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The Umbri and the Etruscans (9th C. B.C.-3rd C. B.C.)

Although Neanderthals, ancient Homo sapiens, and Paleolithic and Bronze Age humans left some of their bones and tools lying about, things really didn't start getting lively in central Italy until the Etruscans rose to power.

The most widely accepted theory is that the Etruscans came from modern-day Turkey, and arrived in central Italy in the late 9th or early 8th century B.C. The fact that their language isn't Indo-European but appears similar to some Aegean dialects helps confirm this theory, but there are others who now feel the Etruscans may have risen from native peoples in central Italy. Whatever the case, these Etruschi, or Tuschi, formed the basic cultural-political force in the region that's now named for them, Tuscany.

Much of what little remains to tell us of the Etruscans consists of tombs and their contents, and it's difficult to reconstruct an entire culture simply by looking at its graveyards. While we can read their language, what script we have goes into little beyond death, divination, and the divine.

What historians are surer of is that Etruscans became enamored of the Attic culture of Greece and adopted many of the Greek gods and myths in the 6th century B.C. This era coincided with the height of their considerable power. In fact, from the late 7th century until 510 B.C., Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings of the Tarquin dynasty. Although the Etruscan empire spread south almost to Naples, east to the Adriatic, and west onto Corsica, the heart and core called Etruria covered an area from the Arno east to the Apennines and south to the Tiber, encompassing most of Tuscany, half of Umbria, and northern Lazio.

Well before this time, around 1200 B.C., Indo-European Italic peoples had wandered into Italy from the north. The Samnites and Latins continued south, but the Umbri tribes decided to settle in the Apennines and valleys east of the Tiber, which flows through the middle of modern-day Umbria. Their loosely defined zone of cultural hegemony encompassed what is now northern and eastern Umbria and the Marches over to the sea, as well as corners of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. All we really know about the Umbri is they had a highly developed religion based on reading prophecies in animal sacrifices and the flights of birds -- Gubbio's famous Eugubine Tables bronze plaques tell us this much. When the Roman influence spread north in the 3rd century B.C., the Umbrian cities for the most part allied themselves to the Latins, were awarded Roman citizenship early, and enjoyed a large degree of autonomy from authorities in Rome. Aside from the usual city rivalries and moderate clashes between expanding empires, the Umbrians appear to have lived more or less amicably with their Etruscan neighbors.

Looking for Etruscan Remains -- If you want to check out some Etruscan remains, head to the following places: Volterra (a museum, a city gate, and walls), Chiusi (a museum, underground aqueducts to tour, and many tombs in the area), Sarteano (a unique frescoed tomb and a museum), Populonia (a coastal tomb complex), Pitigliano and the Alta Maremma (a tomb complex and network of sunken roads), Arezzo (a museum), Cortona (a museum and tombs), Perugia (a city gate and a well), and Orvieto (tombs, museums, underground tunnels to tour, and a well). There are also major Tuscan finds collected at the archaeological museum in Florence.

Enter The Romans: The Founding of Florence (3rd C. B.C.-5th C. A.D.)

In the 3rd century B.C. Rome began its expansion, and some of the first neighboring peoples to fall were the Etruscans. Some cities, such as Perugia and Arezzo, allied themselves with Rome and were merely absorbed, while others, including Volterra and Orvieto, were conquered outright. As the Romans gained power over the entire peninsula, the removal of political barriers and the construction of roads allowed trade to develop and flow relatively uninhibited.

Many of the old cities flourished, and the general prosperity led to the founding of new cities throughout the region, especially as retirement camps for Roman soldiers.

During the lull of the later Roman Empire, Christianity quickly spread throughout much of central Italy -- Lucca even claims to have converted in the 1st century A.D. through the efforts of one of St. Peter's own followers, though Pisa tries to one-up its neighbors by claiming a church first built by St. Peter.

Goths, Lombards & Franks: The Dark Ages (6th C.-9th C.)

As the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century A.D., Germanic tribes swept down from the north and wreaked mayhem on central Italian cities as group after group fought their way down to Rome in a sacking free-for-all. The Goths swept down in the 6th century A.D., and one of their leaders, Totila, conquered Florence in A.D. 552.

Perhaps the strongest force in the Dark Ages was the Lombards who established two major duchies in central Italy, one based at Lucca, which governed most of Tuscany, and the other at Spoleto, which took care of most of Umbria. When their ambitions threatened Rome (now a Church stronghold) in the 8th century, the pope invited the Frankish king Pepin the Short to come clear the Lombards out. Under Pepin, and, more important, his son Charlemagne, the Lombards were ousted from Tuscany and Umbria.

The Lombard duchy at Lucca was merely replaced by a Frankish margrave, with Tuscany ruled by powerful figures like the Margrave Matilda. Charlemagne gave the lands he took from the duchy of Spoleto directly to the pope, but the pontiffs gradually lost control over the region as they busied themselves with other concerns.

With the breakup of Charlemagne's empire in the 9th century, the German Holy Roman Emperors started pressing claims over the Italian peninsula. Central Italy was plunged into political chaos, out of which emerged for the first time the independent city-state republic known as the commune.

The Medieval Commune

In the late 11th century, merchants became wealthier and more important to the daily economic life of the small Italian cities. They organized themselves into guilds and gradually became the bourgeois oligarchic leaders of the cities. The self-governing comuni they established weren't the perfect democracies they've often been made out to be. While many were ruled by popularly elected councils, usually only the guild members of the middle class were enfranchised. The majority of city laborers, as well as rural farmers, remained powerless.

As the comuni stabilized their infrastructures -- after dealing with blows like the 1348 Black Death, a plague that swept through Europe and left well over half of central Italy's population dead -- they also set about roughing up their neighbors and traditional rivals. Battles were fought both to increase the city-states' trading power and to acquire more towns under their control (or at least secure subservient allies). To this end, instead of raising militia armies, they hired condottieri, professional soldiers of fortune who controlled forces of armed mercenaries.

Many of these trade wars and ancient rivalries were fought between cities that used Europe's big power struggle of the age -- the Holy Roman Emperor versus the Pope -- as an excuse to attack their traditional antagonists.

Guelphs & Ghibellines: A Medieval Mess

In the 12th century, the German throne of the Holy Roman Emperor sat empty. Otto IV's family, the Welf dynasty of Bavaria, fought for it against the lords of Waiblingen, where the house of Swabia ruled under the Hohenstaufen dynasty. The names were corrupted in Italian to Guelph and Ghibelline, respectively, and when the Hohenstaufens came out winners with Frederick Barbarossa being crowned emperor, the Ghibellines stuck as the supporters of the emperor while the Guelphs became the party that backed the pope.

In Italy, the old nobility, as Ghibellines, favored the imperial promise of a return to feudalism and hence their own power, while the Guelph merchant-and-banking middle class supported the pope and his free-trade attitudes. Although they all flip-flopped to some degree, Florence (plus Lucca, Arezzo, and Perugia) turned out Guelph, while rivals Pisa, Pistoia, and Siena were Ghibelline.

The Guelph-Ghibelline conflict not only spawned intercity warfare but also sparked intracity strife between rival factions. In the 13th century Florence split into Guelph and Ghibelline parties, under which names the parties waged a decades-long struggle over who'd control the city government.

At the turn of the 14th century, when the Guelphs finally came out victorious, Florence began to enjoy a fairly stable republican rule -- still of the old assembly system called now the Signoria, a ruling council elected from the major guilds. Florence slowly expanded its power, first allying with Prato, then conquering Pistoia, and by 1406 adding Volterra, Arezzo, and Pisa to the cities under its rule.

Guelph or Ghibelline? -- Though it's admittedly not the perfect measure, you can sometimes tell which a city was, at least at any given time, by looking at the battlements of the medieval town hall: The Guelphs favored squared-off crenellations and the Ghibellines swallowtail ones.

Exceptions to this are Siena's Palazzo Pubblico, which was built with blocky battlements during the briefly Guelph period of the Council of Nine, and Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, which confusingly sports both kinds.

The Renaissance: Cue the Medici

The Medici came from the hills of the Mugello in the early Middle Ages, quite possibly charcoal burners (or perhaps pharmacists) looking for the good life of the city. The family found moderate success and even had a few members elected to public office in the commune government.

At the turn of the 15th century, Giovanni de' Bicci de' Medici made the family fortune by establishing the Medici as bankers to the papal curia in Rome. His son, Cosimo de' Medici, called Cosimo il Vecchio, orchestrated a number of important alliances and treaties for the Florentine Signoria, gaining him prestige and respect. He was a humanist leader who believed in the power of the emerging new art forms of the early Renaissance, and he commissioned works from the greatest painters, sculptors, and architects of the day.

Cosimo grew so attached to the sculptor Donatello that, as Cosimo lay dying, he made sure his son, Piero the Gouty, promised to care for the also aging artist and to see that he never lacked for work. Piero's rule was short and relatively undistinguished, quickly superseded by the brilliant career of his son, Lorenzo de' Medici, called Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Under the late-15th-century rule of Lorenzo, Florence entered its golden era, during which time it became Europe's cultural and artistic focal point. It was Lorenzo who encouraged the young Michelangelo to sculpt (enrolling him in his own school), and he and Medici cousins commissioned paintings from Botticelli and poetry from Poliziano.

Although Lorenzo fought to maintain the precious balance of power between Italian city-states, in doing so he incurred the wrath of the pope and the Pazzi family, Florentine rivals of the Medici. The young Medici leader's troubles came to a head in the infamous 1478 Pazzi Conspiracy, in which Lorenzo and his brother were attacked during High Mass. The coup failed, and the Pazzi were expelled from the city. But Lorenzo's son and successor, Piero de' Medici, was also forced to flee the invading armies of Charles VIII in 1494 (although Charles quickly withdrew from the Italian field).

Into the power vacuum stepped puritanical preacher Girolamo Savonarola. This theocrat's apocalyptic visions and book-burning (the original Bonfire of the Vanities) held the public's fancy for about 4 years, until the pope excommunicated the entire city for following him, and the Florentines put the torch to Savonarola as a heretic.

In 1512, however, papal armies set another of Lorenzo's sons, the boring young Giuliano de' Medici, duke of Nemours, on the vacant Medici throne. Giuliano, and later Lorenzo de' Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent's grandson via the ousted Piero) were merely mouthpieces for the real brains of the family, Giuliano's brother, Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, who in 1513 became Pope Leo X and uttered the immortal words, "God has given us the papacy, now let us enjoy it."

Pope Leo's successor as leader of the Medici was his natural cousin, Giulio de' Medici, illegitimate son of Lorenzo's brother Giuliano. Although blackguards such as Ippolito and Alessandro de' Medici held sway in Florence, they really took their orders from Giulio, who from 1523 to 1534 continued to run the family from Rome as Pope Clement VII.

Charles V's imperial armies sacked Rome in 1527, sending Clement VII scurrying to Orvieto for safety and giving the Florentines the excuse to boot Alessandro from town and set up a republican government. In 1530, however, the pope and Charles reconciled and sent a combined army to Florence, and eventually Alessandro was reinstated. This time he had an official title: Duke of Florence.

After decadently amusing himself as a tyrant in Florence for 7 years, Alessandro was murdered in bed by his distant cousin Lorenzaccio de' Medici, who plunged a dagger into the duke's belly and fled to Venice (where he was later assassinated).

The man chosen to take Alessandro's place was a Medici of a different branch, young Cosimo de' Medici. Contrary to his immediate Medici predecessors, Cosimo I actually devoted himself to attending to matters of state. He built up a navy, created a seaport for Florence called Livorno, and even conquered age-old rival Siena after a brutal war from 1555 to 1557. His greatest personal moment came in 1569 when the pope declared him Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Except for the tiny Republic of Lucca, which happily trundled along independently until Napoleon gave it to his sister in 1806, the history of Tuscany was now firmly intertwined with that of Florence.

The Risorgimento: Italy Becomes a Country (Late 19th C.)

In 1860 Florence and Tuscany became part of the newly declared Italian state. From 1865 to 1870, Florence was the capital of Italy, and it enjoyed a frenzied building boom -- the medieval walls were torn down and the Jewish ghetto demolished and replaced with the cafe-lined Piazza della Repubblica.

The army that was conquering recalcitrant states on the peninsula for Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of Italy, was commanded by Gen. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who spent much of the end of the war slowly subjugating the papal states -- the pope was the last holdout against the new regime. This meant defeating the papal authorities in Umbria, whose armies, however, quickly retreated, leaving cities like Perugia to cheer on Garibaldi's troops as they freed the region from hundreds of years of papal oppression.

Fascism: Getting Roped into World War II

The demagogue Benito Mussolini came to power after World War I and did much to improve Italy's infrastructure -- at least on the surface -- and in the process won the respect of many Italians. Then Mussolini got caught up with Hitler's World War II egomania, believing that Italy should have a second empire as great as the ancient Roman one.

Although the Tuscans certainly had their share of collaborators and die-hard Fascists, many Italians never bought into the war or the Axis alliance. The partisan movement was always strong, with resistance fighters holed up, especially in the hills south of Siena. Tuscany became a battlefield as the occupying Nazi troops slowly withdrew across the landscape in the face of American and Allied advancement -- but not without committing appalling massacres along the way. In 2011, three former Nazi soldiers were found guilty in absentia of the murder of 184 civilians, in August 1944, in Padule di Fucecchio.

Postwar Tuscany & Umbria

Florence was hit with disaster when a massive flooding of the Arno in November 1966 covered much of the city with up to 6m (20 ft.) of sludge and water, destroying or severely damaging countless thousands of works of art and literature (8,000 paintings in the Uffizi basement alone, and 1.5 million volumes in the National Library). Along with an army of experts and trained restorers, hundreds of volunteers nicknamed "Mud Angels" descended on the city, many of them foreign students, to pitch in and help dig out all the mud and salvage what they could of one of the greatest artistic heritages of any city on earth.

The political fortunes of Tuscany and Umbria have in the past 60 years mainly followed those of Italy at large, although the region remains at the heart of Italy's left-leaning "Red Quadrilateral". In 2008, media magnate (and the world's 29th richest man) Silvio Berlusconi re-gained control of the Italian government as part of a center-right coalition, though over 50% of Tuscans voted for Democratic Party candidate Walter Veltroni, and only 33.6% supported Berlusconi (Umbrians voted similarly).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.