Venice and Venetian Riviera culture
Italians are generally gregarious and open people. They express their emotions freely and have no qualms about public displays of affection or feeling. Conversations are often loud and animated and are usually accompanied by numerous hand gestures - so one thing you don't need to do in Italy is hold back.
The family remains at the heart of Italian society, and many children do not leave home until they are to be married. Some of the reasons are economic - the high cost of housing for example - but they are also cultural. The tie between mother and son is especially strong, and almost 30% of Italian men aged 30-34 have yet to fly the nest.
Style is important to Italians, too, and both men and women will pay considerable attention to their appearance. Whether bombing around the city streets on a scooter, or drinking espresso at a bar, Italians like to look good. An event that they dress up for in particular is the passeggiata - a leisurely evening stroll around the centre of town, especially popular on Sundays.
Italians like their food and drink and the main meal of the day is usually lunch, often followed by a short siesta. However, public drunkenness is something you will rarely see. Recent anti-smoking laws also mean that cigarettes are now banned from restaurants, bars and public buildings unless they have specially equipped smoking areas.
A service charge is normally included in both restaurant and hotel bills. However, waiters and hotel staff will always appreciate an additional tip.
The Ancient Romans had their own system of beliefs based on dozens of gods and goddesses, each of them with a particular thing or group of people they were responsible for. So Mars was the god of war, Venus the god of love, Neptune the god of the sea, Juno watched over the women of Rome and so on. A complex web of myths and legends was woven around these deities.
But as time wore on Christianity grew in influence and in the 4th century AD, Emperor Constantine pronounced the whole of Italy Christian. Today Roman Catholicism reigns supreme, with about 90% of the population born into the faith even if only around a third of them actually practice it, and with the papal see of the Vatican based in Rome, Italy's catholic roots run deep.
As an inevitable consequence, Italy is awash with churches both ancient and modern, and of all architectural styles. Campaniles, or bell towers, punctuate the skyline the country over and the calendar is littered with local religious festivals and processions, many of which involve a statue of the local saint or Christ being paraded through the streets.
However, there are other faiths evident in Italy, with non-Catholic Christians (including 500,000 Jehovah's Witnesses) making up the second largest religious group, while rising immigration means that Islam is also becoming more prevalent. Traditionally Jews have a long history in Italy, but only about 45,000 now remain in the country.
Italy is a country littered with the vestiges of past civilizations. The Etruscans were one of the earliest influences from around 800BC, and then came the Romans, establishing a republic in 509BC. This new force set out to conquer, and by around 200BC all of Italy was under Roman control. From there the Republic expanded outwards, but political and civil strife were building.
This opened the way for Julius Caesar, who entered Rome with his army in 49BC and became absolute ruler. So followed a succession of Emperors whose names have become legendary - Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero and others - while the Empire grew to include territories from Britain and Germany at one extent, to North Africa and the Persian Gulf at the other.
But like all others, the Roman Empire eventually overreached itself and declined, and by 476AD raids by Goths, Huns and barbarians had taken their toll. Italy fell into the Dark Ages and prosperity did not return again until the 14th century.
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