Italian Culture

Italy has a long, deep cultural heritage. The Romans left an extremely influential legacy, right across Europe and beyond, and nowadays Italians still lead the way in many areas of cultural life.


Italian people

Italian people are generally polite and friendly. It can take them a while to open up to strangers sometimes but, once you've been accepted, you will be well looked after.


Italians tend to be more formal than we Brits are and I recommend you err on the side of formality in your dealings with them. For example, talking to someone more than about ten years older than you, address him/her as signore or signora (or, if you're speaking English, Mr or Mrs + surname), until he/she invites you to use his/her first name. You won't offend anyone by being too formal but you might by being too casual. I say that purely for caution: my own experience is that, although Italians are concerned about their own image (to the point, sometimes, of being quite uptight about it), they are extremely forgiving of foreigners and their foibles.


The family is very important to Italians and 'children' often go on living with their parents well into their 30s.


Italian customs and etiquette

Italians, particularly the young, frequently go around in large groups. If you are a single woman, be aware that you may raise eyebrows by going out - for example, to the cinema - by yourself.


When you first meet someone, it's normal to shake hands. Once you've established a relationship, especially in a social situation, the custom is to kiss (actually, pretend to kiss) each other on both cheeks, when greeting and when parting.


If you're invited to an Italian home for a meal, the thing to take with you is dolci, not a bottle of wine (see Italian Food and Drink). Dress smart-casually, even for an informal occasion, and take your cues from your hosts before making yourself too much at home.



Religion in Italy

Tiny shrine in ItalyThe primary religion in Italy is Roman Catholicism, though there are significant Protestant and Jewish communities too. Recently, there has been a wave of Muslim immigration. Generally speaking, Italians' religion (particularly if they are Catholic) is an integral part of their culture and I recommend, if you don't share their beliefs, you be careful about criticising any aspect of it. Debunking religion is fairly commonplace in Britain but much less so in Italy.


If you are an Anglican and wanting to attend church in Italy, you will find an 'English' church in many Italian cities. You can find one near you through the Diocese in Europe website.


Italian football

In addition to their other talents, the Italians are great footballers. There is usually a worthwhile match to watch wherever you are in Italy. It doesn't have to be Serie A; a game between two local teams in a small village can be riveting.


Italian fashion

The Italians are image-conscious and stylish people. Think of a designer label and the name is far more likely than not to be Italian. And it is not just clothes - their shoes are smart, their hair is well groomed, they have all the right accessories. Elegance abounds in Italy.


I am by no means a snappy dresser but when I lived in Milan I made a (mild) effort, even if I was only going to the supermarket, not to look too scruffy. While, in my opinion, Italians are less judgemental about appearance than the French can be, you don't want to let the side down by going out in tracksuit bottoms and a dirty old T-shirt.




Italian opera

Italy is famous for opera, of course. Many of the great composers have been Italian (Verdi, Puccini, Rossini...) and opera is staged all the time in several Italian cities, such as Verona and Milan.


Italian opera in Italy takes on a whole new dimension that includes the city, the setting, and the enthusiastic audience as well as the performance itself. It is a wonderful experience, especially in a city made famous by a particular composer, such as Parma, where Verdi worked.


The most famous opera houses of Italy are:


Outdoor performances are given in the summer at L'Arena di Verona and the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.


Many provincial cities have smaller opera houses that are well worth visiting - for example: Parma, Mantova, Trieste, Bologna and Palermo.

Then there are the summer festivals to celebrate two of the greatest composers:



Italian rock/pop music

If you have yet to discover Italian rock/pop music, good places to start are probably Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini. Both are already popular internationally, including in the UK. If you are learning Italian, it is very useful - as well as enjoyable - to listen to some music sung in Italian.


Another character it is handy to have heard of when you are in Italy is Adriano Celentano. He has been a hugely popular singer and actor for decades and is getting on a bit now but he is still very much around. Celentano is a passionate advocate of green politics and is most active in that field these days.


If you do any karaoke in Italy, there will be a long list of Celentano numbers to sing, so, if you like his music, it's worth getting to know some of his songs well - it's so much cooler than having to sing in English and it will help your Italian a lot if you learn the lyrics by heart.


Click on the links to browse Amazon for music by


Eros Ramazzotti

Laura Pausini

Adriano Celentano


You can listen to samples of a lot of the songs.


Italian art

Italian art - Sistine ChapelIf you are interested in art, Italy is the place for you! With an impressive history of painters and sculptors dating back many centuries, Italy has an enormous amount to offer the art-lover. Names that spring to mind instantly include Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Caravaggio ... but the list is endless.


There are all sorts of amazing museums and galleries, full of art from Roman times to the present day. Among the most obvious places to go are the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Uffizi Gallery in Firenze (Florence) and the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, where you will find Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. You can find more galleries on the artcyclopedia website and/or musei online, if you speak Italian.




Italian literature

Beyond the obvious, ancient greats such as Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, and later Manzoni and the intriguing Macchiavelli, there are many marvellous Italian writers. Some more recent ones include Umberto Eco, Alberto Moravia, Andrea Camilleri, Dacia Maraini, Stefano Benni, Natalia Ginzburg ... but, again, it's a long list.


Here are a few recommendations for books to read (you can find more in the regional sections under Visit Italy):


The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (also a great film, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater)

Set in Italy in the Middle Ages, this tremendous book tells the story of a murder investigation in a monastery - and a lot more besides.


Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi

In 1935, Carlo Levi was banished to a remote village in Basilicata for his opposition to Fascism. This excellent book is an account of his life there.


Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo

An unusual novel about therapy and the attempt to give up smoking. Written in the 1920s, in the early days of Freud's psychoanalysis, but still relevant, interesting and funny today.


One, No-one and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello

This book is about a man obsessed with seeing ourselves as others see us. What is acting naturally? Would I have done that if you weren't here? Am I being true to myself? The ideas presented in this novel have stayed with me for over twenty years.


The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

This is the first in the series of Inspector Montalbano mysteries. As well as having gripping plots, Camilleri's books give a great sense of place (Sicily).

I also greatly enjoyed the Don Camillo books by Giovanni Guareschi. They seem to be quite hard to find these days but they are lovely stories, set in the Po Valley after the Second World War, about a village priest and his good-natured tussles with Peppone, the communist mayor.

Italian cinema

Italy has a thriving film industry, with many internationally renowned directors and actors.


Italian films can be moving, beautiful, thought-provoking and very funny - and I highly recommend you watch some. At the cinema itself, as well as on Italian television, a lot of the films shown are American (and some are British) and sometimes you have to make an effort to find something genuinely Italian to watch, but it's usually well worth it.


You can read more about Italian cinema on the RAI (Italian television company) website and on this review site, which covers a wide range of Italian films.


A few suggestions / films I've enjoyed:


Il Postino (1995)

A gentle film, based on a true story about the postman who delivered letters to the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.


Life is Beautiful (1998)

A controversial film but I absolutely loved it. It's about a Jewish family who ends up in a concentration camp but it manages to be funny. Some people found this offensive but it's so sensitively and sincerely done that, to me, it's a marvellous achievement. I laughed, I cried, I reflected. Truly excellent.


Respiro (2003)

Set on Lampedusa, just off Sicily, with STUNNING scenery. A woman who doesn't fit into the conservative society of her village is threatened with being taken to Milan for "treatment".

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