Italy has been home to plenty of famous different famous figures. In fact, Italy’s famous names are some of the most famous names in the history of the Western world.
From art to literature and politics, not forgetting music, fashion, and cinema, Italian culture has bred a variety of big names that you’ve surely heard of. So, what are the fascinating stories behind these famous names? And why do they still live on today?
Here are our top 15 famous Italians that you should know about – and if some of the names which define Italy’s culture seem unfamiliar, you’ll certainly be an expert on them soon!
If you’re inspired to learn more about Italy and interested in learning the language after having read this post, why not search on Superprof for Italian classes London, Manchester or wherever you’re based in the UK to continue to broaden your knowledge of Italian culture through learning to speak Italian.
A famous Roman military leader and politician, Julius Caesar is not just a famous Italian, but probably one of the most famous people to have ever lived!
A painting of Julius Caesar from 1619. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
He’s not just that guy from the Asterix comics, after all. Even though his life is the stuff of legend, he was very much a real person who lived nearly 2000 years ago when Italy represented the centre of the Roman Empire.
He was born in Rome in 100AD and died there in 44AD. He was a writer, politician, and Roman general. As a tactician and political Genius, he became most famous for leading the Roman legions in their conquest of Gaul (an area which covers much of modern-day France as well as parts of Belguim, Germany and Italy). As a leader, he was instrumental in the rise of the Roman Empire and implemented many political and social reforms which are still evident today. The Julian calendar, for example, which was introduced by Caesar and became dominant during the Roman era, laid the foundations for the Gregorian calendar (the calendar we use today) which replaced it in 1582.
He declared himself Dictator for Life in 48AD and was assassinated 4 years later in the Senate following a plot from the senators. After his death, his adopted son Octavius ended up reforming the Roman Republic.
Here’s another famous figure you’ll probably hear about when learning Italian.
Marco Polo was an Italian merchant and explorer who was born in 1254 in Venice and died there in 1324.
Marco Polo led many exciting expeditions. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Famous for his voyages to China, Marco Polo was as much a merchant as he was an ambassador to the first Mongol emperor of the Yuan Dynasty Kublai Khan.
He subsequently became a messenger for the Overlord of China, Iran, and Russia and completed a large number of diverse missions across Asia.
The 13th-century work, Le Livre de Merveilles (Book of the Marvels of the World), details Marco Polo’s experiences as told by the explorer himself. This book was not written by Marco Polo, but rather the stories were transcribed by Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian writer who had spent time in prison with Polo and had listened to his stories.
Marco Polo’s Livre de Merveilles contains many interesting accounts of his first encounters with unfamiliar territories. Polo was one of the first Europeans to explore Asia, and due to having never heard of many of the flora and fauna of faraway lands, he wrongly believed some animals to be mythical creatures upon sighting them. One famous example of his blunder is his mistaking of a rhinoceros for a unicorn because of its horn!
A TV series was recently made about his life and he was also said to have influenced Christopher Columbus, another renowned explorer who is said to have carried a copy of Polo’s famous travelogue with him while on his travels.
You can hardly learn Italian without learning about Dante! It’s Italian for beginners!
Dante Alighieri (real name Durante degli Alighieri) was a Florentine poet, writer, and politician. He was born in Florence in 1265 and died in Ravenna in 1321. He’s most famous for his epic poem La divina commedia, or The Divine Comedy.
Dante is credited with linguistically unifying Italy. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
According to many historical sources, it’s thanks to Dante Alighieri that the Italian language is the way it is today.
In fact, his literary masterpiece helped impose the Tuscan dialect (particularly the Florentine subdialect) across Italy as the standard language of the nation. Dante shaped modern Italian by enriching the language as he expanded the vocabulary available to speakers of Italian.
So, how great was his influence?
Dante’s literature didn’t just enrich modern Italian, it practically constructed it. At the beginning of the 14th century (around the time that Dante was writing), the Italian language contained just sixty per cent of the vocabulary which is essential to modern-day communication in Italian, whereas, by the end of the same century, ninety per cent of the language spoken in Italy was considered essential to modern-day Italian speaking.
Dante’s success in writing means that many Italian learners and native speakers can still understand and enjoy his epic poem, as the language they speak is the one carved by Dante himself.
In addition to Dante’s many achievements and his great legacy, Dante Alighieri is also featured in our list of the top 5 Italian artists!
Everyone knows the most famous European explorer, Christopher Columbus (otherwise known as Cristoforo Colombo), but did you know that he was Italian?
He was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy and died in 1506 in Valladolid, Spain. Columbus became famous when he became the first man to cross the Atlantic. Although he had intended to end up in East Asia rather than the Americas, Columbus’ pioneering trip led him to the Caribbean, and he became commonly known as the first European to discover the Americas in 1492.
Christopher Columbus’ discoveries weren’t only major feats in the world of European exploration at the time, they also represented the spread of a European presence around the world and led to the colonisation of new territories as he claimed these lands for the crown of Castile.
While he was working for Spain, Christopher Columbus was actually Italian. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
According to historians, Christopher Columbus played an important role in some of the greatest discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries, and his first voyage is mentioned as a turning point modern humans as he is often credited with the building of the West.
However, behind the pioneering character depicted in history textbooks who changed the world with his discovery are many dark facts surrounding Columbus within the history of the European colonisation of the Americas.
Perhaps Columbus’ most shocking contribution to the beginning of European domination of the Americas was his founding of the transatlantic slave trade after having captured a group of indigenous people from the Caribbean who he intended to transport to Europe to be sold as slaves.
Leonardo da Vinci (or Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, to use his full name) was a genius you’ll probably hear about in your Italian lessons. He was born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy and died in 1519 in Amboise, France.
Nowadays he is seen as a symbol of the Renaissance. A Jack of all trades, and seemingly a master of all, too, Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, scientist, architect, mathematician, poet, diplomat, astronomer, and even a sculptor.
Leonardo da Vinci is arguably one of the most talented people to have ever lived. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
He is probably most famous as the artist of the world’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, but in addition to this, he is also remembered as a major figure in the history of science. With so many credits as a driver of the understanding of the universe, Da Vinci is still regarded as being ahead of his time.
Da Vinci theorised aeroplanes, cars, submarines, and helicopters, as well as making critical discoveries in the fields of optics, anatomy, hydrodynamics, and civil engineering.
A star of Italian culture, Da Vinci’s love of art did not conflict with his scientific interests, in fact, he sought to explain scientific phenomena through depicting his scientific observations by putting pencil to paper so he could study phenomena in even further detail.
Interested in learning about the people who have shaped Italian art? Check out the most famous Italian writers and painters.
Galileo is one of the greatest European scholars of physics, mathematics, astronomy, and geometry. Born in 1564 in Pisa and died in Arcetri in 1641, Galileo (Galileo Galilei) was a pioneer of physics. In fact, since 1680 he’s been considered the founder of the discipline. Furthermore, he established the foundations of modern mechanics.
“Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.” – Galileo Galilei
Galileo’s passion for pursuing the truths that explain our place in the universe led him to make some remarkable discoveries, not least because he crafted an advanced version of the telescope after having heard about the invention of such a device in Holland, but also because of his involvement in many fields which paved the way for modern science.
Galileo’s world was heavily involved with astronomy and understanding the solar system – he was even accused of heresy for suggesting that the planets revolved around the sun! Sadly, his passion for studying the universe landed him a life sentence in prison, once again for heresy because of his support for the Copernican theory. Thankfully, Galileo was able to soften his punishment to house arrest, but sadly, he was not entitled to share his thoughts, and his belief that the sun was at the centre of the solar system had to be publicly rejected by Galileo himself.
Antonio Vivaldi was a famous composer and violin genius. Born in Venice in 1678 and died in Vienna in 1741, Vivaldi left his mark on classical music. He was one of the most important composers of the Baroque period.
You may have heard The Four Seasons, Stabat Mater and L’estro armonico – all of these were composed by Antonio Vivaldi.
Vivaldi’s music is recognised for its bright and lively style, and in his time as a composer, Vivaldi penned upwards of 500 concertos (the majority of which were for the violin), 46 operas and many other arrangements for instruments and voice.
Many people don’t know that aside from being a musical genius, Vivaldi was also a music teacher at an all-girls school, and in addition to this, Vivaldi was also an ordained priest! However, although he had been working towards his priesthood from the age of 15, he was forced to give up this venture due to a decline in his health.
Every country goes through some dark days, and these dark days are usually defined by the country’s leaders. For Italy, it was Benito Mussolini.
Born in 1883 in Dovia di Predappio and died in Giulino di Mezzegra in 1945, Mussolini was a journalist and the Leader of Italy between 1922 and 1943.
He joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1912 and was expelled in 1914. He later created the National Fascist Party in 1921.
In 1922, thanks to several threats, intimidation, and acts of violence, he was charged with putting together a government. He therefore became Minister of the Interior, Minster of Foreign Affairs, and President of the Council of Ministers. In 1924, a series of laws consolidated his power.
In 1936, he created a union and cooperation agreement with Nazi Germany and the Italian army would cooperate with Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
Thanks to Allied Victories, he was stopped in 1943. In 1945, Mussolini tried to flee Italy but was captured by communists, killed by firing squad, then hung by his feet.
Born in 1934 in Piacenza, Giorgio Armani is an Italian stylist. He’s the co-founder of his namesake business and has developed a number of fashion lines for men and women. He became famous for dressing the stars and famous clubs sports. Today, Georgio Armani’s fortune is in the billions (estimated at €8 billion in 2018).
Armani rose to fame in the 1980’s as his sharp designs for men’s power suits came to the forefront of fashion, with his garments even being featured in the popular TV series, Miami Vice as well as other designs being donned by many stars of the silver screen, giving the Armani brand the A-list reputation it has today.
Luciano Pavarotti was a famous Italian singer. Born in 1935 and died in 2007 in Modena, Pavarotti was known as one of the greatest opera singers of his generation.
With over 100 million albums sold worldwide, he not only famous for his voice, but also his success in bringing the classical style of opera to popular culture. The tenor also collaborated with plenty of other famous artists including Mariah Carey, U2, and Barry White for humanitarian causes such as War Child. However, it was not just his crossover into pop with help from other famous names which made Pavarotti a household name; the distinctive quality of his voice made a legend in the world of opera. In fact, Pavarotti is hailed by many as one of the best tenors of the 20th century.
Pavarotti’s humanitarian work which involves using his fame to raise awareness of world issues earned him the title of United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998.
Before being the politician we know him as today, Silvio Berlusconi was a business man. Born in Milan in 1936, Berlusconi founded and directed Fininvest (a financial holdings company) and Mediaset (a media group).
In 1994, thanks to his centre-right Forza Italia political movement, he became prime minister for the first time. Although he resigned, he later became the prime minister again in 2001.
After having headed two successful governments, he was beaten in 2006 but would become the president two years later following a snap election. After being convicted of tax-fraud in 2013, he was banned from public office until 2019.
Another one of the world’s most famous singers is also an Italian export. Andrea Bocelli is an Italian singer born in Lajatico in 1958. Having performed many operas as well as releasing a plethora of albums which were popular in the classical community as well as being incredibly successful in the music charts, the tenor, Andrea Bocelli is known around the world for his vocal talent.
The singer (who has been blind since the age of 12) has sold over 80 million albums around the world. Bocelli has risen to fame not only in the world of classical music, but he is also known for his pop music, too. You should check out Con te partirò, Vivo per lei, or Romanza.
Andrea Bocelli’s contributions to music have earnt him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he has also been given the title of Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
The Italian model and actress Monic Bellucci was born in Città di Castello in 1964. She is famous for her roles in films such as The Matrix, The Passion of the Christ, and Spectre. She was married to the French actor Vincent Cassel for many years until their divorce in 2013. She is also often considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. Was she in any of our top Italian films?
Interestingly, Monica Bellucci never intended to follow an acting career, in fact, she was originally pursuing a career in law. Whilst studying for her law degree, Bellucci worked as a model to earn some extra money to help her through university, however, this turned into a full-time career, and after her television debut in 1990, Bellucci’s acting career was born.
Born in Florence in 1975, Matteo Renzi started his career in marketing. He got into politics when he supported Romano Prodi in 1996. He’s a member of the left-wing Italian Democratic Party. He was also elected as the President of the Region of Florence in 2004. He was elected as the Mayor of Florence in 2009.
In 2012, he was a candidate for the Secretary of the Democratic Party. Although he was beaten, he did get the position a year later. He became Prime Minister of Italy in 2014. He replaced Enrico Letta who was forced to leave his post.
Francesco Totti is an Italian footballer who was born in Rome in 1976. He spent his entire playing career at Roma.
Totti stayed in Rome his entire career. Can you blame him? (Source: pixabay.com)
He started his career in 1993 and, during that time, the only other team he played for was the Italian national side in a number of international competitions. In addition to winning the World Cup with Italy in 2006, he is also one of the 100 greatest players of all time. During his career, Totti scored a total of 250 goals for Roma.
Valentino Rossi is a motorcyclist who was born in Urbino in 1979. Since starting his career in 1996, Rossi has won a number of titles. He’s won the MotoGP championship 9 times in total and is generally considered one of the best motorcyclists still racing.
These 15 famous Italians have each left their mark in their respective fields. Of course, we couldn’t include every famous Italian. As you can see, Italy is home to plenty of people who are famous in Italy, Europe, and across the globe.