Italy has produced some of the world's most celebrated thinkers, artists, and leaders. You will likely find countless references to the most renowned as you travel from region to region, so here's a quick primer on some of Italy's most prestigious citizens throughout history.
It's not every man who has a Shakespearean tragedy written in his name and a palace-style casino named after him in Las Vegas, but then again, it's not every man who starts a civil war that ends up making him the leader of the Roman Empire. Such is the story of Julius Caesar, who was proclaimed dictator for life, had a love affair with Cleopatra, and ruled until the Ides of March in 44 B.C., when his old friend Brutus (et tu?) assassinated him. You can view the whole sordid affair by watching the 1953 film Julius Caesar, which was nominated for Best Picture Oscar and for which Marlon Brando was nominated as Best Actor (he played Mark Antony).
Julius Caesar learned about leadership and responsibility early in life, when his father died suddenly one morning while putting on his shoes. Caesar was just sixteen years old at the time, and he immediately became head of his entire family. The following year, he was named a high priest, but lost that designation before joining the army.
The work of Galileo Galilei is widely renowned as part of the scientific revolution that took place in the 1500s and 1600s. He made vast improvements to the telescope that helped to confirm the phases of Venus, discover some of Jupiter's satellites, and analyze sunspots.
He caused a great deal of controversy when he claimed he could prove that the sun, and not the Earth, was the center of the known universe. His work greatly angered the Roman Catholic Church, which eventually forced him to recant his scientific testimony. He died under house arrest during the Inquisition, which sought to confine and destroy heretics.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is best remembered as a painter, but he also was a mathematician, inventor, botanist, scientist, engineer, musician, architect, and writer. His two most famous works are the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and his lesser-known contributions include designs for a helicopter and a calculator, and the theory of plate tectonics.
Interestingly, da Vinci's drawings of the human body — including the iconic Vitruvian Man — were based on countless hours that he spent dissecting cadavers at hospitals in Florence, Milan, and Rome. He was one of the first people in history to draw a fetus still inside the womb.
His full name was actually Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, and he is best remembered for his sculpture David and his Sistine Chapel frescoes. Michelangelo was ahead of his time, but he was also honored within it, becoming the first Western artist to have a biography printed before he died. Unlike his contemporary da Vinci, whose best-known works are spread throughout Europe, Michelangelo's David is on display at the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze, while his frescoes still grace the Sistine Chapel ceilings in Vatican City.
This poet from Florence was typically called simply “Dante,” and his Divina Commedia, or Divine Comedy, is renowned to this day as an exceptional detailing of a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. How can a journey through Hell be called a comedy, you ask? Because in Dante's days (the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries), any work not written in Latin was considered trivial. Dante wrote in what he called Italian, an altered regional dialect of Tuscany.
If you look up the word “Machiavellian” in the dictionary, the definition reads: “characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty.” The word is often used in modern politics as part of the phrase “Machiavellian tactics,” describing someone who places brute political force above morality.
The modern use of the word “Machiavellian” really fails to honor the true viewpoints of the man himself. Machiavelli believed that sometimes, the ends justify the means when it comes to political power, but in general, he was far less of an extremist than the current definition implies.
Poor Niccolò brought this legacy on himself, not so much in his well-regarded work as a diplomat from Italy serving in France, but because he described such methods of retaining power in his work The Prince, which was not published until 1532, five years after his death, when he was no longer around to point out its more moderate themes.