Italy country profile
Take the art works of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tintoretto and Caravaggio, the operas of Verdi and Puccini, the cinema of Federico Fellini, add the architecture of Venice, Florence and Rome and you have just a fraction of Italy's treasures from over the centuries.
While the country is renowned for these and other delights, it is also notorious for its precarious political life and has had several dozen governments since the end of World War II.
The Italian political landscape underwent a seismic shift in the early 1990s when the "mani pulite" ("clean hands") operation exposed corruption at the highest levels of politics and big business. Several former prime ministers were implicated and thousands of businessmen and politicians were investigated.
There were high hopes at the time that the "mani pulite" scandal would give rise to a radical reform of Italian political culture, but these hopes were dashed when the old structures were replaced by a new political landscape dominated by the multi-millionaire businessman Silvio Berlusconi, who himself became increasingly mired in scandals and corruption affairs.
Population 61 million
Area 301,338 sq km (116,346 sq miles)
Major language Italian
Major religion Christianity
Life expectancy 79 years (men), 85 years (women)
President: Sergio Mattarella
Sergio Mattarella, a constitutional court judge and veteran centre-left politician, was elected president by parliament in 2015 to succeed Giorgio Napolitano, who stepped down due to old age.
He was little known among the general public but is a respected figure in political circles after a 25-year parliamentary career and several stints as minister in governments of the left and right.
Prime Minister: Paolo Gentiloni
Paolo Gentiloni took over after his centre-left Democratic Party colleague Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned in response to the humiliating rejection of his far-reaching constitutional reforms at a referendum in November 2016.
The new prime minister's immediate priorities were to shore up Italy's ailing banking sector, create jobs and push through electoral reform before the next election, in which the Democratic Party is expected to face a stiff challenge from the populist Five State Movement.
A former journalist and political activist, Gentiloni, 62, is a close ally of Mr Renzi, who plucked him from relative obscurity to appoint him foreign minister in 2014, and the new prime minister faced opposition criticism for reappointing nearly the same cabinet.
Matteo Renzi had come to power in 2014 as an anti-establishment "demolition man" advocating a programme of rapid economic and political reform, including radical plans to remove law-making powers from the upper house of parliament, the Senate.
But frustration at the lack of progress on the economic front hit his popularity and allowed the Five Star Movement to take on the anti-establishment mantle, contributing to the defeat of the constitutional reform package he had staked his future as premier on.
Italy's heady blend of politics and media has often made headlines at home and abroad, with concern regularly being expressed over the concentration of media ownership in the hands of one man - former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Mr Berlusconi's Mediaset empire operates Italy's top private TV stations, and the public broadcaster, Rai, has traditionally been subject to political influence, so that when Mr Berlusconi was prime minister, he was able to exert tight control over both public and private broadcasting.
Between them, Rai and Mediaset dominate Italy's TV market and are a potentially powerful political tool, especially as 80% of the population is said to rely on television for its daily news - the highest percentage in the EU.
- Read full media profile
1861 - Italy becomes a nation-state under King Victor Emmanuel II.
1915 - Italy enters First World War on the side of the Allies.
1922 - Fascist leader Benito Mussolini forms government, moves country towards fascist dictatorship.
1929 - Lateran Treaty creates state of Vatican City.
1935 - Italy invades Ethiopia.
1936 - Mussolini forms axis with Nazi Germany.
1940-45: Italy fights in Second World War on German side. Invaded by the Allies in 1943, signs armistice. Mussolini captured and executed by Italian partisans as the war ends.
1948 - New constitution. Christian Democrats win elections.
1951 - Italy joins European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Community.
1955 - Italy joins United Nations.
- Read full timeline