After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the communities on the Italian peninsula and its surrounding islands became pawns in the larger struggles of European powers that emerged in the wake of Rome's demise. It was not until the late 19th century that the separate states of Italy formed a unified modern state and finally brought an end to the long process of unification. Even then, the borders of Italy as it is known today were not finalized until after World War I.

In the early Middle Ages Italy was divided and distributed fragmented by the transient dominance of medieval European conquerors from the east (Byzantines), from the south (Muslims) and from the north (the Germans and Normans). As different rulers vied for preeminence in Italy, the Papal State developed a sphere of influence in Central Italy that challenged the claims of the Holy Roman Emperor in Italy. At the same time, northern cities reluctant to cede to Imperial rule formed communes that eventually developed into independently governed city-states.

While southern Italy and the nearby islands of Sardinia and Sicily passed between the hands of Spanish, French, and Austrian rulers from the late Middle Ages into the 18th century, the autonomous regimes of northern and central Italy grew and flourished to become formidable powers in and of themselves. By the 1700s, Venice alone had extended its territorial tendrils well beyond the Italian peninsula to stake claims on Istria, Dalmatia and several other significant islands and ports of the Mediterranean.

The Napoleonic Era brought Italy almost entirely under French control. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the peninsula was returned to its prerevolutionary patchwork of independent states. Despite Austrian and Habsburg attempts to subdue nationalistic fervor, the French had set an example that inspired the Italian states into revolutionary action and by the end of the century the Italian nation had been formed. Indeed it was in 1861 that Victor Emanuel became the new king of Italy and the first Italian parliament elected.

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