NAVIGAZIONE GENERALE ITALIANA
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.
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.
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 shipbuilders enabled the Italian yard to show its potential in the sector.
With the Duilio, the association between the Ansaldo shipyard and the Genoa-based shipping company was consolidated to such an extent that soon there were plans on the drawing board for even larger and more sophisticated transatlantic liners.
At the end of the Great War, NGI was no longer menaced by the two Italian companies which had been financed by the Germans but, besides the Lloyd Sabaudo, they now had to deal with another important Italian player on the Atlantic passenger routes. After the boundary change of 1921, the Austro-Americana of Trieste was no longer a foreign competitor but was now Italian: the Società Triestina di Navigazione Cosulich or, more simply, the Cosulich Line. The important Cosulich group also contained the great modern shipyard at Monfalcone, about 30 kilometres west of Trieste, at the farthest northern point of the Mediterranean, in the Adriatic Sea. In 1926, Ansaldo delivered a new flagship to Navigazione Generale. Named Roma, she was a steamship and did not represent any particular novelty in comparison with other passenger liners of the day but she took from the Duilio the distinction of being the largest and fastest Italian liner afloat. By contrast, Roma’s near-sister, the Augustus delivered a year later, was extremely notable: with her 33,000 gross tons she was for many years the largest motor vessel ever launched, i.e. the largest with diesel engines. She also made her mark in history as the first Atlantic liner to have a permanent open-air lido and swimming pool.
Since the mid-’Twenties, the majority of the shares in the Navigazione Generale had been controlled by the Banca Commerciale Italiana and therefore it was “de facto” a parastatal company. When the directors decided to take the leap of challenging the main foreign transatlantic operators, they asked for government support for the building of two 40,000-tonners to be named Rex and Dux but they had reckoned without the influence of the Lloyd Sabaudo, which not only had a healthy balance sheet but had also recently rescued the Cosulich group which it now controlled. The funding which NGI had requested from Rome had therefore to be shared with Lloyd Sabaudo; and Navigazione Generale were to order only one ship from Ansaldo, the Rex: there would not be a Dux. Instead, Lloyd Sabaudo would have the Conte di Savoia built in Trieste by the San Marco yard. In a curious twist of fate, neither of the two Italian superliners would sport the colours of their original owners: in order to save NGI from bankruptcy the Italian government insisted that the company be merged with the Lloyd Sabaudo and its subsidiary Cosulich Line to form Italia Flotte Riunite, the new Italian Line. History had repeated itself. As we have seen, fifty years previously NGI had been formed by amalgamation in order to rescue the Rubattino company.
POSTCARDS & LITHOGRAPHS
The early formal “portraits” of Navigazione Generale passenger steamers used in the printing of postcards or, on a larger scale, to be framed and hung in travel agents’ shops were virtually all in black and white, obtained from touched-up photographs and mainly produced by the Marzi printing company of Rome. The picture showing the vessel normally occupied the upper portion of the postcard in order to leave sufficient space at the bottom for the sender’s message. The print was a duotone: black for the photograph and the decorative frame around it and red for the descriptions: company and vessel name, etc. In the first years of the XX century, with the arrival of the liners of the “Region class”, fitted with a small cabin class, NGI was compelled to alter the style of its postcards and ships’ portraits. The Marzi company itself printed a series of postcards in full colour, based on the artworks of well-known artists, mainly from the Ligurian area, such as Aurelio Craffonara (1875-1945). At this time, the postcards and the other advertising material were enriched by a new and stylish NGI logo in the Art Nouveau style. From then onwards, NGI postcards were always in colour, downsized portraits of the ships or of the large posters designed to promote them.
In contrast to the early NGI postcards, which were simple, almost Spartan, in their appearance, the company’s publicity department put a much greater effort into producing large, beautiful and colourful posters. In the days when NGI was catering mainly for migrant passengers, the view of the ship on the poster was fundamental to attracting attention and was therefore always very effective.
Amongst the poorest social classes who were migrating in the hope of finding fortunes and a new life in America and were often illiterate, the collective imagination suggested that the safety and reliability of a liner was proportional to the number of funnels with which she was endowed, their size and the quantity of smoke (obviously evoking power) pouring from them. It is strange to note that on photographs of the time, thick black smoke was often added while nowadays the merest wisp even of white smoke must be expunged!
In addition to funnels, the ships portrayed in these early posters always had a full set of sails inflated by the wind as in those days the single engine and propeller were not very reliable and there was no radio equipment. The failure of the engine or the loss of the propeller would be enough to cause the sinking of the ship with all the souls and cargo aboard: at that time many vessels set sail only to disappear for ever without anyone knowing what had happened to them. Looking at the NGI posters from the earliest time, in 1881, up to the entry of liners with first class accommodation, we see that the number of sails gradually diminishes with the passing of time and the masts and yards become smaller. The improvement in the reliability of the latest types of steam engine and the introduction of twin screws gradually convinced the public that steamships without auxiliary sails were safe. After the First World War, the quality and variety of NGI’s posters promoting their new, larger and more luxurious ships improved enormously; one of the most evocative of them all is the one painted by Giuseppe Minonzio (1884-1959) to mark the entry into service of the Duilio and the Giulio Cesare in the early ‘Twenties. Surging out of a dark, night-blue background, the tall and razor-sharp prow of the steamer seems to rise from the foam and the waves to reveal the red lower part of her hull.
BROCHURES & FOLDERS
The first booklet of real importance to be published by NGI was dated 1906 and shows on its cover a painting by Duilio Cambellotti (1876-1960); it was produced to mark the opening of the International Exhibition of Industries which took place in Milan in that year and also the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the company. Before that, however, there were passenger information booklets published annually with, on the covers, intriguing drawings in the Liberty style by clever painters such as La Monaca and Grifo. On the eve of the First World War, NGI published two sumptuous brochures in large format, devoted to their forthcoming new flagships Giulio Cesare and Duilio. One of them contains beautiful colour calcographic prints glued onto the centre of the pages, showing the side elevations of the main lounges. The most interesting feature of the second booklet is the large transversal section of the ships, folded into four and glued onto the last page of the cover. Finely detailed, it shows very clearly the social divisions on board, reflecting the society of the time: first class on the upper decks, second lower down, third – or rather, steerage – deep in the hull of the ship, just above the cargo holds.
With the Guilio Cesare and the Duilio, NGI abandoned its tradition of naming its ships after members of the Royal family. (Possibly they did this to differentiate themselves from the Lloyd Sabaudo who had adopted the same custom.) NGI now got their inspiration from the world of ancient Rome: as the names of the two forthcoming ships were announced before the Great War, it is incorrect to suggest, as is often done, that they changed their image to please the Fascist government. With the entry into service of the new flagship Roma in 1926, they tried to emulate the Lloyd Sabaudo’s promotion of the first liners of their new “Conte” class. The first brochure devoted to the Roma is a real masterpiece of graphic art: it was produced by the well-known art printers Richter & C. of Naples and on the hardbound cover it bears a pewter copy of the Goddess Roma, a huge marble statue which adorned the ship’s “ceremonial lounge” and which is now preserved in the maritime station at Genoa: this statue and its exact copy for the monument for the Unknown Soldier in Rome were both the work of Angelo Zanelli. In a completely different style, but just as sumptuous, was the brochure published a year later for the sister ship Augustus (actually, the ship’s name was always spelled, even on her hull, in the Latin lettering, Avgvstvs). More than a brochure, it was actually a flat box with intriguing flaps shaped like the prow of a Roman trireme). The box contained large cards showing cabins and lounges and on the cover there was a portrait of the new ship resembling a Pompeian mosaic. The period of NGI publicity based on the theme of ancient Rome comes to an end with the material produced for the launch of the Rex in 1931: this great event, in the fiftieth year since NGI’s foundation, was the last moment of glory of the famous Italian company which had sprung from the union of the two great fleets of Florio and Rubattino.