Traditions and customs of Italy

What traditions and customs are there in Italy?

A review of the customs and traditions of Italy, a European country.


Food in daily life

Food is a means of establishing and maintaining bonds between family and friends. No one who enters an Italian home should fail to receive an offering of food and drink. Typically, breakfast consists of a hard roll, butter, strong coffee, and fruit or juice. Traditionally, the midday meal consisted of a large lunch.

In general, pasta was part of the meal in all regions, along with soup, bread, and perhaps meat or fish. Dinner consisted of leftovers. In more recent times, the family may use the later meal as a family meal. The napping custom is changing, and a heavy lunch may no longer be practical.

There are regional differences in what is eaten and how the food is prepared. In general, there is more beef in the north, where meals tend to be lighter. Southern cuisine has a reputation for being heavier and more substantial than Northern cuisine.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

There are special foods for various occasions. There is a special Saint Joseph bread, Easter bread with hard-boiled eggs, Saint Lucia’s “eyes” for her feast, and the Feast of the Seven Fishes for New Year’s night. Wine is routinely served with meals.


Italians are generally effusive in their public behavior. There is a lot of public hugging and kissing when greeting people. It is also polite to sit close to people and interact by lightly touching people in the arms. Italian looks are intense. It feels like someone who can’t look you in the eye is trying to hide something.

Elders expect and receive respect. They first enter a room. The men represent the women and the youth the adults. Children tend to be used to running errands and helping any adult, certainly any adult in the family. Staring at strangers is common, and Italians expect to be seen in public.

Traditionally, younger women refer to men in public and do not contradict them. The older women, however, joined in the general conversation without fear. The Italians have little respect for lines and usually fight their way to the front.

Much attention is paid to the preservation of the beautiful figure, dignity. Violating another person’s sense of self-importance is a dangerous activity.


Religious beliefs

Ninety percent of the population is Roman Catholic. The other 2 percent is made up primarily of Jews, along with some Muslims and Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics. The general supernatural beliefs are those of the Catholic Church mixed with some older beliefs dating back to ancient times.

In Sicily, for example, Arab and Greek influences have mixed with popular Spanish beliefs and have been incorporated into Catholicism. Thus, there are beliefs in the evil eye, charms, spells, messages through dreams, and various other types of omens.

Witches have powers and there are anti-witches. Many of these beliefs have, of course, given way to the rationalism of the modern age. Others, however, exist below the surface.

Religious practitioners

Rome, or more precisely Vatican City, is the center of the Roman Catholic religion. Thus the Pope, cardinals, bishops, monsignors, priests, members of various male and female religious orders, and others are omnipresent. The seven sacraments form a framework for religious life.

Churches are plentiful and they also attract tourist money. There are more popular practitioners who carry out “magical” or “superstitious” practices – various healers who may have the gift of hands, witches, purveyors of charms and spells, and many others.

Rituals and Holy Places

Italy is full of sacred places for more than 2000 years. Only Rome and the Vatican City have thousands of sanctuaries, relics and churches. There are relics of Saint Peter and other popes. Various relics of many saints, holy places to Saint Francis of Assisi, shrines, places where the Virgin Mary is known to have appeared, and sites of numerous miracles are found throughout the country.

Similarly, religious ceremonies are frequent. There are the usual holidays of the Roman Catholic Church: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception and others. In addition, there are local saints and apparitions of the Pope.

The sanctification of new saints, various blessings, personal, family and regional holidays and daily and weekly masses add to the mix. There are also various novenas, rosary rituals, sodalities, men’s and women’s clubs, and other religious or quasi-religious activities.

Death and the afterlife

Italians generally believe in an afterlife in which the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. There is a belief in a place where sins are purged, purgatory. Heaven and hell are realities for most Italians.

The deceased must be remembered and are often spoken to in a low voice. Funerals today take place in funeral homes. Respect for the dead is expected. Failure to attend a wake for a family member or friend is cause for a breakup of the relationship, unless there is a clearly valid reason.

Secular celebrations

Most secular celebrations are also tied to religious holidays, such as Christmas or New Year (the Circumcision of Jesus). These celebrations are usually family affairs. On June 2, the Anniversary of the Republic is celebrated.

There is a show of patriotism through air shows and fireworks. It is also usually a day off and a family holiday. Independence Day is March 17 and offers another opportunity for family activity.

Arts and Humanities

Arts support

Italian art has a long history. Part of that story is the support it has received from public and private benefactors. This tradition continues today with numerous benefactors supporting the arts and humanities.

Among them are the Agnelli Foundation, FIMA (Italian Foundation for Ancient Music) and many others.


Italian literature has its roots in Roman and Greek literature. Until around the 13th century, Italian literature was written in Latin. There were various poems, legends, lives of saints, chronicles and similar literature. French and Provençal were also used. This literature concerned Charlemagne and King Arthur.

In the 13th century the Sicilians composed the oldest poetry written in Italian at the court of Frederick II. Frederick and his son Manfred administered the Holy Roman Empire from Sicily. This poetry was courtly poetry, closely following Provençal models.

When the Hohenstaufen dynasty fell in 1254, the capital of Italian poetry moved north. Before Dante there were poets, especially Guittone d’Arezzo and Guido Guinizelli, the founder of the dolce stil nuovo, the new sweet style. Dante’s Vita Nuova (1292) is in this style, and it influenced Petrach and other Renaissance writers.

At about the same time that the dolce stil nuovo appeared, Saint Francis of Assisi began another type of poetry, a devotional style filled with love for all of God’s creatures. Dante’s greatest work was The Divine Meal.

Petrarch was the next great literary figure in Italy. He worked to restore classical Latin as the language of scholarship and literature. Petrarch believed that Italy was the heir to Rome, and he worked to foster Italian nationalism and unity.

Despite his classical scholarship, his work in Italian is Petrarch’s greatest contribution to literature. His sonnets to Laura bring a burning passion to Italian literature. Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) drew on Dante and Petrarch as influences, and in turn influenced numerous writers. He not only uses the vernacular, but also uses true stories.

The 15th century was the period of the High Renaissance and included “universal men” such as Michelangelo, Leon Battista Alberti, and Leonardo da Vinci, among others. These men generally benefited from patrons of the arts such as Lorenzo de’Medici and Popes such as Alexander VI.

The first great Italian drama was Orfeo (c. 1480) written by Angelo Poliziano. Works in the medieval geste style, based on medieval romances, are preserved.

In the 16th century, Italians reached great heights with the writings of Pietro Bembo, Nicolo Machiavelli, and Ariosto. Machiavelli is best known for The Prince (1640), the first realistic work of political science and a call for Italian unity. Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso (1516) is an epic about Charlemagne, an old theme but with a new sophistication.

There were numerous works of great quality written throughout the century. The early exuberance was quelled, however, by the mood of the Counter-Reformation. However, Torquato Tasso’s masterpiece Geusalemme liberata (1575) succeeded in breaking through the fog of repression. However, it received such petty reviews that Tasso wrote a poor new version of the poem.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a decline in the standard of living in Italy. Trade had moved to the Atlantic, and Italy was under the political dominance of Spain, France, and Austria. It was also the baroque period.

The only great work of the period is Giambattista Marino’s Adone (1623). Most of the other works of the century are depressingly bleak, as befits the general tenor of Italian life at the time.

The following century saw a movement towards simplicity, the Arcadia movement. It was a period of naivete in style and simplicity in narrative. Greek models were used. The period was also influenced by the French Enlightenment.

The 19th century was the century of the Resurgence. Giacomo Leopardi wrote magnificent lyrical poems. Leopardi shows a great feeling in his works, as well as a deep nationalism. I promessi sposi (1825-1827) by Alessandro Manzoni is a great work of nationalist fiction.

Manzoni called for a return to the pure Tuscan dialect. However, nationalism also inspired a royalist movement that extolled the beauty of regional dialects and life. The Sicilian Giovanni Verga was a leader of the movement and its greatest novelist.

The early 20th century has seen a number of different styles. Gabriele D’Annunzio, who started writing in the last century, had a great influence on the 20th century. Benedetto Croce and others continued the work of modernity in Italy. Luigi Pirandello, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1934, was an innovator in style and thought.

Fascism threatened to destroy Italian literature, and many of its great writers went abroad. Ignazio Silone, for example, produced Fonatamara and Bread and Wine abroad.

After World War II, Italian literature flourished again. All the important movements found in the West had their counterparts in Italy. A simple listing of the main figures is enough to suggest the importance of modern Italian literature. In poetry there are Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale and Salvatore Quasimodo.

In fiction there are Carlo Levi, Elio Vittorini, Vasco Pratolini, Mario Doldati, Cesare Pavese, Vitaliano Brancati, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Alberto Moravia, Giorgio Bassani, Dino Buzzati, Elsa Morante, Natalia Levi Ginzburg, Primo Levi and Umberto Ecco.

Graphic arts

The history of Italian graphic arts is at least as long as that of literature. Italian artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Fra Angelico, Raphael and many others are known throughout the world. There is not a single type of art that Italy is not famous for.

Italy has a cultural heritage that is felt throughout the country. Remains of Greek and Etruscan material culture are found throughout the south and center of the peninsula. Roman antiquities are found everywhere. Pompeii and Herculaneum are famous for their well-preserved archaeological remains.

The city of Rome is itself a living museum. Throughout the country there are churches, palaces and museums that preserve the past. There are, for example, more than 35 million works of art in its museums. In addition, Italy has 700 cultural institutes, more than 300 theaters and some 6,000 libraries, which house more than 100 million books.

Italy’s museums are world famous and contain perhaps the most important collections of artifacts from ancient civilizations. The Taranto museum, for example, offers material that allows scholars to delve into the history of Magna Gracie.

The archaeological collections of the National Roman Museum in Rome and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples are probably among the best in the world.

Similarly, the Etruscan collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Umbria in Perugia, the classical sculptures of the Capitoline Museum in Rome, and the Egyptian collection of the Egyptian Museum in Turin are perhaps the best collections of their kind in the world.

The classical period is not the only one represented in Italian museums. The Italian Renaissance is well represented in several museums: the Uffizi Gallery (Galleria degli Uffizi), the Bargello Museum (Museo Nazionale del Bargello), and the Gallery of the Pitti Palace (Galleria di Palazzo Pitti, or Galleria Palatina), all of them located in Florence.

The Uffizi contains masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Bellini, and Titian. The Bargello has specialized in Florentine sculpture, with works by Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, Donatello and the Della Robbia family.

The Pitti Palace has a magnificent collection of paintings by Raphael, as well as some five hundred important works from the 16th and 17th centuries, which were collected by the Medici and Lorraine families.

Performing arts

Italian music has been one of the greatest glories of European art. It includes the Gregorian chant, the troubadour song, the madrigal and the work of Giovanni Palestrina and Claudio Giovanni Monteverdi. Later composers include Antonio Vivaldi, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, and Vincenzo Bellini. The most famous of Italy’s opera houses is La Scala in Milan.

There are other famous places for opera, such as San Carlo in Naples, Teatro La Fenice in Venice, and the Roman arena in Verona. Additionally, there are fifteen publicly owned theaters and numerous private theaters in Italy. These theaters promote Italian and European plays, as well as ballets.

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