The Final Glory Of The Italian Line
Ocean Liners Italian Style 1965-1975
The Italian Line was responsible for commissioning two of the last purpose built ocean liners. SS Michelangelo and SS Raffaello were designed with the modern flair of the Nineteen Sixties and sailed between Genoa, Italy and New York. But the era also saw the growth of jet air travel, with which no ship could compete. That these two sisters even had the short careers that they did was due to subsidy by the Italian government.
They are worth remembering because of their beauty and style. They were swan song actors, too late in the age of steam powered ocean liners; their hulls appropriately painted white. They had very distinctive profiles, sleek and sharp, with an unusual arrangement of two funnels, aft of center and like elaborate cooling towers on some sort of science fiction nuclear reactors. This feature was ahead of it’s time and has been refined into the design of the funnels on modern ships.
SS Rex and SS Conte di Savoia, dictated by the ambitions of Il Duce, were intended to make Italy competitive on the sea, in line with his many grand dreams. Rex, designed as the faster of the two, won the Blue Riband in 1932 but soon lost it to the super-ship of the age, Normandie. Conte di Savoia was styled as the more luxurious of the two.
Two ships were commissioned with a post war subsidy. The Andrea Doria first sailed the Atlantic in the winter of 1953. Her sister Cristoforo Colombo launched a year later. They were nearly identical at more than 29,000 tons. The Andrea Doria has the most lingering fame of all the Italian liners, notoriously sinking after being struck by the Swedish American Line’s MS Stockholm in fog, July 25, 1956. She lies off the coast of Nantucket, having attracted intrepid divers for decades, collapsing slowly into the seabed due to corrosion and snagged fishing nets.
The replacement for Andrea Doria was the 33,000 ton Leonardo Da Vinci, featuring lifeboat mounts that allowed them to be lowered with up to 25 degrees of list, a lesson learned from the slowly capsizing Andrea Doria. She bridged the technology gap between the older ships and Michelangelo and Raffaello.
In 1958 the Italian Line started to plan for a pair of super-ships. They would have a three class layout specifically for regularly scheduled passage between Genoa and New York. The capacity, including the crew, was 2500 souls. They were built almost concurrently by two separate shipyards. Both were 900 feet in length and 45,000 tons, with thirty lounges and a theater with almost 500 seats each, 760 cabins and 18 elevators.
The funnel design became a trademark. Some thought they were horrible but they were effective in dispersing smoke and engine fumes. The lattice structure allowed airflow to pass through, a feature that has become a standard on modern cruise liners.
SS Michelangelo was built at Genoa Sestri shipyards, from start to finish she took five years to complete and entered service from Genoa in April 1965. In the spring of 1966, during a stormy crossing to New York, a rogue wave hit her headlong, caving in the front of the upper structure below the bridge. Two passengers were lost, swept out to sea and a crew member died later of their injuries. As a result of the incident her aluminum plating that had given way was replaced with steel, not just on Michelangelo but also on her sister ship and many of the other competing liners such as the SS United States.
She continued in service without further incident but passenger numbers declined along with all of the other liners. There was just no competing with jet airliners, particularly after the introduction of the 747. There was a halfhearted attempt to operate cruises but many of her features worked against her. Her cabins were small and lacked windows and the three class layout. Michelangelo was finally withdrawn from service in 1975 and sold to the Shah of Iran, whose shipping plans were thwarted by the Iranian revolution. She spent fifteen years at Bandar Abbas and was finally scrapped in Pakistan in 1995.
Raffaello: Futuristic Style
At twenty two tons heavier than her sister and slightly longer by a few feet, SS Raffaello was built by Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico in Trieste. She had a relatively uneventful life compared to Michelangelo, with minor mechanical problems that caused delays on several trips.
Raffaello had a unique and modernistic interior design that was a vision of the future, not out of place in a modern boutique hotel. She represented the finest that Italian design had to offer in the nineteen sixties. Lines were minimalist, evocative of art deco style of many of the great liners. A chic but sleek and sterile “space age” look, with polished metal, cool blues and hardwood paneling. To travel on this ship would have been a marvelous experience that is lost to the hassled modern traveler.
Sadly, she shared the same fate of her sister, being sold to Iran in 1975 and was sunk by a torpedo, just offshore of Bushehr in the Persian gulf in 1983.
Michelangelo is long gone and the wreck of Raffaello still lies just below the surface where she sank. Like too many other ships of the mid twentieth century they made statements of romance, taste, national pride and subsidies, yet they were rapidly superseded by the much more economically efficient airliners. There are few institutions that could oversee such beautiful ships as museums. That is the only long term way to save the remaining few ocean liners: they must be curated to preserve the history of the era, whether by grant (unlikely to provide more than partial funding) or by paying their ways as fixed hotels.
The super-liners, from the Cunard Queens and Normandie to SS United States and these two sisters of the Italian Line, had interior spaces in the hundreds of thousands of square feet, the size of a large skyscraper. Not many places have a need for such things on their waterfronts. Operation as cruise ship conversions has had limited success but cannot be competitive in cost or service with the huge modern cruise ships.
So, all of these ships are legends, romantic stories, now from a past age. Easily forgotten because such vessels are no longer a dedicated mode of passenger travel. It is because they were once a significant transportation mode, highly valued and central to the pride of their nations that all these liners of the ocean, and specifically these two beautiful Italian Sisters, should be remembered.
Project Michelangelo (2011). http://www.michelangelo-raffaello.com/english_site/en/en.htm.
Wikipedia (2012). SS Michelangelo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Michelangelo.
Wikipedia (2012). SS Raffaello. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Raffaello.