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Saturnia e Vulcania

Digital Exhibition



In 1852 Antonio Felice, Gaspare and Marco Cosulich, brothers from the island of Lussino, began their family’s shipowning activities, purchasing the sailing ships Gloria and Marco (built in Trieste a decade earlier) and ordering from a yard in Rijeka a slightly larger brig, the Elena Cosulich, named after their mother. In 1889, Alberto, Callisto, Fausto and Marco, sons of Antonio Felice, entered the family business and, upon the suggestion of their father, moved to Trieste, the then booming emporium of the Habsburg Empire. It was here, at the same time, that they bought their first steamer, also named Elena Cosulich, which was to be followed by another 14, used mainly for tramping activities. 1901 was an important year for the family; they took control of the Austro-Americana shipping company, which had been founded in 1894 by three foreign forwarders who intended to start a regular cargo line between the Adriatic Sea, North America and the Gulf of Mexico. Despite being aware of the presence in Trieste of important foreign shipping companies which were carrying migrants, the Cosulich fitted some limited steerage accommodation in their ship Gerty which, on 9 April 1904, set sail for New York. This was the first regular transatlantic crossing with passengers performed by the company, which would soon achieve worldwide renown as the Cosulich Line.

The fleet expanded quickly, not only in terms of the number of vessels but also in terms of their quality; in 1908 the brand new Martha Washington arrived from her builders in Glasgow and she was their first two-stacker and their first with a luxurious First Class. The Martha Washington was to be the last Cosulich ship built abroad; in the same year, the family inaugurated their Monfalcone shipyard where, on 9 September 1911, the Kaiser Franz Joseph I was launched. At 12,500 gross tons, she was the largest, most modern and best-appointed transatlantic liner yet built in the Mediterranean.

The Cosulich Line was officially closed at the end of 1936 and, from 1 January 1937, its fleet became part of the Italian Line of Genoa, which now included their sister flagships Saturnia and Vulcania.



During the tormented period of the design of Saturnia and Vulcania, one of the most interesting aspects was the search for an original aesthetic solution to make the new motorships immediately recognisable from the traditional steamers which were generally fitted with more than one tall, thin funnel. The funnel is one of the most distinguishing features of a ship and for Saturnia and Vulcania several alternative shapes were considered; possibly the most curious of which was a scale reproduction of the Eiffel Tower, a lattice-work structure not much different from the funnels which, approximately 40 years later made their debut on Michelangelo and Raffaello. According to Antonio Nicolò Cosulich, chairman of the group, this mini-Eiffel Tower would have given the vessels a static appearance and the idea was abandoned together with that of fitting a flight deck to allow the mails and a small number of privileged guests, to leave the ship by plane one day before her arrival in port.

The final result was, however, a very attractive and balanced profile, thanks to the ample, low funnel positioned at the centre of the upperworks.

The general design of the sisterships was the work of Carlo Gerolimich, at the time technical director of the Monfalcone shipyard, and of Nicolò Cossevich who, a few years later, changed his family name to Costanzi. He was to become one of the most renowned and prolific designers of ocean liners, famed both in Italy and abroad for his innovations, both technical and aesthetic.

The hull of the Saturnia was built in the record time of 6 months, from May to December 1925. Despite this initial record, the building was marred by continual problems and delays, above all in the fitting of the two huge Burmeister & Wain oil engines built by the Trieste-based Fabbrica Macchine Sant Andrea; the Saturnia was ready only in September 1927 and the Vulcania, laid down in December 1925, was completed three years later.



In July 1925 the well-known Trieste architect Arduino Berlam (1880-1946) published in the magazine “L’Ingegneria” an interesting essay entitled ‘Architecture Onboard, a study of the method of decorating passenger ships’ which attracted the attention of Alberto Cosulich, who entrusted him with the coordination of the interior furnishing of the new vessels. Berlam supported the idea that for a ship it was necessary to find a new architectural language, different from that used for an onshore building. Until then the furnishing of an ocean liner had been inspired by historical styles, with all the magniloquence of the palaces of the upper class, indissolubly bound to the décor of the fin de siècle.

The many important houses involved in marine furnishing at that time generally developed the designer’s concept and their scope of work was usually limited to covering and hiding the ship’s structures. The intent was to disguise the rooms so that the passenger could live the dream of being ashore, in a castle or a famous grand hotel. The competition to furnish the new liners was won by a few well known British and Austrian companies and by the Coppedè brothers of Florence, all of whom were far from having any innovative intent. Other architects involved in the design of Saturnia and Vulcania were Gustavo Pulitzer Finali of Trieste and Gaetano Moretti of Milan. Berlam’s work in First Class was limited to its cabins, but he entirely designed the Second, Second Economic and Third Classes.

The old fashioned First Class lounges were met with ferocious criticism; the interiors did not echo the boldness displayed by the designers of the exteriors of the ships. .

In the mid ’Thirties both ships were re-engined in Monfalcone and during that time Pulitzer Finali totally re-designed several of the most important public spaces.


Saturnia e Vulcania Posters


The early days of line navigation saw the undisputed supremacy of the steam engine. Originally, these were reciprocating or alternative steam engines which, from the early XX Century onwards were usually replaced by turbines.

Before the Great War a number of small experimental motorships had already entered service but in the ’Twenties it still seemed unthinkable to build a large transatlantic liner with diesel propulsion which could prove competitive with the traditional steamships. Indeed, many people at the time didn’t hesitate to describe the Cosulich intention as crazy.

In 1924, when Saturnia and Vulcania were ordered from the Monfalcone shipyard, Burmeister & Wain were in the process of erecting in their works in Copenhagen two large oil engines for the Swedish liner Gripsholm. The Italian vessels needed higher power owing to their superior size and speed but the Cosulich, who always distinguished themselves by their inventiveness, decided to send their engineers to Denmark to obtain a clear feedback on the new type of propulsion to eventually consider for their liners.

Despite delays and frequent failures, Saturnia and Vulcania undoubtedly became the pioneers of a new era in marine propulsion; the system was much more compact than the steam engines, allowing space for an extra 350 passengers, halving the number of engineers to 45 and, above all, reducing the total load of fuel to 2300 tonnes; the Cosulich liners’ consumption was only one third of that needed by a steamship to obtain the same service speed. Last but not least, the fumes produced were much less than with the traditional system, consistently reducing the amount of soot falling onto the open decks, crowded with passengers on sunny days.



Few grand hotels ashore could equal the extraordinary organisation of a great ocean liner; in the upper class the service which was offered was mixed, “à table d’hôtel” and “à la grande carte”. A daily menu on Saturnia and Vulcania consisted of 10 entrées, 6 potages and soups, 2 types of fish, 6 of meat, 4 vegetables, a buffet with 14 cuts of cold meat, 4 salads, 6 deserts (of which at least one was ice cream), 6 cheeses and a variety of fresh fruit; lobsters and fish could be chosen alive from an aquarium.

The “sins of gluttony”, to which passengers were summoned by a gong, defined the guests’ days at sea: breakfast, mid-morning bouillon, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and midnight buffet. To stimulate the appetite and aid the dispersal of calories, there was an array of deck sports and games, the gym and the swimming pool.

Some time could be spent in visiting the florist, the souvenir shop, the photographer or the reading room where, beside numerous books, it was possible to read the daily paper with the latest news just received via radio. The Charleston and the Fox-trot were virtually compulsory all day long, played by the onboard orchestra and alternating with the projection of frequent films.

Between the two World Wars, the tradition and habits of life on board an ocean liner were established to such an extent that they formed a real “style”, the “transatlantic style”: the guests spent endless time chatting, lying on their chaises-longues aligned along the bulkhead of the promenade. If it was windy or a little cold, soft rugs were a great relief. Droves of stewards served tea, coffee, capuccini, hot soups, hot chocolate, pastries, sweet and salty canapes, soft drinks, aperitifs, tonics, amari, champagne (brut, sec, demi-sec) speedily and gracefully from morning to late afternoon.



The Burmeister & Wain engines of Saturnia and Vulcania aroused great interest and debates in the shipping community. Conceived in the mid-’Twenties, these experimental engines offered great advantages but were far from being defect-free. Beside being in need of frequent ordinary and extraordinary maintenance, in less than a decade they were worn-out to such an extent that their consumption of fuel had increased considerably while their speed had dropped by at least one knot, making both vessels too slow for the North Atlantic run. In 1934 it was decided to re-engine both of them and the order for the new diesels was split between the Fabbrica Macchine Sant Andrea of Trieste and the Fiat Grandi Motori of Turin. Thanks to their 19,000 BHP each (2000 more than the previous ones) the new oil engines brought about an increase in the service speed from 18 to 21 knots. The friction of the hull shape was also improved thanks to the installation of a new bulbous stem.

The Vulcania was the first of the two to undergo the works, carried out at Monfalcone between May and December 1935, to be then immediately followed by the Saturnia, which was ready in August 1936. During these months at their builder’s yard, many of the interiors were lightened and modernised by Gustavo Pulitzer Finali in a more contemporary style. In particular, the Second Economic and the Third Class were merged to become a quite modern and attractive Tourist Class; these modifications brought about some alterations to the exterior appearance of the ships, with the extension of the superstructure aft and the creation of an open-air lido with a swimming pool. On the Saturnia only, the funnel top was modified by inserting a large flap at the forward end.

After this upgrade, Saturnia and Vulcania became ideal ships for cruising and, indeed, obtained a loyal public of American followers.



In 1935 Saturnia and Vulcania took part in Mussolini’s plan to invade Abyssinia, ferrying thousands of troops and colonists to Somalia and Eritrea; it was a preview of what the two liners would face during the forthcoming Second World War. When the hostilities broke out in September 1939, Italy remained neutral for a few more months and its liners remained among the few to link Europe to America. Thousands of US citizens trapped in Europe by the War and of Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany made for Italian ports to sail to safety. With neutrality markings painted on both sides (huge Italian tricolores), Saturnia and Vulcania continued to ply the North Atlantic route despite the continuous blockades by British and French navy vessels searching for goods to seize and for German men of military age.

On board the Italian liners, the racial laws proclaimed by the Duce were never applied; on the contrary, when the hostilities started, rabbis and Kosher cooks were embarked to give comfort to the Jewish passengers.

Between April 1942 and August 1943, Saturnia and Vulcania, together with the Giulio Cesare and Duilio, took part in three extraordinary voyages along the African coasts, organised by the International Red Cross, to repatriate the Italian civilians of the East Africa colonies now in British hands. After the Italian armistice of September 1943, the Saturnia managed to escape from Trieste and to head south in order to join the Allied forces and eventually became their hospital ship Frances Y. Slanger, repatriating thousands of wounded soldiers to North America. At the time of the Armistice, the Vulcania was seized by the Germans and remained laid up in Venice, where she was slightly damaged during a bombing raid. At the end of the War, in September 1945 the Vulcania rejoined her sister to repatriate American troops from the European front and to carry war brides and their children to their new lives. On 15 November 1946 both ships were formally returned to Italy.



On 20 January 1947 Saturnia, amidst great jubilation, re-opened the regular service between Genoa, Naples and New York. Meanwhile, Vulcania completed two voyages for the Italian government to repatriate 10,000 prisoners of war from the former Italian colonies in Africa before being refurbished in Genoa by Officine Allestimento e Riparazioni Navi under the supervision of the Milanese architect Antonio Cassi Ramelli. On 15 July 1947, Vulcania was also ready to sail on her first commercial crossing, which was to Latin America before re-joining Saturnia from the following 4 September in the North Atlantic expresses service.

Despite their two decades of intense peace and wartime service, Saturnia and Vulcania would remain the Italian queens of the New York line until 1953, when the brand new Andrea Doria entered service, followed a year later by her sistership Cristoforo Colombo. The arrival of these superb new liners and the re-annexation of Trieste to Italy (October 1954), prompted the Italian Line to re-start the Trieste-New York direct route plied by Saturnia and Vulcania before the War.

The first post-War arrival of Vulcania in Trieste on 20 October 1955 (followed by Saturnia on 2 November) were an immense occasion of celebration for the Italian city, with many thousands of people crowding the “Rive”, the “Piazza Unità” and any favourable point to view the event.

The last arrival of Saturnia in Trieste was on 10 April 1965 and for Vulcania on the following 7 May; then, they were laid up at the “Scalo Legnami” wharf and put up for sale. On 30 September 1965, Saturnia was towed away by the tug Vortice to La Spezia to be broken up while, curiously enough, Vulcania found a buyer other than a scrap yard; she had been bought by the Siosa line of the Grimaldi family from Naples and was transformed into the cruise ship Caribia. In this new guise, she continued to sail until 1972 when she went aground off Cannes and, after another two years, she was scrapped in Taiwan.



Saturnia and Vulcania were the only transatlantic liners of the ‘Twenties to survive the Second World War virtually intact. Many of their spaces remained unaltered from the time they entered service until their very end. Surely, this was one of the main reasons why, into the ’Fifties and the ’Sixties, they had so many loyal followers and were the darlings of many nostalgic American guests. For many of them, travel on those vessels was like taking a dive into the past: Saturnia and Vulcania remained a sort of time machine.

Their last departures from New York were quite emotional affairs. On 22 April 1965 Werner Bamberger signed a nice article in “The New York Times” to say good-bye to these two old ladies of the Atlantic and a style of crossing which was close to its final end. “The port of New York said good-by today for the second time within a month to a grand old lady of the Atlantic. Two city fireboats escorted the liner from its berth at West 50th Street to the Statue of Liberty, tossing the 24,496-ton motorship a farewell bouquet of water plumes. It was a sentimental occasion all around as the liner pulled away from Pier 90 with 662 passengers aboard for the final voyage to Trieste.”

“Capt. Silvano Cresciani says in a pre-sailing interview: ‘today is my 56th birthday. It is a sad day for me, since I am about two lose my ship’.

“At the farewell luncheon aboard the Vulcania on Thursday, Antonio Premuda, the Italian Line’s general manager here, described the departure of the two old ships as the passing of an era.

“New times produce new needs – Mr. Premuda said. What was superior 30 years ago is no longer adequate today. He spoke in the ship’s old-fashioned panelled dining room, which in the opinion of most of the guests was far from inadequate”.

Many people who had a special link or love affair with the two liners, took part in their last crossings; there were former soldiers who had crossed on them during the War time, war brides and emigrants who sailed on them to a new life, many repeaters who had spent so much time on board during the Saturnia and Vulcania’s long careers and some of them had even taken part in their maiden voyages.


Saturnia e Vulcania Brochures

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