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 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.
Italian Leaders, Politicians and Businessmen
Julius Caesar (100 to 44BC)
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!
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.
Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)
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.
Matteo Renzi (1975 - )
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.
Silvio Berlusconi (1936 - )
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.
Marco Polo (1254-1324)
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.
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.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
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.
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.
Italian Mathematicians, Scientists and Inventors
Antonio Meucci (1808 - 1889)
Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci was an Italian inventor, and arguably the first to invent the telephone rather than Alexander Graham Bell... however, he is best known as a voice communication apparatus developer.
Meucci investigated electromagnetic voice communication for many years following his career in Cuba and, in 1856, he succeeded in broadcasting his voice through a wiring setup. He had created a telephone-style piece of equipment in his house so he could communicate with his then very poorly and disabled wife.
Meucci, unfortunately, lacked finances to support his inventions, and A. Graham Bell was granted a patent in 1875 for the same type of device. Meucci didn't give up, though, and continued inventing and designing prototypes throughout the rest of his life, achieving patents including candle moulds, a lamp burner, a hygrometer and a method of testing milk.
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.
Italian Writers and Poets
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
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.
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!
Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)
Michelangelo was a Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet and artist.
In 1488, Michelangelo became an apprentice to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and his primary artworks were in the form of sculpture. In 1505, he was summoned back to Rome by Pope Julius II in order to design Julius' own tomb. Things didn't work out but Michelangelo did produce a sculpture of Moses for the tomb. Michelangelo's next major commission was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (1508-1512), which made him rise in popularity and what has made him most famous until this day.
Michelangelo additionally designed monuments to Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici in the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo.
In 1534, the artist returned to Rome once again where he was asked to paint 'The Last Judgement' on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel (1537-1541). The following decade, however, he was increasingly active as an architect as opposed to a creative painter.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
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.
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.
Italian Musicians And Composers
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
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.
Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)
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.
Andrea Bocelli (1958 - )
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.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)
Giuseppe Verdi was a leading Italian composer of opera in the 19th century, best known for operas such as Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), La traviata (1853), Don Carlos (1867), Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893) and for his Requiem Mass (1874).
Verdi first showed promise with his musicality at a young age and started studying musical composition before getting his first big break in 1833 after he was hired to conduct at the Philharmonic Society in Busseto.
After a number of family tragedies and unsuccessful operas, Verdi eventually became known for his skill in creating melodies and his use of grand theatrical effects. His move away from the traditional Italian opera style subsequently added to his fame. For the rest of the 1840s, and up until the 1870s, Verdi continued to rise in success and fame.
Despite the retirement plans he had, in the mid-1880s, Verdi collaborated with composer and novelist Arrigo Boito to complete Otello, based on Shakespeare's 'Othello'. It was initially met with high acclaim throughout Europe, and continues to be regarded as one of the greatest operas of all time even to this day.
Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)
Giacomo Puccini was, and remains, one of opera’s most popular composers. His operas are famous worldwide because of the high levels of drama brought into their plots, for their fantastic melodies and for the wealth of great roles they provide to singers looking to perform on stage.
Puccini was born to a family of church musicians and moved to Milan in 1880 to study at the Milan Conservatory. As a student, he attended many performances at La Scala. Puccini completed his first opera, the one-act 'Le villi', for the Sonzogno Competition; which was rejected by the judges but went on to premiere in 1884 with much success. His second opera, Edgar (1889) was, unfortunately, a failure, but third work (and first mature work) brought him back on track.
While completing Manon Lescaut, Puccini joined librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, and the threesome wrote Puccini's three greatest operas: La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904). Following the death of Giacosa in 1906, however, Puccini struggled to find inspiration. He continued to create impressive works all the same.
In his last years, Puccini began work on his final opera Turandot, set in ancient China, but sadly never completed the final act as he died of throat cancer. The opera was later completed by Franco Alfano and premiered two years after Puccini's death.
Giorgio Armani (1934 - )
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.
Monica Bellucci (1964 - )
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.
Sophia Loren (1934 - )
Sophia Loren is an Academy Award-winning Italian actress, now aged 84. Known for her striking beauty, Loren is often listed among the world's all-time most attractive women in polls and charts across the world.
Loren was born in Rome in 1934 and raised in poverty. She first began her film career as a teenager and quickly came to be regarded as one of the most beautiful women of all time. She won the Best Actress Academy Award for the film 'Two Women' in 1961 and an Academy Honorary Award in 1991. Some of the movies she was known for are: 'Aida,' 'The Gold of Naples', 'The Pride and the Passion', 'Two Women', 'Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow', and 'Marriage, Italian Style'.
Loren continued to star in Italian, American and French films throughout the 1960s.
Loren returned to her home country during the 1980s to spend more time with her family, which now included two teenage sons. During this time of less intense screening, she also launched her own perfume followed by a make up line and then a book.
Loren has aged gracefully, retaining her youthful glow and hourglass physique and continues to attend red carpet events.
Francesco Totti (1976 - )
Francesco Totti is an Italian footballer who was born in Rome in 1976. He spent his entire playing career at Roma.
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 (1979 - )
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.
Celebrities Residing In Italy
If it isn't enough that Italy has produced such a long list of famous personalities across the centuries, the boot-shaped European country also welcomes a number of modern-day celebrities in its various charming cities.
One of the biggest benefits of becoming a star is no doubt the money that comes with it... and what better way to spend those big bucks than on property in a place you love? Even though it may not be their principal home because of work commitments, many popular celebs of our time choose to have a residence in Italy so that they can enjoy the perks that the country offers - good weather, great food and lovely people (among other things).
Among those lovers of Italian culture is George Clooney, who lives in a large 30-bedroom address in Lake Como. While his house is huge, he does spend four months of the year in it. However, this isn't even his only home in Lake Como! When he first bought the mansion villa, it needed lots of renovation work so he bought the plot next door too in order to keep a close eye on the work.
On a similar scale of celebrity status. Brad Pitt is another Hollywood hearthrob actor who owned a home in Italy. He and ex-wife Angeline Jolie bought a large property in Valpolicella, but it is unknown if they still have the property since their divorce. The 15-bedroom building would have been a fantastic property for them and their six children when they lived there.
Donatella Versace, meanwhile, has opted for city life and owns a two storey apartment in the heart of Milan, the perfect location for someone working in the fashion industry.
English singer, Sting, has also jumped on the bandwagon and purchased a large, period property in Tuscany. The nine-bedroom house is intended to be an investment, among other properties across the globe, for his children to inherit as he feels that a large sum of money would be too overwhelming (Sting is listed as one of the top ten highest earning musicians in Britain).
Helen Mirren, UK actress, has renovated an old property in Salento. When she bought it, it was an abandoned 500-year-old rustic building but she has transformed it into a stunning home, surrounded by a vineyard, rose bushes, and olive groves.
World-famous musician, Madonna, has also made her love for Italy well-known and bought a two-story apartment in Verona during the peak of her career as her Italy base.
Last, but not least, Leonardo DiCaprio (whose father is Italian), purchased a home in Verona, where his most famous movie Romeo and Juliet was set. Not his only home, he chose an apartment overlooking the city for when he travels through Europe.
Of course, there are many more celebrities and important famous figures who have chosen to spend their money on property in Italy, along with numerous other stars who regularly visit and praise the country for its unique beauty and culture.