Project Manager at Vestas, former Design Manager at Longines
Thatís a great question! I have lived in Italy for 7 years and regularly visited other European countries, but none compares to the blend that the Italian Peninsula offers.
The peninsula probably has a history of making great stuff because the stars were aligned: it benefitted from access, clientele, linearity, expertise and culture.
The geographical location between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea made the peninsula a trading gateway between continental Europe and the rest of the known world.
The Ancient Silk Road, image source: Silk Road Festival
This allowed the peninsula to have access to numerous raw materials that were highly sought. In the process, the merchants that handled the import and export were able to build up wealth.
Ancient Silk Road Trade
CLIENTELE AND LINEARITY
The nobility, this rising upper class and the Church were all in demand of fine goods. It was similar in France, but the Revolution led to the nobility being hunted down and to most of France taking an anticlerical stance.
In comparison, the Italian Peninsula has been unified into the modern day Italian republic without rejecting tradition like France did.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, the countryís unifier. If you are using a GPS and want to head to a cityís most central point, just type in Piazza Garibaldi (Garibaldi square). Every town has one.
Italy was under dictatorship before and during WWII, but the country ultimately benefitted from being overtaken by the allies and being transferred to their side.
Spain and Portugal had a similar alignment of stars, but they remained under a dictatorship after WWII, which set their industry backwards.
The aforementioned access to highly sought raw material and patronage from the nobility and the church fostered a local industry.
Image via Milan Design Agenda: The Most Exquisite Italian Craftsmanship the world has seen
To this day, the majority of the Italian economy (which ranks 8th amongst the most productive countries) is highly diversified and mostly consists of family owned businesses.
Image source: Nuvolab seminar for Accelmed 2014: "Doing Business in Italy"
This logic is a bit flawed because being featured on the World Heritage is more procedural than quantitative: Italy doesnít have more items nominated because they have more items in absolute. They have more items nominated because they are the most busy getting them nominated (World Heritage List Nominations).
Other countries also have plenty of World Heritage material. Itís just that they arenít so obsessed with getting them nominatedÖ which precisely serves to outline how Italians are measurably more concerned than other cultures with beauty and Art.
As a consequence, the average Italian pays a lot of attention to etiquette. The concept goes back to Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), published in 1528. The average Italian also pays a lot of attention to attire. If youíve visited Milan, you will have been subjected to a visual scan by the locals, from head to toes. Not being well dressed is frowned upon.
Image source: Milan Fashion Campus. A man is allowed to wear a flamboyant pink suit, like the gentleman in second place on the left, without implications about sexual orientation. Milanese will not conclude that he is either gay or a pimp: they will simply acknowledge that he has a bold sense of style and leave it at that.
Italians identify first in terms of commune of origin, province of origin and ultimately as a patchwork nation. There is a sense of belonging and a healthy sense of pride about the national symbol, similar to the one found in the USA or in Sweden.
There is no shame in ostentation like one can find it in the Protestant faith and there is no anti-clericalism like in France. In the modern day Italian culture, if someone wants to be surrounded by beautiful stuff, there is no cultural taboo to prevent them from doing it.
The historic access to fine materials, the support of a local industry by the elite and the Church, a traditional appreciation and this unmitigated demand for good stuff have combined to keep the Italian industry going.