The Italian Environment
Italy's instantly recognisable boot shape kicks its way into the Adriatic, Ionian, Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas - all of which form part of the Mediterranean Sea. From west to east, France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia form a rugby scrum to the north. The islands of Elba, Sardinia, Ischia, Capri, the Aeolians and Sicily lie offshore.
Mountains feature prominently in Italy's topography, and bolster its landlocked borders all the way from Genoa in the west to Trieste in the east. Italy's backbone is formed by the Apennines, extending from Genoa right down to the soccer ball that bounces off the toe of Calabria: Sicily.
The Po River Valley in the country's northeast forms the largest lowland area, and is heavily populated and industrialised as a result. Underground rambunctiousness is evident from the country's three active volcanoes - Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands, Vesuvius near Naples and Etna on Sicily - and the devastation wrought by earthquakes, especially fierce in 1908 and 1980. Beauty abounds in Italy but, unfortunately, so does pollution, particularly in the big cities and along the coast.
A couple of millennia of human occupation, coupled with the locals' love of hunting, has extinguished many animal species once endemic to Italy. You might spot a brown bear or a lynx if you're lucky, and the Alpine regions are still home to wolves, marmots, chamois and deer. Mouflon sheep and wild boars and cats can be found on Sardinia, while in the skies falcons, hawks and golden eagles dodge the hunters' birdshot.
Italy's climate varies from north to south and from lowland to mountain top. Winters are long and severe in the Alps, with snow falling as early as mid-September. The northern regions experience chilly winters and hot summers, while conditions become milder as you head south. The sirocco, the hot and humid African wind that affects regions south of Rome, produces at least a couple of stiflingly hot weeks in summer.
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.
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.