Take the art works of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tintoretto and Caravaggio, the operas of Verdi and Puccini, the cinema of Federico Fellini, add the architecture of Venice, Florence and Rome and you have just a fraction of Italy's treasures from over the centuries.
While the country is renowned for these and other delights, it is also notorious for its precarious political life and has had several dozen governments since the end of World War II.
The Italian political landscape underwent a seismic shift in the 1990s when the "Clean Hands" operation exposed corruption at the highest levels of politics and big business. Several former prime ministers were implicated and thousands of businessmen and politicians were investigated.
Italy was one of the six countries which signed the 1951 Paris Treaty setting Europe off on the path to integration. It has been staunchly at the heart of Europe ever since, although in the early 2000s the government of Silvio Berlusconi adopted a more Eurosceptic stance.
Mr Berlusconi sought to align Italy more closely to the US, breaking ranks with the country's traditional allies, France and Germany, in his support for the US-led campaign in Iraq.
The Europhile Romano Prodi, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2008, pulled Italian troops out of Iraq and set about restoring good relations with other EU member states.
Venice: The city built on islets has been sinking
Italy is the fourth largest European economy and for long enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in Europe, despite the decline in traditional industries such as textiles and car manufacturing as a result of globalisation.
But it became one of the first eurozone victims of the global financial crisis of 2008. By the end of 2011, Italy had one of the highest levels of public debt - a towering 118% of GDP (annual economic output) - in the eurozone.
There is concern over Italy's birth rate - the lowest in Europe - and the economic implications of an ageing population.
The former member of the Italian Communist Party was among the leading architects of the party's transformation into a social-democratic movement.
The Italian president heads the armed forces and has powers to veto legislation, disband parliament and call elections.
Mr Napolitano generally prefers to remain distant from the often treacherous world of Italian parliamentary politics, and so on the rare occasions when he has intervened directly - as he did in November 2011, when he issued a not-so-coded message to the political class to examine its conscience and acknowledge collective responsibility for the crisis facing the country - his words have carried considerable weight.
Prime Minister: Mario Monti
Economist Mario Monti took over at the head of a government of technocrats in November 2011 after his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi resigned amid a mounting national debt crisis.
Mr Monti's says his top priority is to deal with Italy's financial crisis
The Berlusconi government had failed to muster a parliamentary majority in a routine budget vote as criticism grew of its handling of the crisis, seen as a serious threat to the financial stability of the eurozone.
Mr Monti, a former European Union competition commissioner, is expected to serve as a non-party prime minister until elections expected early in 2012.
His cabinet includes bankers, diplomats and business executives, but not a single politician. Its first task was to gain parliamentary approval for a package of austerity measures designed to stave off economic collapse.
The package was passed easily, as neither of the two main parties felt that they had anything to gain by sabotaging the bill and risking economic catastrophe.
However, Mr Monti is likely to face mounting opposition to his plan, particularly from the unions, once the public spending cuts start to bite.
Born in 1943, Mario Monti studied in Italy and at Yale, specialising in the banking sector. Prime Minister Berlusconi appointed him Italy's European Union commissioner in 1994, in which position he championed anti-monopoly measures.
Silvio Berlusconi, PM from 2008-11, often courted controversy
Mr Berlusconi declined to reappoint him in 2004, but Mr Monti continued to work closely with the European Commission and various think tanks on projects promoting closer European economic integration.
Mr Monti's appointment ended Silvio Berlusconi's third stint as prime minister from 2008-11 at the head of a centre-right coalition that included his own Forza Italia party.
One of Italy's richest men, Mr Berlusconi was the dominant figure on Italy's right after he launched his political career during the corruption inquiries of 1994 that swept away Italy's post-World War II party system.
However, his business contacts and media role led to accusations of a conflict of interest, especially over legislation seen as protecting his commercial interests.
Mr Berlusconi was put on trial at least six times over financial matters, and found guilty on three occasions, but later acquitted or benefited from the expiry of the statute of limitations.
His sex life also led to controversy, and April 2011 he was put on trial on charges of abuse of power and paying a minor for sex. He insisted the case was politically motivated.
Italy's heady blend of politics and media has often made headlines at home and abroad, with concern regularly being expressed over the concentration of media ownership in the hands of one man - former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The Berlusconi family has a major stake in TV giant Mediaset
Mr Berlusconi's Mediaset empire operates Italy's top private TV stations, and the public broadcaster, Rai, has traditionally been subject to political influence, so that when Mr Berlusconi was prime minister, he was able to exert tight control over both public and private broadcasting.
Between them, Rai and Mediaset dominate Italy's TV market and are a potentially powerful political tool, especially as 80% of the population is said to rely on television for its daily news - the highest percentage in the EU.
News Corp-owned Sky Italia has a near-monopoly of the pay-TV sector.
The Italian press is highly regionalised, reflecting the country's strongly regional history and character. Milan in particular is home to many dailies and news magazines. Most newspapers are privately-owned, often linked to a political party or run by a large media group. Newspaper readership figures are low compared to other European countries.
Around 2,500 commercial radio stations broadcast in Italy. Some have national coverage; most are music-based. They share the airwaves with public broadcaster Rai's networks.
Reporters Without Borders has warned of the "grip of mafia gangs" on the media, which it says forces many journalists to tread warily. And the Berlusconi government's plans to introduce a "gag law" that would have restricted reporting based on material gained from police wiretaps gave rise to protests from freedom of expression campaigners.
By August 2009 there were 30 million internet users (Internetworldstats).
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