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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why is Italy called Italy?

Where did Italy get its name? The Local delves into the etymology...

Map of Italy and the Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian seas in 1911.
Map of Italy and the Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian seas in 1911. Source: WikiCommons.

Readers who know their history will be aware that modern day Italy only came into being in the 19th century with the country’s gradual unification (known in Italy as the Risorgimento) between 1848 and 1871, thanks to a series of successful military campaigns led by General Giuseppe Garibaldi.

But the name Italia – referring to different parts of the peninsula at different points in history – has been in use for several thousand years.

In his text ‘On Italy’ the Greek historian Antiochus of Syracuse, writing in around 420 BC, reportedly identified Italia as the southern part of modern day Calabria – the toe of Italy’s boot.

Italy according to the ancient Greeks, corresponding to modern Calabria, scanned from a 19th century book.

Italy according to the ancient Greeks, corresponding to modern Calabria, scanned from a 19th century book. Source: WikiCommons.

Most of Antiochus’ works are lost to us today, but the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing several hundred years later in the early first century AD, quotes parts of them in his text ‘Roman Antiquities‘.

Here Antiochus recounts the legend that sixteen generations before the Trojan war, the region we now know as Calabria was inhabited by the Enotri or the Oenotrians. The Enotri had a king named Italus, and subsequently changed their name to the Itali.

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The town of Catanzaro in Calabria today has a road sign proudly announcing itself as the birthplace of the name Italia.

Over the following centuries, the area known as Italia gradually expanded to include all of the south and central-northern part of the peninsula; the northern cisalpine region under Julius Caesar in the 40’s BC; the northeastern region of Istria (home to modern day Trieste) under Caesar Augustus in 7 AD; and finally Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica under the Emperor Diocletian in 292 AD.

Expansion of the territory called "Italy".

Expansion of the territory called “Italy”. Source: Wikicommons.

Multiple alternative theories persist, however, as to the origins of the name Italia.

The most popular is that it’s the Latin formulation of the Oscan word Víteliú, meaning ‘land of the young cattle’. The word was translated as Italói in ancient Greek and Italia in Latin.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Oscan was spoken by a number of tribes, including the Samnites, the Aurunci, and the Sidicini. It had become a dead language by about 100 AD, but in the first century BC these tribes, in competition with the Romans, were minting coins with Víteliú stamped on them.

Another idea is that Italia comes from the Greek Aethalia or Aithalìa, meaning “land of thick smoke”, in reference to its numerous volcanoes. 

Finally, Dionysius of Halicarnassus himself, in the same text in which he mentions Antiochus’ account of Italus, offers an alternative origin story.

READ ALSO: 8 things you probably didn’t know about the Romans

Dionysius cites another 5th century BC historian, Hellanicus of Lesbos, who brings Hercules into the mix. According to Hellanicus, for Hercules’s tenth labour he was ordered to raid the cattle of the monster Geryon and bring them to King Eurystheus.

As Hercules was driving the herd back to Greece on his return from his successful mission, one of the calves swam away and escaped to Sicily. Hercules wandered all over the land asking its inhabitants – who spoke little Greek – if they had seen the animal, and in responding, they used their word for calf, vitilus.  

Hercules gave the name Vitulia – land of the calf – to the land he had wandered in search of the creature.

Hercules and the Cretan Bull, early 17th century bronze sculpture.

Hercules and the Cretan Bull, early 17th century bronze sculpture. Source: WikiCommons.

Dionysius notes that he considers that Antiochus’ explanation ‘perhaps is more probable’ than Hellanicus’, but concludes the important thing is that either way, Italy got its name ‘in Hercules’ time, or a little earlier’, and it stuck.

And that concludes our range of possible explanations as to how the country got its name.

Why is Italy called Italy? Like Dionysius two thousand years ago, it looks like it’s up to you to pick your favourite theory.

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ITALY EXPLAINED

Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

Some of Italy’s foreign residents may still be wearing t-shirts, but Italians are preparing for the most stressful style-related event of the year: the summer-to-autumn wardrobe switch. Silvia Marchetti explains what it’s all about.

Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

People have always said to me that Italians stand out (particularly abroad) because of the way they dress, the style of their clothes, the designer labels, the gorgeous bags and shoes. 

But it’s not because they really do dress better than others, rather they are extremely picky about what they wear, and when they wear it, at which precise time of the year. 

Italians are dead serious about adapting their dress code to the different seasons in response to dropping or rising temperatures. The ‘wardrobe switch’ is a major event that consumes entire days of a family’s weekends or spare time. From the kids to granny, all must change their apparel. I remember my grandparents used to mark it on their calendar, a bit like when you have to take the car for the annual check called the tagliando

There are four major wardrobe switches, as many as the seasons. The most tiring is the summer-to-autumn one, which usually occurs mid-September when the summer heat abates. 

Summer clothes are taken out of the closet and laid on the bed, then autumn apparel is plucked out from an upper closet space and neatly laid on the other side of the bed to be scrutinized. 

READ ALSO: Pumpkin risotto and the great wardrobe switch: How life in Italy changes when autumn arrives

It’s then time to do some clearing out: the switch is the time to try on autumn clothes and see if they still fit or are no longer wanted or liked (meaning you’ll be shopping for new ones). 

This stage can take hours, if not days. Jackets, which usually take up more space and are kept in the cellar or attic, are also cleaned of dust and tried on. 

Photo: Dan Gold/Unsplash

The summer apparel is then packed away and replaced by the autumn clothes, which are laid out in the same spot where the t-shirts and shorts once were. The same goes for shoe switches. Back in the box with those flip-flops, which are a major no-no after September 20th, and back on the shelves for boots and sneakers. 

When an Italian decides that summer is over, summer is over even if it’s still 25 degrees outside. My boyfriend just switched from shorts to trousers, even though he’s sweating most of the time. 

And it may seem that there’s a particular dress code that everyone follows. Autumn calls for ‘camicette’ shirts, light leather jackets, jeans, and bright little stylish scarves in silk or cotton to protect against the first potential cold air. Rain coats and casual jackets dubbed spolverini (dusters) are also taken out of storage.

The motto is ‘vestirsi a cipolla’, meaning ‘to dress like an onion’, with layers of shirts and sweaters that can be peeled off throughout the day depending on temperature swings. 

READ ALSO: Ten Italian lifestyle habits to adopt immediately

It’s a way to avoid sweating at noon or getting too cold in the evenings. But it’s also a stylish dressing habit to show that we are fully equipped, including financially, to cope with the changing seasons. If you don’t buy at least one new item of clothing per season, that’s just ‘not cool’.

A ‘booster’ wardrobe switch happens again in December, when the piumini, or hardcore winter ‘duvet’ coats, and knitted wool sweaters are taken out to reinforce the autumn apparel. 

Even if it never gets that cold in Italy compared to some countries, Italians still like to wear wool hats, gloves and some even wear furs, heavy boots and mountain-climbing uniforms – perhaps just for the sake of showing off some of their cool skiing apparel. 

Whether in autumn, winter, spring, or summer, the wardrobe switch is also an excuse to go shopping. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Then when spring arrives, winter clothes disappear and autumn attire starts mixing with some t-shirts, sleeveless jackets, and lighter cotton pants. 

But it’s still too early to wear shorts for men or skirts without stockings for women: showing off white bare legs is so unstylish.

Alas, when it’s finally summer, flip flops and sandals pop out again and the switch is an occasion to throw away unwanted summer clothes from the previous year and buy new bikinis, skirts, tank tops and fancy colorful shirts. This can be quite painful if you happen to have gained weight during the cold months. 

Italians are serious about wardrobe changes given their reaction even to just slight temperature drops or hikes.

I know that for foreigners seeing Italians wearing coats now in September even if it’s not yet so cold can be quite shocking in the same way it is for Italians to see Americans or Germans wearing t-shirts in December. 

READ ALSO: ‘Five ways a decade of living in Italy has changed me’

But climate change is disrupting the traditional wardrobe switch. My granny used to say that the so-called ‘middle seasons’ in Italy which are those between summer and winter (she meant autumn and spring) were luckily very long and pleasant. But nowadays even Italy has very short springs and autumns. In recent years there’s been a sudden jump from hot summers to half-winter seasons. 

This affects the way Italians are dressing, as I see fewer leather jackets around or raincoats unless it’s actually raining. The other day I was swimming in a pool and in the afternoon when I came back home there was a strong wind and I had to put on my piumino (long duvet coat) plus a hat. 

Luckily I have a huge walk-in closet so the left part is for winter, the right part is for summer and in between are all those items that used to fall within my granny’s ‘middle seasons’. So I always have everything at hand to cope even with the uncontrolled effects of climate change.

Friends of mine are already going into depression because they’re planning the wardrobe switch for next weekend – but they already miss the summer and don’t want to give up on the sexy shorts and elegant sandals. 

There’s no doubt about it: when it comes to clothes, most Italians can be very fussy indeed.

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