"Where have all the bambini gone?"

That is the question many Italians' are asking themselves following the recent publication of new statistics revealing what has been termed a "historic" drop in Italy's once-burgeoning birthrate.

That is the lowest figure in the country's history as a modern state. In 1961, when Italy was unified, there were about 38 births to 1,000 inhabitants.

Population experts point out that a declining birthrate is a phenomenon that occurs in all advanced industrial societies as couples acquire more control over over their patterns of procreation. The current U.S. birthrate is about 15 per thousand compared with 10 in West Germany, 12 in Britain and 14 in France.

With other recently released figures indicating that marriage is also in sharp decline, sociologists are convinced that this once strongly traditional society is undergoing some fundamental changes.

The decline in the Italian birthrate has been steady through this century. In the period from 1900 to 1904, it was 32.6 per thousand. From 1930 to 1934, it was 24.5, and from 1960 to 1964, 18.9. The trend has puzzled Italians used to thinking of Italy as a "young" country.

Sociologist Massimi Livi Bacci of Florence University says there are four very logical reasons for the shrinking Italian birthrate. The grad-usual spread of birth control practices, a growing preference among Italians for small families, and the current economic recession play a sizeable role, he says. The rest can be explained by the declining attractions of motherhood to Italy's increasingly liberated women.

There is no way of documenting the number of abortions - all illegal - performed here each year, but some estimates put them near the number of births.

For those accustomed to seeing their country as a place where wedding bells took precedence over premarital sex and non-conformist living arrangements, the decline in the marriage rate to 6.3 per thousand inhabitants has also come as a shock.

The only even comparable periods were during the war years of the yearly 1940s and during the Great Depression, according to a spokesman for the Central Statistics Institute.

"Clearly there are economic factors at work here," he said.

Since moral standards are also rapidly changing, however, it may be that the decline in the marriage rate is in part due to the fact that the traditional family model has lost a lot of its credibility.

"The institution of marriage is in crisis because of the changes in male-female relationship, writer Dacia Maraini says.

Although the Italian feminist movement is still relatively young, it has contributed to "the most violent attack on the family of this century," Maraini said.

Marco Lombardo Radice, the young co-author of the controversial pornographic best-seller, Pigs With Wings, says the sky-high rents in Italy's big cities also are affecting young peopel's social lives.

"Many young people can't afford to get their own place so they live at home and have steady relationships that don't turn into marriages," he said.

Last year only 781,570 babies were born here, leading some economists to call for changes in economic policy appropriate for a society that is expected in the year 2001 to have a population in which 22.4 per cent is over 60.

"We're going to have to stop worrying about nursery schools and start concentrating on old age homes," one economist said.

About a third of Italy's 56 million inhabitants is now under 20 years of age. A quarter of a century ago those under 20 made up 40 per cent of the population.

The "greying" of Italy also means that the Italian population is now approaching zero growth. The figures released by the Central Statistics Institute show that while births continue to outnumber deaths in the more traditional Italian south, there are currently more deaths than births in five Italian regions.