Italy has played a leading part both in forming the culture of West Europe and in making an impact on the rest of the world, even though its late attempts at empire building were a dismal failure, its colonies in Africa largely and wastes and its annexation of Ethiopia in the late 1930s widely opposed and short-lived. Italians of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance were responsible for many of the technological innovations that led to the great oceanic discoveries, and participated themselves, though on behalf of other countries, in exploration. During the last hundred years they have settled in very large numbers in the U.S.A. and parts of Latin America. Since the Second World War Italian influence as a trading nation has grown rapidly, Italian shipping and air routes are widespread, and Italian firms have participated in large construction projects in many parts of the world.
So far Italy has been considered as a single economic and political unit within a wider setting. In anticipation it may be suggested that superior conditions for agriculture and industry, including a more favourable physical environment (relief, climate, soils and so on) for farming, and a socially and politically more advanced population, have helped northern Italy for at least several centuries, with the result that there is now an enormous gap in living standards between the most prosperous parts of the North and the poorest parts of the South.
Here a few words are necessary about the term Italy. This was first used several centuries B.C. with reference to the southern part of the Peninsula, and later, after its annexation by Rome, the North of Italy as well. Later still, Sicily and Sardinia were also included. Italy therefore existed at the time of the Roman Empire, though it did not apply to a clearly defined administrative unit as it does today, but rather to a general area, obviously an important one, within the Empire. With the gradual disintegration of the western part of the Empire, Italy, through being split among various units, ceased to refer even to a specific piece of territory, except when, at times, a unit called Italy referring to some part of the country was temporarily resurrected. Thanks however to the common cultural heritage based both on language and religion, some kind of Italian consciousness remained, especially in the North and Centre, and although Italy failed to emerge with England, France, Spain and other countries as a modern nation after the Middle Ages, the idea of unification grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, and unification was proclaimed in 1861. Though conveniently delimited by coasts or by the crest of the Alps almost everywhere, perfectionists in post-unification Italy have devised an Italian region (la regione Italiana), which is somewhat larger than the present Italy and is bounded by the main watershed of the Alps, extends into France to Nice, and into Istria, and includes the Ticino canton of Switzerland, Corsica and Malta.