14 Famous Italians Throughout History
Famous Italians have significantly influenced art, music, cinema, fashion, and sports throughout history. As a cultural superpower, Italy has also been the source of many groundbreaking discoveries and inventions that changed the way we live our lives. The great civilization has enlightened the world through philosophy, technology, and science.
Sitting in the Mediterranean Sea, Italy’s history dates back to the Etruscans and Italic civilizations. After various cultures and people immigrated to Italy, the Roman Kingdom formed in the 8th century. That morphed into the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. They conquered and expanded their empire, influencing countries all over the world. Italy was also the birth of The Renaissance, spreading throughout Europe and becoming a dominant force.
Over the centuries there have been famous Italians who have impacted the world as you will discover below.
1. Julius Caesar
Roman General Julias Caesar rose to power in the Roman Republic to become dictator of Rome. Born in 100 BC in Suburra, Rome, Caesar gained a reputation as a great military commander. Caesar initially shared the power in the First Triumvirate, but after defeating his rival Pompey, Caesar took total control of the Roman Republic in 48 BC.
He reformed social and government programs, such as providing land for veterans, creating the Julian calendar, and granting citizenship to citizens of the Roman Republic’s other regions. Caesar’s decisions infuriated the elite, resulting in his assassination in 44 BC. Caesar’s role in the Republic and his death contributed to the rise of the Roman Empire.
2. Leonardo da Vinci
Born in 1519 in Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci was a leading figure during the High Renaissance era. He has been called the greatest artist ever to live and is a household name best known for his masterpieces The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and Vitruvian Man. In addition to being a painter, da Vinci was a next-level genius.
As he helped usher in the Renaissance, da Vinci proved he was more than a painter and sculptor. Da Vinci was a brilliant scientist who took notes on various topics, such as paleontology, astronomy, cartography, botany, and anatomy. Furthermore, da Vinci kept notebooks where he wrote ideas for adding machines, focused solar power, armored fighting vehicles, and flying machines.
3. Sophia Loren
Italian actress Sophia Loren is one of the country’s most famous Hollywood stars. Born in Rome, Italy, in 1934, Loren began her acting career after winning a beauty pageant. She became one of Hollywood’s most iconic sex symbols during the 50s.
In 1961, Loren won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Two Women. Loren made history as the first to win an Oscar for a non-English speaking role. She also starred in acclaimed movies Sunflower, The Voyage, Grumpier Old Men, and The Life Ahead. Loren is one of the last surviving Hollywood stars of Classical Hollywood cinema.
During the High Renaissance, Michelangelo became one of the most admired painters, poets, and sculptors. Born in the Republic of Florence in 1474, he created art that continues to influence the world today. Known as Il Divino or the divine one, he first rose to fame before age 30 after sculpting Pietà and David. These works remain highly popular and influential.
He achieved the pinnacle of his success with the famed Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted scenes from Genesis that are incredible pieces of art visited by millions every year. He later returned to paint the Last Judgement on the chapel’s altar wall. Michelangelo’s legacy lives on through his awe-inspiring artwork.
5. Marco Polo
Born in Venice in 1254, Marco Polo’s exploration of Asia gave Europeans insight into the cultures and customs of people living in the Eastern world. In 1271, Polo joined his father and uncle to explore the famed Silk Road. Polo’s journey down the Silk Road took him to Persia, India, Japan, and China.
Along the journey, Polo impressed the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan and was appointed his foreign ambassador, with Khan sending Polo to Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Polo also lived extensively in China before heading to Persia. He finally returned to Venice in 1295 and published the influential The Travels of Marco Polo in 1300, receiving universal praise for his rare insight into Asia.
6. Giuseppe Garibaldi
As Italy entered the 19th century it no longer held the strength or power it once enjoyed. The unstable social, economic, and political climate resulted in a revolution ending with unification and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. Italian patriot and hero Giuseppe Garibaldi was at the forefront of the political turmoil.
He was regarded as one of the greatest generals and led several military campaigns to ensure unification. He also spent 14 years in exile in South America where he participated in several wars. Giuseppe’s now considered a national hero and one of Italy’s fathers of the fatherland.
7. Luciano Pavarotti
Known as the “King of the High Cs,” Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti became a worldwide phenomenon. Born outside Modena in Northern Italy in 1935, he spent years taking vocal lessons as a kid. In 1961, Pavarotti embarked on a professional career lasting several decades. He’s best known for his extensive work on operas, such as La Bohème, Tosca, Turandot, and Madama Butterfly.
In 1990, Pavarotti gained global fame after performing at a concert during the 1990 FIFA World Cup as one of The Three Tenors alongside Spaniards Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. His final show occurred in Turin during the 2006 Winter Olympics where he performed “Nessun Dorma.” Pavarotti died one year later from pancreatic cancer.
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8. Galileo Galilei
Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei made some of history’s most vital discoveries. Born in Pisa in 1564, Galileo was also an engineer and physicist dubbed the “father of modern science.” Using a telescope, Galileo studied the Moon, Saturn’s rings, the phases of Venus, and Jupiter’s satellites. He published his findings in 1610 but stirred up controversy when he implied Venus revolved around the Sun. Galileo also introduced the most controversial idea at that time; that the Earth was round, turns on its axis, and rotates around the Sun.
Also known as Copernican heliocentrism, the statement contradicted other philosophers, astronomers, and the Catholic Church. Based on events in The Bible, most believed the Sun rotated around the Earth. An investigation resulted in a ban on Galileo from discussing, writing, or thinking about Copernican heliocentrism. Of course, in time, Galileo’s theory proved correct, but by then he was long gone but his memory lives on.
9. Andrea Bocelli
In 1994, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli became a household name in Italy. He’s among the best-selling artists with over 75 million record sales. Bocelli has released numerous classical and pop albums that dominated the charts. He also released nine operas, showing his full range.
Bocellie was born visually impaired in Lajatico, Italy, in 1958. At age 12, he suffered a brain hemorrhage from a football accident resulting in Bocelli going completely blind. Bocelli didn’t let his condition stand in his way of becoming one of Italy’s greatest tenors.
10. Christopher Columbus
Explorer Christopher Columbus is one of the most famous Italians that ever lived. While little information exists about his childhood, he was likely born in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa in present-day Northwestern Italy. Sponsored by the monarchs of Spain, Columbus was most famous for discovering the New World in 1492. Despite claiming he was looking for a passage to Asia, Columbus stumbled upon modern-day Bahamas and Cuba.
He later returned to Europe with slaves from the New World, spreading the news of his discovery. Columbus’ voyage kicked off the Age of Discovery, leading to the exploration of South America and North America. To some, Columbus is a hero, but others feel differently. Columbus killed the Indigenous population by introducing new diseases and enslaving many others. He’s one of Italy’s most polarizing historical figures.
11. Francis of Assisi
Italian mystic and preacher St. Francis of Assisi is an important figure in Christianity. Born in 1181 in Assisi, Francis founded the Order of St. Clare, the Order of Friars Minor, and the Third Order of St. Francis. He also experienced the first documented case of stigmata.
In 1224, Assisi had a vision of an angelic six-winged angel on a cross while praying on Verna mountain during a forty-day fast. The angel was said to have given Francis the gift of stigmata. After seeking treatment, Francis died a few weeks later.
12. Amerigo Vespucci
The term “America” comes from the name of the Italian explorer and navigator, Amerigo Vespucci. During the Age of Discovery, Vespucci participated in two voyages between 1497 and 1504 to the New World. In 1503 and 1504, Vespucci published two booklets detailing his trips and the discovery of Brazil. Vespucci’s wild adventures and intriguing descriptions amazed Europeans, particularly cartographer Martin Waldseemüller.
In 1507, Waldseemüller applied the Latinized version of Vespucci’s first name, “America,” for the first time to a map showing the New World. By 1532, every map in the world used “America” to describe the New World. While this story is widely believed, several historians still question the validity of Vespucci’s claims about his name being the basis for America.
13. Umberto Eco
Italy has a reputation for producing some of history’s most intelligent writers and social commentators. One such person was the philosopher and writer Umberto Eco who provided analysis and insight into history with his vast theories.
Born in Alessandria, Italy, in 1958, Eco’s best known for the historical mysteries The Name of The Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. The famous Italian writer often blended fiction with reality and the Bible in his intriguing tales.
14. Benito Mussolini
Italian dictator and journalist Benito Mussolini is one of Italy’s most infamous figures. He founded the National Fascist Party, becoming Prime Minister by decree of King Victor Emmanuel III in 1922. Throughout the 20s and 30s, Mussolini consolidated his power using his secret police to remove all political opposition.
In 1940, Mussolini and Italy entered World War II, supporting the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. After losing the confidence of Italy, King Emmanuel III removed Mussolini as Prime Minister. In 1945, Italian authorities captured Mussolini when he tried to escape to Switzerland. They executed him by firing range and hung his body at a service station in Milian to confirm his death.