Official figures released earlier this week show just 177 pupils studied Italian at Higher in 2012 – a 22% decline on the previous year, when 227 studied the subject.
The figure represents the lowest number of pupils taking the subject since 2000, when the new Highers were introduced.
In sharp contrast, the number of pupils studying French has increased by nearly 8% since 2011, with 4688 now sitting the subject.
The study of Spanish has also never been more popular, with a 6.3% increase in candidates taking the Higher in 2012 compared to the previous year – up from 1498 to 1593.
The demise of Italian has been met with concern from language specialists and those within the Scottish Italian community.
Ronnie Convery, secretary of CoCais, the umbrella body for Italian Associations in Scotland, described the figures as a "major pity".
"The Italian community in Scotland is large and interest in keeping the language alive is strong, not only from within the community, but from outside it," he said.
"Italian remains the language of art and music, it is now de facto the language of the Catholic Church, and its literature – from Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio to Machiavelli – is widely studied to this day.
"It is a language which Scots in particular seem to find quite easy to pick up and, even for the tourist enchanted by Italy's beauty, it is something that we want to see survive."
Dan Tierney, reader in language education at Strathclyde University also expressed his disappointment at the decline.
He blames the reduction in language teaching in Scottish schools, which has led to pupils taking one language, rather than two – a practice that has also hit the study of German.
"Italian is suffering in the same way that German has suffered from the reduction in double-language study at school level," he said.
"Those double-school linguists would go on to become the teachers of German or Italian in the future, but with most students now going up to university with one language, many opt for the ever popular Spanish.
"There is a bit of a spiral of decline in that we are producing fewer teachers of Italian."
Tierney also believes Italian has suffered because it has failed to cross the "religious divide" from Catholic schools to non-denominational schools.
"Spanish used to be taught in Roman Catholic schools, but has become much more common now in non-denominational schools, but Italian has not made that leap," he said.
"Italian is a great language to learn, its sound system presents no problems for young Scots, it has a rich culture and, of course, there is a large Italian Scottish population. There must be every effort made to reverse the decline."
In wider Scottish society, the Italian Government has shown a willingness to support the language and, through the Cultural Institute in Edinburgh, funds formal language courses which are internationally credited.
At a more local level, the Centro Promozione Italiana in Edinburgh runs a series of classes from children and adults across the country at subsidised rates.
University academics believe the subject still has a strong future – although there are fears the drop in pupil numbers could have an impact soon.
Professor Federica Pedriali, head of Italian at Edinburgh University, also said the subject was often under-resourced at universities, with fewer members of staff than other languages.
"Our provision here has been very stable and we have over 300 students, which shows Italian is holding is own in the university sector.
"It combines extremely well with other subjects because of students studying the arts, music, fashion, business, politics and history when the language becomes relevant to them.
"Unfortunately, there has not been investment in Italian at secondary school and it is not prioritised, but when pupils get older they do pick it.
"What puts a hold on our development is the staffing issue at university and that does not help the subject project back to the secondary school sector.
"The school figures are worrying because it means we do not have a base and we need to work very hard to encourage those who come to university."
THE first wave of Italian immigrants came to Scotland in the 19th century seeking an escape from harsh living conditions in their homeland. From marginalised beginnings and periods of oppression, in particular during the second world war when many were interned as enemy aliens owing to Italy's support for Nazi Germany, the Italian community grew to be a vibrant and successful part of Scottish society by the end of the 20th century.
In the 1800s, Italy was a poor country with an agricultural economy prone to drought and famine in contrast with other European states such as the UK, which were advancing rapidly on a tide of industrialisation. The escape route for many young Italians was emigration to these wealthier countries.
Italians in Scotland initially eked out a living as itinerant peddlers, but their foothold became stronger when they established themselves in working-class urban areas selling ice cream and fish and chips from barrows and stalls.
The early 20th century was a time of rapid progress, with successful entrepreneurs paying the passage of younger Italians to come over and work for them. By the outbreak of the first world war, there were well over 300 Italian cafes and takeaways in Glasgow alone, and Italians were opening premises across the country.
The families running these establishments became wealthier, and by the 1930s, luxury tea rooms and delicatessens had been established such as Nardini's in Largs and Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh – not to mention a College of Italian Hairdressers in Glasgow.
Source: The Herald Scotland