Italians cherish their past and have zealously unearthed and preserved countless archaeological treasures -- Pompeii being perhaps the best-known site. Ligurians, Illyrians and ancient Italics were among the first settlers of the boot-shaped peninsula. Centuries later, traders from present-day Lebanon, Greece and Northern Africa arrived in southern Italy. Their ancient conical dwellings remain on the island of Sardinia, a popular cruise stop noted for its windswept beaches, rugged cliffs and panoramic sea views.

Italy’s most famous early inhabitants were the Etruscans, who predated the Romans and birthed a sophisticated civilization in Tuscany that lasted for more than five centuries. The Etruscans were known for their underground tombs and elegant artwork, and many important Etruscan art treasures -- from bronze sculptures to elaborate jewelry -- can be seen at the National Etruscan Museum in Rome.

When Rome became a republic in 510 B.C., its citizens left an indelible mark, most notably the largest amphitheater in the world, the Colosseum, which was capable of hosting 50,000 spectators for gladiator fights, mock battles and animal hunts. Walled within Rome is the landlocked sovereign city-state, Vatican City, where the head of the Catholic Church, the pope, resides.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the spotlight turned away from Rome to Florence, a city widely known for its elegant architecture. Many artists and scholars spread their influence throughout Europe from this historic center, which contains numerous piazzas, monasteries, parks, art galleries and museums. From music and medicine to cuisine and art, Florence was the birthplace or home of such notable figures as “Inferno” author Dante, scientist and artist Leonardo da Vinci, painter Botticelli, astronomer Galileo, author Niccolo Machiavelli, sculptor and painter Michelangelo and royal power broker Catherine de’Medici.

But in modern-day Italy, it’s the artists of the catwalk who command the most attention, with designers like Salvatore Ferragamo, Roberto Cavalli, Emilio Pucci, Miuccia Prada and Guccio Gucci influencing the fashionista world.

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