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Flag of ItalyItaly occupies a Peninsula running southeast into the Mediterranean from the mainland of Europe. Its land borders in the North are with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. To the East, Italy faces former Yugoslavia across the Adriatic Sea. To the west is the Tyrrhenian Sea.Â

Italy has many islands: the largest of them is Sicily. Sardinia, Elba and Capri are also important.

Italy also includes two separate principalities: Vatican City in Rome and San Marino.

Rome is the capital city and among other important cities are Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Turin and Venice.

In the North, Italy shares the Alps with France, Austria and Switzerland. A major mountain chain, the Apennines, runs down the centre of the country. Vesuvius, close to Naples, is the only active volcano on the European mainland; Etna on Sicily is one of the world’s largest volcanoes.

The largest river in Italy is the Po, which begins in the Alpine region in the west of the country and ends in an extensive delta on the Adriatic. The Tiber and the Arno are the other major rivers.

Italy’s climate is varied. In the north winters are cold and the summers hot. The Apennines also have cold, snowy winters. The south is warmer.

Italy’s natural environment varies from the Alpine regions of the north to the generally rocky and arid south. Mountain flora and fauna are found in the north and along the Apennines. The fertile plains of the River Po are the most productive agricultural land and the river ends in a marshy delta which is one of Europe’s major Centres for waterfowl and for migrating birds.

The plant life ranges from Alpine flowers to the famous poplars of Lombardy. Chestnuts, cypress and pine trees are common. Native animals include the ibex and chamois, brown bear and wolves (found only in protected areas) and deer.

Italy is relatively poor in natural resources. This had led to deforestation, with the wood taken for fuel and the land needed for cultivation. Industrial pollution has severely damaged parts of the Po Valley, the region around Venice and other rivers and coastal areas.

Some traces remain of the prehistoric inhabitants of Italy, but the first significant architecture is that of the Greeks who began colonizing Italy in the eighth century BC. The familiar temples and theatres of classical Greece were found in their great cities such as Syracuse (Sicily) and Sybaris. The most powerful people to the North of the Greek colonies were the Etruscans. Little is left of their civilization except its tombs, some decorated with wall paintings.

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The Romans, who conquered the Etruscans and Greeks and unified Italy adapted Greek architectural styles. In particular their invention of concrete and use of vaulting, domes and arches allowed them to build higher and span wider areas than could ever have been attempted before.

The military power of Rome won an empire that stretched from Britain to the Middle East. Famous examples of Roman architecture outside Italy include the Pont du Gard (France), and Segovia (Spain), aqueducts and the mosaic floor (Chicester) and temple of Mithras (London) in England.

Other key Roman building types which can still be seen today in Italy and elsewhere are amphitheatres (Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatres in Verona (opera) and Nimes (bullfighting) still in use today) and baths, (Bath, England).

The best known architectural reminders of early Christian Rome are the catacombs – underground cemeteries. In the Byzantime era, when the Roman Empire split between East and West, perhaps the best known architectural feature was the mosaics, especially those of Ravenna.

Many examples of Romanesque and Gothic styles can still be found. During the Renaissance period Italy produced the first full-time designer of buildings – Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Other famous architects, also known as artists, were Raphael (1483-1520), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Bernini (1598-1680).

Borromini (1599-1667), who began as Bernini’s assistant, was the most famous architect of the Baroque style of architecture. The reaction to Baroque’s ornateness brought Neoclassical styles into favour during the eighteenth century. Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) reinvented Classical Roman and Greek architecture, especially in Venice and the surrounding area.

In modern times Italy’s most important architect was Pier Luigi Nervi (1891 -1979) an engineer who greatly developed the use of reinforced concrete. The Pirelli building in Milan is a fine example of his work.

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