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In order to understand the importance of the Navigazione Generale Itaiana (better known as NGI) it should be noted that, when it was founded in the second half of the XIX century, it was the largest industrial group in Italy and it united the recently formed kingdom which stretched from Genoa to Palermo (the terminal ports of the company’s shipping activities). It also linked the new capital city of Rome, where the company had its formal headquarters. This great concern, one of the largest in the World, was formally born on the 4th September, 1881 under the registered name of “Navigazione Generale Italiana, Società Riunite Florio e Rubattino”. The Deus ex Machine behind the merger of the former fleets of Florio in Palermo and Rubattino, based in Genoa, was the Genoese banker Domenico Balduino, president of the Credito Mobiliare bank and main financier of the Rubattino concern. Raffaele Rubattino was considered one of the fathers of the motherland: he had put his steamer Cagliari at the disposal of Carlo Pisacane for his tragic expedition to Sapri in Southern Italy and, later, he made the Piemonte and Lombard available to Giuseppe Garibaldi and his 1,000 Red Shirts for their much more successful campaign. Balduino was extremely worried by the disastrous financial situation of the “Società per la navigazione a vapore R. Rubattino & C.” and convinced the central government to issue, in 1881, the Royal Decree 339 which transferred to NGI all the state subsidies and mail contracts for steam navigation from and to Italian ports. To achieve this, Balduino had first to persuade the great Sicilian shipowner Ignazio Florio to merge with Rubattino, thus saving the latter from another bankruptcy which would have been a dreadful humiliation for a prominent figure of the Italian “Risorgimento” who was respected both by the people and the authorities. This aroused much criticism, particularly among the other powerful Genoese shipowners who, because of its size and financial power, regarded the new NGI as an extremely dangerous competitor. They were right and, by the time of the First World War, all the rivals had been absorbed by the Navigazione Generale. NGI celebrated its 50th anniversary with the launch of the famous Rex in August, 1931 but this proved to be not only the climax of the company but also its swansong. In January, 1932, it was merged with Lloyd Sabaudo and the Cosulich Line to become the famous Italia Flotte Riunite or, more simply, the Italian Line.

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At the time of its foundation, NGI owned a huge fleet of 81 steamers of which 43 had formerly belonged to Florio. Only four years later, the first take-over of a rival occurred: Edilio Raggio, with a badly compromised balance sheet, sold his 12 steamships to the new company. The same fate befell the fleet of another Genoese entrepreneur, Erasmo Piaggio, who ceded to NGI his 5 liners, including his beautiful new flagship Regina Margherita, the first Italian liner with electric lighting.

The first transatlantic liners to be ordered from scratch by NGI were the so-called “Region class”, built in 1901-03 by Ansaldo in Genoa, by Orlando in Leghorn and by the Riva Trigosa yard and named after Italian regions. The five members of this class were mainly intended for the migrant service to North America but only a few years later NGI ordered better ships which had more cabin accommodation. This was only possible because of a drastic change in the country’s foreign policy: it had previously been compelled to assign a large part of the migrant trade between Genoa and North America to the shipping companies of the leading European powers. But, in Florence in 1906, the first “Mediterranean Conference” took place, a meeting of the companies operating migrant services out of Italian ports, which enabled NGI and the rival La Veloce company to regain a large share of the market. The new convention awarded the British, French and German companies 150 sailings per year from Genoa, 31 for La Veloce and 33 for Navigazione Generale.