A complete, systematic description of Italy, in the sense understood by modern geography, would be sought in vain among the writers of the ancient ages, but this also depends on the concept that was then had of geographic science. However, the general features of the configuration of Italy, which make it a geographic individual in itself, are already clearly indicated by Polybius (II, 14-17) and a very broad description can be found in Book V of Geography of Strabo. To it little add, in the field of geography proper, the books of Pliny and Apple and other less authoritative later works. But none of these works organically exposes us the whole complex of the knowledge of the ancients, which, for some elements, such as the relief, were certainly much more advanced than what is obtained from the information that remained. As for the cartographic representations, the only two surviving, that of the Tabula Peutingeriana , and that of Ptolemy’s Geography , both respond to special purposes; then there is probably not even a direct derivation of the Ptolemy map, but only a reconstruction made on the basis of the text, which gives the astronomical elements of about 565 points of Italy (including the islands).
Even in the Middle Ages knowledge was certainly much more developed than appears from the surviving writings, which, in general, are either conducted on classical sources of mediocre value, or consist of fragmentary descriptions and conducted with particular intentions. Good descriptions and also cartographic representations of Italy are found in Arab geographers, especially in Edrisi. The first exact representation of the contours of the peninsula and the islands is due to nautical cartography, a figure which, however, is very early (already in the 14th century) filled also for the internal parts with a wealth of elements (orography, hydrography, situation of the centers ) which demonstrates a more advanced knowledge than what appears from the literature.
According to ALLCOUNTRYLIST.COM, the first general descriptions of Italy appear with Humanism, among which the Illustrated Italy by Flavio Biondo (1453) and the Descriptor of all Italy by Leandro Alberti (1550) stand out; but both are above all works of classical scholarship; the current element, derived from direct observation, although it is not entirely lacking, remains very much in the background. The first impulse to studies and research on the ground comes from lovers of historical geography and topography, aimed at investigating the relics of Latin civilization in situ ; therefore works such as Italia Antiqua and Sicilia Antiqua by Filippo Clüver, who in the years 1617-18 traveled on foot, in the company of Luca Holstenio, the whole peninsula and Sicily following the route of the Roman roads (see clüver; holste), are also of significant importance for the history of geographic knowledge of our country. But the most notable syntheses are still found in the cartographic field: Giacomo Gastaldi’s great map of Italy (1561) shrewdly corrects many of the errors of situation and configuration still dating back to Ptolemy; the “Italia Nuova” by GA Magini (1608) and his Atlas of Italy published posthumously by his son Fabio (1620) mark enormous progress, above all because they already use official topographical works carried out by the governments of the individual Italian states. The commentary accompanying the aforementioned atlas – a synthesis of a much broader geographical description of Italy that was not completed – has, on the other hand, modest value. In the century XVII and in the first half of the XVIII, the figuration of Italy is perfected, above all due to the progress in the rectification of the astronomical elements of position (map of Delisle 1701, map of GB D’Anville and Analyze géographique de l’Italie by the same, 1744); while the general geographical descriptions of Italy, still for the whole XVIII century, have little value, especially as regards the physical picture: it is enough, to be convinced of this, to refer to art. Italy in the great geographical and critical Dictionary of the Bruzen de la Martinière (1768) or the volumes dedicated to Italy in the Italian edition of the great Universal Geography of Büsching (Venice, 1780).
For a scientific study of the relief, the essential basis was missing, the knowledge of altimetry, which even in the century. XVIII is, it can be said, to childhood. But in the second half of that century, even in Italy, precision geodetic operations began and some good topographic maps on a geodetic basis appeared, which also contain increasingly copious and exact altimetric data (some data resulting from the application of the barometer to the measurement of the heights, already in the seventeenth century); between the end of the century. XVIII and the beginning of the XIX there are such topographic maps for almost all the major Italian states (Piedmont, Lombardy-Veneto, Tuscany, the State of the Church, the Kingdom of Naples, etc.).