The final glory of the Italian line
Italian Line was responsible for the construction of two of the last specially built ocean liners. SS Michelangelo and SS Raffaello were built in contemporary 1960s style to sail between the Mediterranean and New York. But the era also saw the rise of jet travel, against which no ocean liner could compete. The fact that these two sister ships had the short races they did was due to national pride and a large subsidy from the Italian government.
They are worth considering for their beauty and style. They were the actors of the swan song in the age of the steam liners; their helmets appropriately decorated in white. They had very striking, streamlined and sharp profiles. They had an unusual two-funnel arrangement, aft of center and like the elaborate cooling towers of some kind of science fiction atomic power plant. This feature was advanced for the time being and work has been done on funnel design on ships today.
History of the Italian line
The SS Rex and SS Conte di Savoia dictated by Il Duce were expected to make Italy competitive at sea, in line with its many great aspirations. Rex, who intended to be the faster of the two, won the Blue Riband in 1932 but quickly lost it to the super ship of the time, The French Line’s SS Normandie. Conte di Savoia was designed as the more luxurious of the two.
The first ships commissioned with a post-war subsidy: the Andrea Doria sailed for the first time across the Atlantic in the winter of 1953. Her sister Cristoforo Colombo sailed a year later. The two were nearly identical at over 29,000 tons. The Andrea Doria has the most persistent fame of all Italian ocean liners, notoriously sinking after being struck by the Swedish American Line’s MS Stockholm in the fog on July 25, 1956. It is found off the coast of Nantucket, having attracted several bold over the years, slowly collapsing towards the seafloor due to corrosion and hooked fishing nets.
Andrea Doria’s replacement was the 33,000-ton SS Leonardo Da Vinci, with lifeboat mounts that allowed them to be lowered with up to 25 degrees of heel. A lesson learned from Andrea Doria who is slowly reeling. Leonardo Da Vinci bridged the technological gap between the older ships and Michelangelo and Raffaello.
In 1958, the Italian Line began planning a pair of super ships. They would have a three-class design especially for the frequently scheduled transit between Genoa and New York. The capacity, including the crew, was 2,500 souls. They were built almost simultaneously by two separate shipyards. Both were 900 feet long and 45,000 tons, with thirty rooms 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 at dispersing engine smoke and fumes. The grille construction allowed airflow to pass through, a feature that has become the norm on modern cruisers.
Michelangelo: Storm Rider
Manufactured in the Genoa Sestri shipyards, it took five years to complete from start to finish and entered service from Genoa in April 1965. In the spring of 1966, during a stormy crossing to New York, a rogue wave struck her head-on and collapsed at the front. of the upper structure under the bridge. Two passengers were lost, washed out to sea, and one crew member later died of his injuries. As a result of the incident, the crumpled aluminum cladding was exchanged for steel, not only on the Michelangelo, but also on her sister ship and many of the other rival ocean liners, including the SS United States.
It continued in service without another incident, but the number of passengers decreased along with all other ocean liners. You just couldn’t take jets, particularly after the introduction of the 747. There was a lackluster attempt at operating cruise ships, but many of its features worked against it. Their cabins were small and windowless and divided into three classes.
Michelangelo was finally withdrawn from service in 1975 and sold to the Shah of Iran, whose shipping plans were thwarted by the Iranian revolution. He spent fifteen years in Bandar Abbas and finally broke up in Pakistan in 1995.
Raffaello: futuristic style, old-fashioned mode of transport
At twenty-two tons larger than its sister and slightly longer, Raffaello was built by Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico in Trieste. He had a relatively quiet life compared to Michelangelo, with minor engine problems causing delays on some trips.
Raffaello had unique, modernist decor that was a vision of the future that probably wouldn’t be out of place in a modern boutique hotel. It showcased the best that Italian design had to offer in the 1960s. The lines were minimalist, reminiscent of the art deco style of many of the great eyeliners. A sleek yet elegant and antiseptic “space age” look with polished metal, cool blues, and hardwood paneling. Traveling on this ship would have been a wonderful experience to be missed for the modern traveler in a hurry.
Sadly, it shared the same fate of being sold to Iran in 1975 and was sunk by a torpedo, off the coast of Bushehr in the Persian Gulf in 1983.
Remembering a bygone era
Michelangelo is long gone and the Raffaello wreck still rests just below the surface where it sank. Like most other ships of the mid-20th century, they made declarations of romance, taste, national pride, and subsidies, but were quickly displaced by the more financially efficient airliners. There are few organizations that can monitor ships as beautiful as museums. That’s the only lasting way to save the few remaining ocean liners – they must be selected as hotels to preserve the history of the time, either through a grant (unlikely to provide more than partial funding) or by paying for their travel as fixed hotels.
The super-ocean liners, from Cunard Queens and SS Normandie to SS United States and The Sisters of the Italian Line, had interior spaces of hundreds of thousands of square feet, the size of a large skyscraper. Not many places need such things on their water fronts. Operation as cruise ship conversions has had limited success, but may not be very competitive in cost or service with modern huge cruise ships.
So all these ships are a story, a romantic story from a bygone era now. It is easily lost because these ships are no longer used as an exclusive mode of passenger travel. Because they were once an important, highly valued, and central means of transportation to the pride of their nations, all these ocean liners, and specifically these two beautiful Italian Sisters, must be remembered.