When we think of the Atlantic crossing of fame and legend, minds most often concentrate on the famous, five to six day ‘shuttle’ service that sailed between ports such as Southampton, Liverpool, Rotterdam and Le Havre, to New York. And, almost inevitably, the names of Cunard, Hapag- Lloyd, Holland America and the French Line, are invoked and cherished like some holy mantra by starry eyed students of those classic old liners.
Perhaps that is partly why the Italian Line gets such relatively little recognition. It was a shotgun marriage, presided over by Mussolini, that forced three rival Italian shipping lines to merge into one large, state subsidised entity. Having supposedly made the trains run on time, the egotistical duce was now determined that the Italian flag would have a prime place on the greatest commercial trade route in the world- the Atlantic crossing to and from New York.
First out of the blocks came two of the greatest and most graceful ocean liners ever to cut salt water. The Rex and the Conte Di Savoia were near sisters of just over 50,000 tons each. With sharp, gracefully raked prows and a pair of staunch, no nonsense funnels, they were the first serious Italian challengers in the platinum chip status stakes.
With incredible interiors modelled on a variety of styles, the two vessels were tagged as ‘the Riviera afloat’ by their owners. But it was in their exterior layout that they were truly different from their cousins from the north.
As most of their voyages sailed from Genoa through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar and then out into the Atlantic, those marvellous Italian maidens spent most of their time sailing in warmer, sunnier climes. And, to cater to the idea of la dolce vita afloat that these ships were meant to exemplify, both the Rex and the Conte Di Savoia boasted on deck swimming pools for each class, surrounded by swathes of open teak sprinkled with table and umbrellas, sun loungers, and served with that quintessentially Italian sense of flair and style. Some of the pools were even surrounded by real sand on deck.
They were a sensational, tragically short lived pair. Briefly, the Rex even took the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. They added a raffish, exotic splash of colour, style and sheer, indolent fun to the idea of what crossing the Atlantic actually meant. Until the outbreak of the war that would ultimately claim both of them, they were a consistently popular choice.
Following Italy’s defeat as part of the Axis powers during World War two, the Italian Line returned to the fray in 1953, with a pair of 29,000 ton twin sisters, the Cristoforo Colombo and the Andrea Doria.
Moderately sized and sumptuously elegant, the two new ships were like sleek, sultry Fiats when compared to the likes of the doughty Cunard Queens, or the restored, heavily powdered ‘ladies of a certain age’ being offered by the French Line. Among other things, they introduced the idea of stepped, exterior lido decks for each class, again featuring outdoor pools and cafes, that would later become a hugely influential model on the first generation of purpose built, full time cruise ships. Each featured a proud, gracefully arced prow and a single, beautifully proportioned funnel that gave them a space age, startlingly modern stance. Those two Italian thoroughbreds were as perfectly elegant as twin charm bracelets and, for a few years, they were hugely popular, often being sold out for months on end in the high summer season.
The tragic loss of the Andrea Doria after a controversial, fog shrouded collision off the coast of Nantucket in July, 1956, left the Italian Line in something of a quandary. Eventually, they decided to replace her with a ship that would be slightly bigger, but externally very similar.
That new ship was the 33,000 ton Leonardo Da Vinci. She arrived in the port of New York for the first time in July of 1960, to an enthusiastic fireboat and helicopter welcome. But even as this latest and loveliest example of Italian flair and taste arrived, passenger numbers on the Atlantic route between northern Europe and the USA were already in free fall, thanks to the speedy fleets of jet airliners that now dominated the commercial trade.
Still, the Italians refused to give up. Travellers from the Mediterranean area tended to be far more sea minded than the people to the north, and thus in 1965- to the sheer incredulity of the maritime industry- there emerged from Genoa not one, but two new identical sister ships, designed exclusively for the Atlantic crossing.
At 45,000 tons each, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello represented the last, triumphant burst of Italian style on the ocean. Painted in bridal white, with gracefully raked prows, terraced lido decks and a pair of cowled, latticed smoke stacks that crowned their superstructures, these two great sister ships were initially very popular indeed, bucking the overall trend of the contracting passenger trade, and often arriving in New York fully booked, even through the mid Sixties.
It could not last. Gradually, the two sisters augmented their falling passenger revenue by offering warm weather cruises. But a lack of private facilities in many of their inner cabins created a huge problem that only a massive rebuilding could remedy.
As they limped into the seventies, the Michelangelo and Raffaello suffered more and more from sudden, wildcat strikes- both on the ships and among the shore side staff- that resulted in them no longer being able to offer anything like a reliable service. This, combined with a catastrophic increase in the price of crude oil in 1974, ultimately doomed them. In their last years, both of the sister ships guzzled Bunker C crude oil as if it was so much cheap chianti.
When the Michelangelo rounded out the final Italian Line sailing in 1975, she was effectively pulling down the shades on what had once been one of the most highly styled, expertly served passenger lines of all time. Among the passengers disembarking on that last crossing was the aged Duchess of Windsor, making a somehow painfully symbolic comment on the sunset falling on the ocean voyage as the world knew it.
The end of the Italian Line, while inevitable in the context of the 1974 OPEC fuel crisis, was also a cause for great sadness, and a large amount of retrospective nostalgia for anyone lucky enough to sail on one of those vanished palazzos on the ocean. As an operator, as an innovator, and as an actual way of travelling life for many over some five decades, the Italian Line deserves the historical courtesy of being remembered.