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The “Società Italia di Navigazione”, better known internationally as the Italian Line, began operations in 1932 and, for many years, remained one of the leading companies linking Europe with the Americas. Some of the most renowned and celebrated liners in the World sailed under its flag: Roma, Augustus, Giulio Cesare, Conte Grande, Conte di Savoia, Rex, Saturnia, Andrea Doria, Cristoforo Colombo, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raffaello... The last two, still well remembered, had the task of closing down for ever the liner service between Genoa and New York in 1975. But when it was at the height of its existence, in the ’Thirties, the Italian Line had a fleet of 680.000 gross tons and ran both passenger and cargo liners in regular services to North and South America, Australia, South Africa and the Italian colonies. When, on the 10th June, 1940, Italy entered the Second World War, the government in Rome “forgot” to inform the Italian merchant ships and as a consequence many of them fell into enemy hands or were sunk. Some of the liners which remained in Italian waters when the hostilities began were used to ferry men and equipment to North Africa, becoming easy targets for enemy submarines and taking thousands of young men to the bottom with them.

By the end of the War, only 95 Italian merchant ships totalling a mere 330,000 tons remained afloat whereas before the conflict the country’s merchant fleet of 786 deep sea ships had amounted to ten times that total.

The draft of the peace treaty of Paris foresaw that Italy would not be allowed to build new liners for the Atlantic run for a decade; but thanks to the diplomatic skills of the Italian Prime Minister, Alcide de Gasperi, during his first mission to Washington in January, 1947, the American government decided to support Italy. Besides the sale “at cost” of 50 Liberty cargo ships, President Truman agreed to the return of the four surviving major Italian liners: Saturnia, Vulcania, Conte Biancamano and Conte Grande; above all, he granted De Gasperi the right to build two new liners for the express route between Genoa and New York which, in the early ‘Fifties, finally re-established the Italian Line’s high class service on this most prestigious international route: they were the Andrea Doria and her sister ship Cristoforo Colombo. The swift reconstruction of the Italian merchant marine, not so much in terms of quantity but, above all, of quality astonished the World and the new post-War ships became known as “the Renaissance Fleet”.

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In the ‘Twenties, the shipping and shipbuilding industries of the World faced a severe crisis: the devastation caused by the Great War, the new geopolitical situation and the lack of available finance put a great strain on shipowners and builders. Besides these factors, Italian owners had to cope with the virtual closure of the United States’ borders to new immigrants (the main source of profit for the transatlantic liners sailing from Italian ports). The three main Italian migrant-carriers to survive the post-War crisis were the Navigazione Generale Italiana (NGI), the Lloyd Sabaudo and the Cosulich Line. All three of them urgently needed new and efficient ships and, consequently, a proper plan for financing them by both public and private institutions. Of the three companies, only the Lloyd Sabaudo was economically sound and in the late ’Twenties they became the parent company to the Cosulich group, controlling also the Lloyd Triestino company and the majority of the shipbuilding industry of the Giulian region.

Since the mid-’Twenties discussions had been going on between the NGI, Lloyd Sabaudo and the central government with the object of creating ocean liners of a new generation, able to compete in terms of speed, size and luxury with the forthcoming vessels which were being planned by foreign companies. The NGI was at the time indirectly controlled by the state through one of its main banks, the Banca Commerciale Italiana, and it was therefore proposed that it should be fully nationalised under the intended name of “Lloyd Littorio”. Its fleet was to be enriched by two liners of 40,000 gross tons and 30 knots of speed, to be built with public money and to be named Rex and Dux. After the initial feasibility and financial studies, it became clear to the Ministry of Communications (which was responsible also for the merchant marine) that the project could not go ahead without the involvement of the other two main Italian shipping lines. Despite their resistance, a “pool agreement” was signed in Rome in 1928, co-ordinating the timetables and fares of the NGI, Lloyd Sabaudo and Cosulich, and the idea of the Lloyd Littorio was abandoned. This was the beginning of a strategy to merge all the main Italian shipping companies and place them under the full financial control of the government. The Wall Street Crash of October, 1929 suddenly made this imperative and from the 2nd January, 1932 the three companies became the Italia Flotte Riunite (or, simply, the Italian Line) and the funnels of the ships of NGI, Lloyd Sabaudo and Cosulich were repainted in the same livery, white with narrow bands of the colours of the Italian tricolour: red, white and green.

An American advertisement of 1965 belonging to the campaign "The Sunny life", showing the aft lidos and pools of the Raffaello and published before her entry into service.

A nice drawing of the Andrea Doria at speed published in an advertisement of 1952, produced before the entry into service of the ship.


Thus the largest concentration of Italian ships under the banner of a single company was formed: NGI contributed nine ships amounting to approximately 160,000 tons; Lloyd Sabaudo eight vessels reaching 115,000 tons; Cosulich with another 18 ships totalling 150,000 tons. Furthermore, there were the four motorships Romolo, Remo, Esquilino and Viminale chartered from the Lloyd Triestino for the Australian run and four newbuildings under construction: Rex, Conte di Savoia, Neptunia and Oceania. To this already impressive number of 43 ships an entire fleet of nine ships, amounting to a further 110,000 tons, was added in the mid-’Thirties: second-hand vessels bought to ply the routes to the new Italian colonies in East Africa.

The second and final move in the plan envisaged at the end of the ’Twenties to reorganise the country’s merchant fleet took place at the end of 1936: at the beginning of 1937 a new concern, “Società Finanziaria Marittima” (or “Finmare”), headquartered in Rome, started operations as the parent company to four main shipping lines: the Italian Line (whose registered name was altered from “Italia Flotte Riunite” to “Società Italia di Navigazione”) based in Genoa; the Lloyd Triestino still based in Trieste; the Società di navigazione Adriatica based in Venice; and the Società di navigazione Tirrenia based in Naples. This second reorganisation was intended to rationalise the routes and the employment of the vessels, identifying the obsolete ones and revamping or replacing them. The new Italian Line would ply the following routes: Genoa–New York (Rex, Conte di Savoia, Roma); Trieste–New York (Saturnia and Vulcania); Genoa–Buenos Aires (Principessa Maria, Principessa Giovanna, Augustus and Conte Grande); Trieste–Buenos Aires (Neptunia, Oceania); Genoa–Valparaiso (Colombo, Orazio and Virgilio); and Trieste–Vancouver (Leme, Cellina, Fella, Feltre and Rialto).

The first pubblicity of the Italia Flotte Riunite, published at the beginning of 1932 to familiarise the public with the funnel livery and flag of the new company, was the work of the Milan artist Giacomo Malugani (1876-1942)

A large publicity exhibitor on three different layers of cardboard designed in 1952 by Giovanni Patrone to promote the new Italain flagship for the express service Genoa-New York.

One of the outstanding features of the Italian Line schedules was the cruises, especially after the entry into service of the superliners Rex and Conte di Savoia in 1932; after the abrupt decline in the number of emigrants allowed to enter the United States, a new Tourist Class took the place of the old Third, catering above all for the growing American middle class and those who could not afford a First Class ticket but wanted to travel as tourists to the Old World in sufficient dignity and comfort. The Italian liners, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, inevitably covered many more nautical miles than the British, French, German and Scandinavian ships when sailing to New York but their “Sunny Southern Route” gave them an advantage: thanks to the Gulf Stream, their voyages benefitted from a milder climate and quieter seas almost all year round. The Italian liners were now beginning their transformation into cruise ships: the voyage became a holiday rather than a mere necessity. Open-air lidos and swimming pools, cabins with open verandahs, , air conditioning, talkies, thermal areas, gymnasiums and uncluttered sun and games decks and many other novelties, some specially invented by the Italians, enabled passengers to enjoy travel by sea.

A cardboard exhibitor of 1927 for travel agents promoting the Augustus, first transatlantic liner with an open-air lido and swimming pool.