“Here she is... Here she is! Papa, Papa! The Rex, the Rex!” The central scene of Amarcord, Fellini's Oscar-winning film, opens with this phrase. The characters have embarked on several small boats to spend the night at sea off the coast of Rimini, awaiting the passage of the almost mythical liner: through the dark night, the Rex appears, glittering with lights, and then, like some constellation or like a dream, she is gone. This celebrated Italian vessel had entered the collective imagination as a symbol of the glamorous liners of the 'Thirties; her fame had already begun in 1929 when the announcement was made of her building. The financial crisis had brought to a standstill the construction of several liners and the news that Italy intended to build one of the largest, most modern, speediest and most luxurious ships ever planned seized the headlines across the World.
On the 1st August, 1931, the new giant of the Italian merchant marine was launched in Genoa in the presence of the country's King and Queen and of a huge crowd of about 100,000. The first bottle of Royal Brut Riserva wine produced by the house of Gancia crashed against the ship's bow: the neck of the bottle, contained in a splendid box with the name of the ship and her profile outlined in diamonds was presented to Queen Elena, the ship's godmother. The Rex was the first transatlantic liner to feature those innovations which would make her a genuine cruise ship: de luxe cabins with private verandahs, air conditioning, huge sports decks and lidos with two permanent open air swimming pools, a spa, a drive-in garage with direct access from the quayside...
From a technological point of view, the Rex is remarkable as one of the very first ships to be fitted with a bulbous bow: her extraordinary body lines were developed in the Hamburg test tank and, amazingly, were derived from the shape of a trout! The Rex was a mixture of tradition and innovation: externally, she was both graceful and streamlined, in accordance with the trends of industrial design in the 'Thirties, while her interiors were conservative, inspired by classical historical styles. It should be noted that she was one of the last liners to sport a clipper stern; this shape, although old-fashioned, was dictated by the desire to obtain the greatest possible size for the after decks while taking account of the dimensions of the drydock in Genoa. In March, 1933, she achieved the distinction of sending the first live radio transmission to the United States and to Europe while crossing the Atlantic.
KEEL LAYING: 04/27/1930
MAIDEN VOYAGE: Genova-New York 09/27/1932
SHIP YARD: Ansaldo S.A., Genova Sestri e 0.A.R.N.
HULL NUMBER: 296
COMPANy: Italia Flotte Riunite (Italian Line), Genova
LENGTH OVERALL: 880 ft
WIDTH: 96.8 ft
GROSS TONNAGE: 51062 tsl
PROPULSION: 4 steam turbo gearboxes
SERVICE SPEED: 26,00 knots
TOP SPEED: 29,00 knots
POWER: 136.000 horsepower
FIRST CLASS: 378
SPECIAL CLASS: 378
TURISTIC CLASS: 410
THIRD CLASS: 860
FATE: 1944 in the port of Trieste september 8th 1944 bombed by the Allies in the Capodistria gulf
GENERAL ARRANGEMENT PLANS
GENERAL ARRANGEMENT PLANS
1929, 2nd December: the contract is signed between Navigazione Generale Italiana and Ansaldo for the construction of the hull and the machinery of Yard Number 296, already known as the Rex, and with OARN (Officine Allestimento Riparazione Navi) for the outfitting.
1930, 27th April: the keel laying ceremony is attended by Archbishop Bartolomasi.
1931, 1st August: launched in the presence of King Vittorio Emanuele III and Queen Elena. The Queen is the ship's godmother.
1932, 2nd January: the fleet of the Navigazione Generale Italiana is transferred to the new Italia Flotte Riunite and therefore the Rex, which is being fitted out in Genoa, will never carry the NGI colours.
1932, 4th September: preliminary sea trials.
1932, 14th September: official speed trials in the Gulf of Genoa over the measured mile, Punta Chiappa-Punta Mesco, during which the ship reaches “only” 28.20 knots owing to a breakdown of one of her twelve turbines.
1932, 25th September: delivery ceremony in Genoa.
1932, 27th September: sails from Genoa on her maiden crossing to New York; on the 29th September, she is delayed for 48 hours in Gibraltar owing to an electrical breakdown, awaiting the arrival of the Vulcania from Genoa with replacement parts before continuing to New York.
1932, 7th October: first arrival in New York delayed by two days.
1932, 9th October: opened to the public for the first time: 45,000 New Yorkers converge on Pier 86 hoping to visit the new Italian liner and blocking Manhattan traffic between 42nd and 46th Streets; 256 policemen are rushed to the scene and with great difficulty they manage to turn away 25,000 of them while the rest paid 25 cents each.
1932, 19th October: sails for the first eastbound crossing, arriving in Genoa on the 26th.
1932, 24th December: sets sail from New York for her first cruise, to Central America and the West Indies.
1933, 16th March: for the first time, there is a live radio transmission from a ship at sea to both Europe and America. The famous soprano Rosa Ponselle sings Schubert's Ave Maria and is heard by many thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic.
1933, 16th August: arrives in New York at the end of a record passage from Gibraltar at an average speed of 28.92 knots, thus seizing the Blue Riband of the Atlantic. She is the first holder of this celebrated record actually to hoist a long blue pennant to mark this distinction and the first to receive the Hales Trophy, donated by the British parliamentarian Harold K. Hales.
1935, 27th February: sets sail for her first and only Mediterranean cruise, with calls at Gibraltar, Cannes, Monaco, Genoa, Naples, Haifa, Port Said and Rhodes.
1936, 8th March: sets sail from Genoa for the first time after the combination of the special and the tourist classes.
1936, 26th November: takes part in the Naval Review in the Gulf of Naples in honour of Nicholas Horthy, the Regent of Hungary.
1937, 2nd January: is transferred to the ownership of the newly-formed “Italia Società Anonima di Navigazione” for 150 million lire.
1937, 18th March: in order to attend to the needs of the great number of Jewish passengers fleeing from Europe, the American rabbi Max Green joins the ship's complement together with Philip Klein, a Kosher chef.
1938, 29th January: sets sail from New York for the successful “Rex to Rio” cruise.
1938, 5th May: takes part in the Naval Review held in the Gulf of Naples to mark the state visit of Adolf Hitler.
1938, 12th May: used by the U.S. Air Force as a theoretical target to test their new Flying Fortress bombers, the famous B17s, causing concern among her passengers and provoking diplomatic protests from the Italian government.
1940, 20th May: arrives in Genoa at the end of her final crossing from New York.
1940, 6th June: sets sail from Genoa, heading for Venice where she is supposed to join the Conte di Savoia in lay-up; during the voyage, she is diverted to Pula (Istria) to serve as an accommodation vessel for the workers of the Monfalcone shipyard who are busy reconstructing the battleship Duilio. While she is there, her upperworks are painted grey and anti-aircraft guns are fitted.
1940, 15th August: arrives in Trieste and is placed in long term lay-up. After the Italian Armistice of the 8th September, 1943 she is seized by German forces who slowly gut her of her fittings, furniture, artworks, etc.
1944, 5th September: after the frequent Allied bombings of the port of Trieste started the previous June, the Rex is towed away and anchored off the Istrian coast between Isola and Capodistria where, three days later, she is bombed and sunk by American, British and South African planes.
1947, August: during the fierce controversy between Italy and Jugoslavia over the possession of the area, the Rex becomes a symbol of the situation and of the plight of the refugees fleeing from Istria. The Tito regime commences the scrapping of the wreck, which lasts for a decade. (On the sea bed, a large portion of the hull remains – including one of the four propellers.)
The Rex was conceived as a dual-purpose luxury passenger ship for both Atlantic voyages and pleasure cruises: between September, 1932 and May, 1940 she completed 202 crossings and three cruises. Her tourist class accommodation, designed with the American middle classes in mind, gave a substantial boost to the Italian tourist trade: she was often fully booked, setting a record for passenger numbers carried on a single voyage. On the 27th September, 1932, to great celebrations, the Rex sailed out of Genoa on her maiden crossing to New York; however, expectations were disappointed when two days later a breakdown occurred while she was approaching the Columns of Hercules. An ingress of water into the generator room caused a serious short-circuit: while the ship lay at Gibraltar, the lack of information prompted a group of passengers to leave the ship.
In the early hours of the 2nd October, after receiving replacement parts brought from Genoa by the Vulcania, the Rex resumed her voyage and, despite the 48 hours of delay, she was welcomed by a huge crowd of Italian-Americans on her triumphant arrival in New York on the 7th October. This voyage had been particularly stressful for the crew: Captain Francesco Tarabotto had ordered all electric power in the crew areas to be switched off so that services to passengers could be maintained.
Despite this initial disaster, on Christmas Eve, 1932 the Rex set sail from New York for a very successful cruise to the Caribbean and Central America.
The Italian flagship, like all liners, was sometimes battered by strong gales which, above all in winter time, raged across the North Atlantic but one of the most unusual events occurred during the 39th crossing; on the 27th August, 1935, while in mid-Atlantic heading for New York, she encountered a sailing boat which was adrift. It was La Dahama, a yacht belonging to Albert Welsh, the young offspring of a wealthy Philadelphia family. He and his crew had been overtaken by a gale and had desperately been trying to keep afloat for several days, bailing out the boat with buckets, when they were miraculously saved by the Rex. They were certain that La Dahama would sink but, a few weeks later, she was found like a ghost ship by the steamer Aztec in the Bermuda Triangle: nowadays, she is cited as one of the mysteries of that area.
In August, 1933 the Rex entered history when she won the Blue Riband, the record for the fastest westbound crossing between Europe and the United States, although her route was much longer than those plied by previous winners: she arrived more than one day earlier than scheduled after steaming the 4,181 nautical miles separating Gibraltar from the Ambrose Lightship in 4 days 13 hours and 58 minutes at the extraordinary average speed of almost 29 knots and a top speed well over 30 knots. Two years later, the record went to the Normandie but the Rex had a chance for revenge when the French Line announced that their flagship would make a cruise from New York to Rio de Janeiro for the 1938 Carnival: the Italian Line immediately announced a similar cruise. As the French champion was not suitably equipped for tropical voyages, many intended passengers transferred to the Italian ship. After Italy entered the War in June, 1940 the Rex was transferred from Genoa to Trieste, at the head of the Adriatic, in order to escape possible bombing by the British or the French: the Italian government deemed her too big to be suitable for war duties and she therefore remained idly at anchor, staying there after the Italian Armistice. On the 5th September, 1944, stripped of her valuable fittings by the Nazis and later by the starving local population, the former Italian record-breaker was towed out of the port for reasons which remain unclear. Immediately, she was seen, anchored off the coast between Isola and Capodistria, by Partisan observers who informed the Allied authorities: a few days later, she was bombed and sunk by Allied planes.
The large poster produced by Barabino & Graeve of Genoa for the inaugural voyages of the Rex and the Conte di Savoia confirmed the position in the field of maritime publicity which was now held by the well-known Genoese artist Giovanni Patrone, who went on to design many more items for the Italian Line, also after the War. Considered to be one of the best posters in the Modern style dedicated to the launch of a great liner, large examples (140x100 cm) of this work can these days fetch more than 20,000 Euros. The slogan on the English language version, “Six Wonderful Days”, sounded in American like “Sex Wonderful Daze” and, one might imagine, was not entirely coincidental. Meanwhile, to coincide with the introduction of the Rex and later the Conte di Savoia, the Italian Line office in New York planned a great campaign to familiarise the American public with the Italian word “lido”, previously unknown in the United States. This campaign, with its slogan “The Lido Liners”, was intended to emphasise the particular features which distinguished the Italian liners from the others: they were indeed true cruise ships on which it was possible to enjoy an open air vacation offering the same pleasures as a seaside holiday at one of the resorts of the Italian Riviera. The whole campaign emphasised the contrast between the cold climate and rough seas often encountered on the more northerly routes with the “Sunny Southern Route” of the Italian ships, with its milder weather thanks to the Gulf Stream. In order to capture the American imagination, particularly of the middle classes for which the new tourist class was intended, well-known American artists such as Fred Freeman and Victor Beals were engaged to portray scenes of life on board, especially those of the Lido Life. Their characters appeared to be ideal Americans with their slender forms and their informal dress.
Of the Italian publicity, the first class brochure produced before the Rex entered service was particularly attractive. It was printed by the Neapolitan firm of Richter & C. and, together with the similar one devoted to the Conte di Savoia, is considered to be one of the most beautiful ever produced. It was designed by Giovan Battista Conti and featured on the cover a relief of the logo designed for the Rex by Gustavo Pulitzer Finali. This brochure was printed in six colours including metallic gold. The inner pages show beautiful colour and black and white plates painted by Vittorio Accornero together with his wife Edina Altara: the latter also produced some splendid cameos with tempting scenes of life on board which adorned the pages of text. Curiously (and maybe intentionally) all the lower ends of the pages contain a blue strip with the company name in the same hue: in all probability, it was a subliminal suggestion of the ambition to conquer the Blue Riband of the Atlantic. Furthermore, few ships of any nationality could boast such sophisticated publicity material for the other three, lower classes; even the third class (which was actually the fourth) was given a full colour brochure with high quality, animated renderings of lounges and cabins. Last but not least, in the wide variety of material devoted to the Rex, we must not forget the large fold-out published in December, 1937 and signed by L. H. Butcher with its splendid cover titled “Rex to Rio”.
Despite the modernistic external appearance of the Rex, the furnishing of her lounges for the upper classes remained fixed in the historic style which had characterised all the previous liners of the Navigazione Generale Italiana. In fact, the design of most of the first and special class public rooms was allotted to the famous Ducrot firm of Palermo who had worked on most of the company's ships.
In response to the criticism which had been levelled at the old-fashioned style of the Italian liners, the company decided to “lighten” the furnishing of the Rex: she was not given the excessive decoration of previous ships, but NGI did not have the courage to go far in the direction of the Modern style which, for example, characterised the Conte di Savoia. The Rex, which was to become the ultimate floating palace, was divided into four classes: first, special, tourist and third.
The cover of a menu of the Series "Costumes from Italy" with the ship's and the blue riband logo: "The lake of Como".
The cover of a menu of the Series "Costumes from Italy" with the ship's and the blue riband logo: "Sardinia".
The cover of a menu of the Series "Costumes from Italy" with the ship's and the blue riband logo: "Latium".
The cover of a menu of the Series "A Tour in Italyʺ by Edina ALtara and her husband Vittorio Accornero: "La campagna romana".
First class occupied five decks linked by numerous elevators and broad staircases. The grand vestibule was panelled in dark walnut with inlaid friezes and housed the passenger offices: a bank, a post office, the tour office and those of the hospitality departments. The great restaurant extended over 800 square metres and was inspired by the styles of the eighteenth century. Eight columns of green marble supported the central coffered ceiling while the upholstery was in tones of red, ochre and old gold; exceptionally for the time, this room was equipped with air conditioning. The principal lounge, the social centre of the first class, was furnished in light mahogany with panels of red brocade. The ship's name was “quoted” by the royal crowns and the knots of Savoy which appeared in the friezes, on the large bronze candelabras with onyx holders and in the succession of appliques on the walls. Two authentic eighteenth century hangings adorned the forward and aft walls of this room. Forward of the lounge came the ballroom in the style of the Italian baroque, mainly in tones of light green. Hanging on the walls were large frames in gold leaf, vast mirrors and embroidered velvet panels while covering the floor was the largest Persian carpet ever made: a hand-made kirman rug of 170 square metres. For the first time on a ship, the lounge contained a theatre stage for such entertainments as shows, concerts, etc. and another novelty was the equipment for showing the new “talkies”, which had not been possible at sea before.
The lounge and the ballroom were fringed by a winter garden and by long covered promenades. Also on the lounge deck, this time at the stern, was a large smoking room and bar, furnished in light mahogany and briarwood and decorated by a bronze bas-relief by Maryla Lednicka. The chapel on the Rex was by far the biggest yet to go to sea; it rose through two decks with the balcony reserved for first class passengers. The sumptuous cabins were true luxury apartments, each with a living area, double baths, private verandahs looking out over the sea and provision for a butler and a governess.
The Rex was the first ship to have a big health centre – or, as we would say today, a spa. While this facility is now a “must” on any cruise ship, on the Rex it was a big novelty and included sun ray beds for cosmetic bronzing. In 1936, the special class and the tourist class were combined in response to the requirements of the new tourist market. Originally, the two classes had been designed and realised by the architect Enrico Monti from Milan and by the Genoese firm of Gavarone. Notably, the spaces designed by Monti were particularly plain and even contemporary: his work included the suites and luxury cabins, the lido with its verandah and pool and also the first class gymnasium. Possibly because the owners were less interested in the spaces for the lower classes, Monti and Gavarone designed them with an interesting but low key functionality. Finally, it should be recalled that the Rex was the first transatlantic liner without steerage accommodation for emigrants: even the lowest class enjoyed pleasant cabins and light and ample public rooms.