, Belgium, France, West Germanymarker, Switzerlandmarker and Luxembourg.

In figures

Italian citizens, any ethnicity

Country Population References
Italians in Germany 582,111
Italians in Argentina 527,570
Italians in Switzerland 500,565
Italians in France 348,722
Italians in Belgium 235,673
Italians in Brazil 229,746
Italians in the US 200,534
Italians in the UK 170,927
Italians in Canada 131,775
Italians in Australia 120,239
Italians in Venezuela 94,704
Italians in Spain 83,924
Italians in Uruguay 71,115

Italian-born, any citizenship

Country Population References
Italians in Switzerland 530,000
Italians in Belgium 290,000

Full or partial descent

Country Population (% of country) References Criterion
Italian Brazilian 32,000,000 (16%)
Italian Argentine 20,000,000 (~50%)
Italian American 17,800,000 (~6%) Self-description
Italian French 5,000,000 (~9%)
Italian Canadian 1,500,000 (~4.5%) Self-description
Italian Uruguayan 1,000,000 (~29%)
Italian Australian 850,000 (4%) Self-description
Italian Chilean 800,000 (5%)
Italian Peruvian 150,000 (<3%)></3%)>

See also


  1. G. Horrocks (1997), Greek: A history of the language and its speakers, London: Longman.
  2. Ethnologue report - Arbëreshë
  3. Eurocentrism in Argentina
  4. Ethnic Group - Statistics New Zealand
  5. Montani, Carlo. Venezia Giulia, Dalmazia - Sommario Storico - An Historical Outline
  6. Mediterranean Fascism 1919-1945 Edited by Charles F. Delzel, Harper Rowe 1970, page 3
  7. La lunga storia dell'immigrazione in Svizzera
  8. SRG SSR Timeline: Fondation d'un «parti anti-Italiens» à Zurich
  10. Italiani in Svizzera: saldo migratorio nuovamente positivo
  11. Statistiche del Ministero dell'Interno

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