Italy, celebrated as the Bel Paese and renowned for iconic landmarks like the Colosseo, the smallest independent country (Vatican), as well as its culinary delights such as lasagna and gelato, boasts an abundance of hidden treasures and lesser-known curiosities that often remain in the shadows.
In this article, we embark on a journey through the country to unveil some of these hidden wonders and lesser-known facts about Italy, offering a new perspective on this enchanting nation.
The hidden canals of Bologna and Milan
While Venice is the city most commonly linked with canals, Milan and Bologna, both situated in the Emilia-Romagna region, have their own intriguing canal networks beneath their urban landscapes. Bologna boasts the Canali di Bologna, which, like Venice’s canals, played a significant role in trade and transportation in bygone eras.
In Milan, the Navigli district is renowned for its picturesque canals that wind through the city, adding to its unique charm. Although some of both Bologna and Milano’s canals have been covered over throughout the years, a few sections remain exposed, providing a distinctive historical perspective on the city.
Our Italian language school partner in Milano is conveniently located right next the Navigli canals.
Prosperity in red
A lesser-known fact about Italy and Italians is that many believe wearing red clothing on New Year’s Eve can bring prosperity in the coming year. Consequently, a significant majority of Italians opt for the symbolic choice of red undergarments as part of their New Year’s attire. This tradition reflects their hopes and wishes for a successful and fruitful year ahead.
The art of fare la scarpetta
Of course we couldn’t miss a food-related fact about Italy: it is not considered impolite to mop up the last of the delicious sauce on your plate with a piece of bread. In fact, it’s encouraged and has its own term: fare la scarpetta, which means “making the little shoe.” It’s a sign of genuine appreciation for the dish and also serves as an excellent remedy to prevent food waste in the kitchen.
A nation of diverse dialects
Italy is a country with a rich linguistic history. While Italian, which is based on the Tuscan dialect, is the official language, there are numerous regional dialects spoken across the country. These regional languages and dialects often have their own grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation differences. Some of them are quite distinct from standard Italian and can be challenging for outsiders to understand.
The exact number of dialects in Italy is difficult to determine because the distinction between dialects and languages can be somewhat arbitrary, and there are many local variations. However, it’s commonly suggested that there are around 30 to 40 major dialects in Italy. Some of the them include: Sicilian, Neapolitan, Venetian, Lombard, Sardinian, Piedmontese, Calabrian, Apulian, Ligurian, Friulian.
Example: In standard Italian, you would use attento! to mean “watch out!” whereas in Sicilian, the equivalent term is “accura.” The Italian telefonino which means “mobile phone” would be “telefoneddu” in Sardinian.
The world’s oldest university
The “Alma Mater Studiorum” – University of Bologna, established in 1088, is considered the world’s oldest university. It was the first educational institution to use the term “universitas” for the corporations of students and masters, which came to define the institution, especially its renowned law school, located in Bologna. The university’s emblem bears the latin motto “Alma Mater Studiorum” (Nourishing Mother of Studies).
Voracious bookworms at the Libreria Acqua Alta
In Venice, the Libreria Acqua Alta, or “Bookstore of High Water,” has a peculiar method of protecting books from the city’s frequent flooding. Books are stored in bathtubs, gondolas, and even a full-sized boat. It’s a charming and innovative way to preserve the written word in a city prone to acqua alta. A haven for book enthusiasts.
The Tarantella, dance of the tarantula
The Tarantella is a traditional Italian dance known for its rapid footwork and frantic music. This lively and energetic dance, originating in the southern regions of Italy, particularly in Apulia, Calabria, and Campania, is one of the fascinating facts about Italy due to its peculiar origins. It was believed that the dance could cure the bite of the tarantula spider. Today, it’s a lively and captivating dance performed at celebrations and festivals across Italy, accompanied by musical instruments like tambourines, mandolins, and accordions.
Casa di Giulietta: the balcony that inspired Romeo and Juliet
The Casa di Giulietta in Verona is a pilgrimage site for lovers from around the world. While Juliet’s balcony is a centerpiece, the building itself is not associated with Shakespeare’s fictional character. Nonetheless, the city of Verona embraces the story of Romeo and Juliet, adding a touch of romance to the house.
A land of volcanoes
Italy is home to three active volcanoes: Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and Stromboli. While they pose a constant threat, they also provide some of the most breathtaking and dramatic landscapes in the country.
Mount Vesuvius, infamous for its AD 79 eruption burying Pompeii and Herculaneum, symbolizes nature’s might. Overlooking the Bay of Naples, it blends beauty and peril, captivating visitors.
Mount Etna, on Sicily, ranks among the world’s most active volcanoes. Its eruptions, though intimidating and awe-inspiring with lava flows and ash clouds, nurture Sicily’s finest wines and agricultural products.
Stromboli, in the Aeolian Islands, is a perpetually active volcano, earning the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” moniker for its safe, frequent eruptions. Its striking landscapes draw global adventurers and nature enthusiasts.
The whispering gallery in St. Peter’s Basilica
Most tourists visit St. Peter’s Basilica for its awe-inspiring beauty and religious significance, but few are aware of the secret it holds – the Whispering Gallery. If you climb to the top of the dome, you’ll discover a circular passage where whispers travel with remarkable clarity along the walls embellished with exquisite mosaics. Visitors often find themselves marveling at this acoustic phenomenon, adding an extra layer of wonder to their visit.
First to use forks
Italians were among the first Europeans to adopt the use of forks for eating. While it may seem like a commonplace utensil today, in the Middle Ages, the use of forks was considered effeminate or even sacrilegious in some parts of Europe. However, Caterina de Medici, who married Henry II of France in 1533, introduced the fork to the French court, which slowly popularized its use across Europe.
Origin of ballet
While France formalized ballet as it is known today, Italy provided the initial spark. Ballet has its roots in the Italian Renaissance, evolving from court festivities. Early ballet lacked tutus, ballet slippers, and pointe work; instead, it was influenced by court dances. Dancers wore clothing of the era, and often, the audience would participate at the end. Domenico da Piacenza and his students played crucial roles in teaching dance to nobility, as documented in “De arte saltandi et choreus ducendi.”
Building upon the previous mention of Caterina de Medici, her court in 1581 hosted the Ballet Comique de la Reine, often considered the first ballet. Choreographed by Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, it integrated music, dance, and storytelling, laying the foundation for modern ballet.
Leading the world with 59 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Italy stands out with a record 59 UNESCO World Heritage sites, topping the global list, with China following closely at 55. These sites represent a treasure trove of history, art, and nature, making Italy a dream destination for travelers.
While iconic sites like the Colosseum and Venice are well-known, there are hidden gems like the trulli of Alberobello, the rock-hewn churches of Matera, and the vineyard landscapes of Piedmont that are equally fascinating. If you’re keen to explore them, you can easily find the full list to plan your adventures.
Underground catacombs of Rome
Beneath the bustling streets of Rome, another fascinating facet of facts about Italy is revealed in the form of a vast network of catacombs, some of which date back over 2,000 years. These underground burial sites are a unique and haunting testament to the city’s history, with tunnels lined with ancient Christian frescoes, crypts, and even the remains of early Christians.
This fact about Italy unveils a pivotal piece of our shared linguistic heritage. It was the Romans who first crafted the Latin alphabet, serving as the foundation for many Western scripts, including English, Spanish, and French, was originally developed by the Romans. The modern alphabet we use today is derived from the ancient Roman script.
The village of longevity
Italy is home to a unique village called Acciaroli, where residents have an unusually high life expectancy. Scientists have been studying this village to understand the factors that contribute to the longevity of its inhabitants. It’s believed that a combination of a Mediterranean diet, active lifestyle, and a strong sense of community plays a role in the residents’ extended lifespan.
Italy’s pyramid of Cestius
When we think of pyramids, Egypt typically comes to mind. However, Italy boasts its very own pyramid – the Pyramid of Cestius. Located in Rome, this ancient pyramid stands as a testament to the city’s diverse and fascinating history. Built in the first century BC, it was constructed as a tomb for a Roman magistrate, Gaius Cestius. It’s a striking contrast to the surrounding Roman architecture and is a must-visit for history enthusiasts.
Discovering lesser-known facts about Italy is like a fun journey through its hidden gems and cultural quirks. Beyond the iconic landmarks and renowned cuisine, there’s a wealth of intriguing facts about Italy that paint a unique portrait of this diverse and fascinating nation. Which of these facts about Italy come as a surprise to you?