Population in Italy

Who are the Italians?

The population of Italy was around 59.5m in early 2007, roughly the same as the UK and France, with a population density of almost 200 inhabitants per km2, which makes Italy the fifth most densely populated country in Europe, after the Benelux countries and the UK.

As in most countries, however, the population is unevenly distributed and of the 110 provinces, only some 40 have a density higher than the national average, around 70 per cent of the population inhabiting a surface area equal to just one-third of the country. Around two-thirds of the population live in cities.

From antiquity, Mediterranean peoples had highly developed urban centres. For historical as well as geographic reasons, Italy has never been dominated by one city, each region having its own urban centre. Today, there are two cities with a population of over a million (Rome and Milan), but many cities have a population of over 100,000.

Of these, almost half are on or near the sea; a similar proportion are in the north and the rest are in the centre, south, Sicily and Sardinia. A number of cities have, with increased population and industrialisation, merged with neighbouring cities into enormous metropolitan complexes, sometimes called ‘mega-cities’, such as that surrounding Milan.

The largest cities are Rome 2.5m, Milan 1.3m, Naples 985,000 (Portici, a suburb of Naples, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world), Turin 900,000, Palermo 670,000, Genoa 620,000, Bologna 375,000, Florence 366,000, Bari 325,000, Catania 305,000, Venice 270,000, Verona 260,000 and Messina 250,000.

Other heavily populated areas include Liguria, Piedmont and parts of Lombardy, the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giuila. In contrast, many areas, not necessarily mountainous or difficult to reach, are under-populated. The rural population, which at the beginning of the Second World War accounted for practically half the country’s population, has been gradually declining.

Until recently, Italy’s low birth-rate (due in part to Italy’s prosperous condom industry, despite the Catholic church’s ban on ‘unnatural’ birth control), at around nine births per 1,000 population (roughly the same as the death rate) and low immigration meant that population growth was practically zero and threatening to go into reverse, but the country’s recent economic growth and the expansion of the European Union have seen many immigrants arrive, which has stopped the population from going into decline.

In general, the birth rate and average family size are higher in the south of Italy than in the north, although populations in Basilicata, Calabria and Molise are declining because of migration (northward).

The mortality rate is slightly lower in the south than in the north, and in certain northern regions (especially Liguria) populations are beginning to decrease because the birth rate is falling faster than the mortality rate.

As regards the country as a whole, life expectancy rose during the second half of the 20th century, reflecting higher nutritional, sanitary and medical standards. The majority of the population are between 20 and 70 years old, with a decreasing number below ten and an increasing number over 75, especially women.

Traditionally, Italy has been a land of emigration, as witnessed by the massive flows of Italians to North and South America (mainly to the US, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil) during the 19th and 20th centuries. Between 1875 and 1925, a total of some 10m Italians left the country (around half eventually returned).

There were further mass emigrations to Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK after the Second World War. In this second wave, some 8m people emigrated, of whom roughly half have returned. At the same time, especially in the ’50s and ’60s, there was a wholesale population movement from the southern and north-eastern regions to the north-west, where industry was expanding.

In recent years, Italy’s rapid economic growth has attracted many immigrants to the country, mainly from North and sub-Saharan Africa, but also from the Philippines, China, South America and most recently from Albania and the former Yugoslavia. There are over 1.5m registered immigrants ( extracomunitari) in Italy, plus many more living illegally. Illegal immigration has led to tougher immigration rules and a more forceful programme of expulsion.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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