Italy consists of a mountainous peninsula in southern Europe extending into the Mediterranean Sea and includes the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and about 70 other smaller islands. The Alps form Italy’s border with France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. There are some notable active volcanoes: Vesuvius (near Naples), Etna (on Sicily), and Stromboli (north of Sicily).

Although decades of struggle unified Italy in 1871, two Italys exist today: the prosperous, industrialized north and the less developed agricultural south, known as the Mezzogiorno (land of the midday sun). Their differences reach back to the Renaissance, when northern city-states flourished while the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily languished under French and Spanish rule. To address regional inequalities, a constitutional referendum was held in 2001—the results favored giving greater autonomy to the country’s 20 regions in tax, education, and environmental policies.

Milan reigns as Italy’s first city of commerce, and the Po River plain is both Italy’s agricultural heartland and southern Europe’s most advanced industrial region. Turin, the capital of heavy industry, is home to Fiat—one of the world’s largest car producers. A major attraction for pilgrims and tourists is the “Holy Shroud” in Turin’s cathedral—tradition holds that this was Christ’s burial cloth. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance and is home to great works of civic and religious architecture, sculpture, and paintings. Rome, Italy’s capital, exhibits the architectural and artistic grandeur of ancient civilizations.

Italy has to import almost all its raw materials and energy. Italy’s economic strength is in the processing and manufacturing of goods, primarily in small and medium size family-owned firms. Its major industries include precision machinery, motor vehicles, fashion, clothing, and footwear. A founding member of both NATO and the European Union, Italy’s superb transportation system, from airports to high-speed trains, connects it with the rest of Europe.