A Tradition of Boating
Merchants have been arriving on the Italian peninsula by boat for more than 1,000 years, perhaps beginning with Chinese traders who forsook the land-based Silk Road and instead favored cruising across the Arabian Sea, up the Red Sea, and into the Mediterranean Sea to the ports of Magna Grecia and the Roman Empire. These were the days when ships followed trade routes that helped to develop entire cultures from Egypt to Turkey, forming the basis of Western civilization itself.
Italy's power flourished because of these trade routes throughout the Middle Ages, because the peninsula's location made it a strategic stopover for sailors moving goods between what today are known as Asia and Western Europe. Venice, Genoa, Amalfi, and Pisa were known as the Repubbliche Marinare — Maritime Republics — competing with one another to create the largest, wealthiest empires extending inland from their coastal ports. They were at the height of their power when the Renaissance began, with much of the wealth generated in the port cities funding the great architecture, art, and music for which Italy is still renowned today.
The modern flag of the Marina Militare, or Italian Navy, includes three horizontal stripes of green, white, and red. In the center of the white stripe is an ensign that looks like a four-square checkerboard, with designs inside of each square. Those designs are actually the four coats of arms of the historic Repubbliche Marinare.
The eventual invention of stronger, more seaworthy boats made it possible for some traders to bypass Italy altogether, instead taking their ships from China through the rougher seas around the southern tip of Africa and beyond to the Americas. This is when the Repubbliche Marinare began to decline in power. By the time of Italy's unification as a nation in modern times, Venice, Genoa, the Amalfi Coast, and Pisa were no longer major world powers.
They do, however, continue to be fantastic areas of civilization, filled with history and ports that still welcome boats of all sizes and styles today. Trade does occur, on a smaller scale than it did a few centuries ago, and it's now intermixed with everything from day ferries to international cruise ships that make tourism an economic pillar in its own right.