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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.

A 1922 advertisement showing a nice aerial view of the turbine-steamer Giulio Cesare while she turns towards the open sea at the pilot tower of the port of Genoa.

In order to cope with the new situation, NGI bought three large second-hand English steamers which were reconditioned and placed in service as the Campania, Lazio and Sannio: at 9,000 gross tons, they were for a while the largest ships in the Italian Merchant Marine. A new Mediterranean Conference was organised in 1909: this time, 49.13% of the Italian migrant trade was assigned to national companies and by 1911 the figure reached 61.74%. In order to cope with its increased role on the transatlantic routes and to challenge the foreign rivals, NGI decided to exit from its Mediterranean, Black Sea and Far East services, disposing of 102 of its smaller and older steamers, and to concentrate on the regular lines to North, Central and South America (and also, after the opening of the Panama Canal, to the West Coast). At the same time, NGI adopted a more aggressive attitude to its Italian rivals and before long took over La Veloce, Lloyd Italiano and the Peirce Line of Naples.

A large, animated and estremely detailed cutaway od the sister motorships Oranzio and Virgilio, produced in 1926 by Bestetti & Tumminelli of Milan and Rome.

Meanwhile, around 1908, six new NGI liners with de luxe accommodation as well as migrant quarters had been ordered and completed, all in Italian yards: Re Vittorio, Regina Elena and Principe Umberto for the route to the River Plate; and Duca degli Abbruzzi, Duca di Genova and Duca d’Aosta for the New York run. All these vessels, of around 8,000 gross tons, had a modern propulsion system: each was fitted with two powerful quadruple expansion steam engines giving an exceptional service speed of 18 knots and a maximum of at least 20 knots.

When these new ships entered service, the only remaining rivals to NGI were the Lloyd Sabaudo, the Società Italia di Navigazione a Vapore (not to be confused with the Italian Line founded in 1932) and the Transatlantica Italiana. Actually, although both Italia and Transatlantica were based in Italy, their capital was held in German hands: in this way the German lines had managed to circumvent the Mediterranean Conference agreement.

On the eve of the First World War, all four of the Italian-registered companies were preparing to build large and modern new liners: however, the outbreak of hostilities disrupted their plans. The two belonging to the NGI were to be the first Italian vessels of over 200 metres length, more than 20,000 gross tons and over 20 knots of speed. They were the Giulio Cesare, built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson, Ltd. of Wallsend-on-Tyne in England and the Duilio, constructed by Ansaldo at Sestri Ponente, a suburb of west Genoa. The building of both, started in 1914, could not be completed until the early ’Twenties. The Duilio was thus the first large passenger liner to be built in an Italian yard to compete with a foreign-built vessel and the direct confrontation between Ansaldo and one of the major and most acclaimed British sh