WHAT ITALY IS
Italy is in some ways an island. True, geographically it's a peninsula, surrounded by the sea on three sides. But the Alps, on its fourth side, form for all its length a natural boundary which in ancient times was more difficult to cross than the sea itself.
The Alpine ridge is what really defines Italy from its neighbours: North of the ridge are German-speaking peoples, West of it the French, East of it Slavonic populations, and South of it the Italians.
Italy is the only country in the world to have the recognizable shape of an object. It's a slender boot stretching itself in the sun, right in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, Mare Nostrum as the Romans called it (Our Sea).
According to UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural branch, two thirds of the world's historical artistic heritage are in Italy. Tuscany, which is only one region of Italy, by itself possesses more artistic treasures than the whole of Spain, which is the second country in the world for cultural heritage. Practically all major styles of Western architecture can be found in Italy.
But, if in terms of beauty created by man Italy is unique and has no rival on Earth, its natural beauty is also extreme.
From the Alps in the North to Sicily in the South, the natural diversity of its landscapes, scenery, habitats, vegetation and climates is very great for such a relatively small country and not easy to find even in much larger countries.
That's why there are in fact many "Italies", so to speak, and regional differences are very strong and much felt by the Italian themselves. It's called "campanilismo", this tendency to defend one's own campanile, or churchbell tower, after the most distinguished feature of a town or village, above all the others.
Another important reason for these regional separatisms lies in Italian history. Italy has been a united country only since 1861. Before then it was a collection of different states. All this can be traced back even further, to the Medieval and Renassaince communal states, where each city had its own government.
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