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At nine o’clock on the evening of Monday, April 16, 1956, millions of Americans tuned in to CBS to watch the latest episode of the hit comedy I Love Lucy. Since January, viewers had followed the madcap adventures of the Ricardos and their friends the Mertzes on a trip to Europe. After episodes set in London, Scotland, and Paris, Lucille Ball and company moved on to Italy. That Monday night’s episode, “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” had the comedienne preparing for a role in a fictional film called Bitter Grapes by stomping her way through a vat of fruit at a local vineyard and ending in a riotous brawl that became one of the most celebrated moments in the series.
“Lucy’s Italian Movie” cemented the shift in American attitudes toward the former World War II enemy. After liberating Naples and Rome, soldiers had returned to the United States with memories of sun-drenched piazzas and endless feasts of pasta washed down by flowing wine; a fair number also returned with brides who were surprised to find an America enraptured with pizza and entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin. They flocked to movies by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica and witnessed the rise of Italian stars like Anna Magnani, Gina Lollabrigida, and the sultry Sophia Loren, who flaunted her affair with married director Carlo Ponti.
Everything Italian seemed to be in vogue. Fashions, sleekly stylish yet somehow traditional, boasted exquisite materials and impeccable tailoring, suggesting an elegant yet casual approach to life.1 Even something as mundane as transportation was swept up in this new renaissance. Gentlemen, imagining themselves stylish playboys or indulgent tycoons, suddenly wanted to drive an Alfa Romeo, a Ducati, a Maserati, a Fiat, or a Ferrari. After Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn famously appeared in the 1953 film Roman Holiday riding a Vespa through the capital’s narrow streets, everyone wanted one of the little scooters.
Lured by low production costs, Hollywood began churning out Italian-made films at Cinecittà (cinema city), an enormous movie studio and lot on the southeastern edge of Rome. So many major motion pictures started shooting at Cinecittà that Time magazine soon dubbed the studio “Hollywood on the Tiber.”2 Films like The Barefoot Contessa and Three Coins in the Fountain only added to Italy’s allure with their own evocative moments, seemingly summoning moviegoers to this enchanted nation.
Hollywood came to the Tiber to work but it stayed in Italy to play. Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Ava Gardner were soon joined by Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Rex Harrison, and Cary Grant. Elizabeth Taylor might be spotted shopping in a quiet boutique; Ingrid Bergman might be pushing past ranks of the new paparazzi who were eager to report on her scandalous affair with Roberto Rossellini. Aristocrats came and went along the beautiful Amalfi Coast: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the former king Farouk of Egypt, and a host of dukes, barons, and princes who could be seen sipping martinis in elegant outdoor cafés.3
The films, the fashion, the resorts, the food, the style, the effortless way of life—all chronicled in pictures and magazines—enticed the world to Italy. The country was not only returning to life, it had grabbed life by the throat and was proudly marching forward. The tourists came in ever greater waves, all eager to soak up their own slice of this exotic, enchanted land. And, in true Italian style, getting them there was itself quickly raised to an art form.
* * *
The end of World War II marked the end of the golden age of the ocean liner. Nations devastated by the conflict struggled as depressed economies and tightened budgets restricted travel. Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth returned to transatlantic service, offering speed and luxury aligned to British probity and mannered elegance, even if their once-chic, 1930s art deco interiors now seemed slightly dated. Compagnie Générale Transatlantique—the French Line—ran the former German liner Europa as SS Liberté alongside their grand old Ile de France of 1927. The latter had lost her third funnel; between the remaining two a series of ten-foot-high letters composed of electric lights spelled out the ship’s name at night like some Times Square billboard.
In 1950 America challenged this stagnant, motley collection of prewar transatlantic refugees. American Export Lines built two liners, the SS Independence and the SS Constitution. Stretching nearly seven hundred feet and modern in appearance, the sisters entered service on the increasingly popular Manhattan-to-Genoa run. To challenge on the Atlantic, the United States Lines commissioned a new vessel designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs. She was the first liner to make extensive use of aluminum for her superstructure, funnels, and fittings. On her maiden voyage in July 1952, the new SS United States shattered all previous speed records: her top speed of just over 38 knots was so fast that the crashing waves chipped paint away from her sharply raked bow. At 990 feet and 53,330 tons, she was the largest liner ever constructed in America: her white superstructure and immense twin red funnels ringed in white and topped with flying blue sampan-style wings looked revolutionary and cleanly crisp.4 But critics struggled with words like “sterile” and “cold” when describing the vessel and her fittings, suggesting that she had little of the warmth of previous liners.5
A new phenomenon now challenged transatlantic liners: regularly scheduled airline flights across the ocean. Pan Am had begun transatlantic flights in 1939, utilizing Boeing Clippers, but those demanded refueling stops, and a flight was a long ordeal. Howard Hughes used his Hollywood connections to push TWA Airlines and promote “civilized” air travel, though this meant sixteen hours aboard a Boeing Stratocruiser to reach London from New York. Flying was an innovation, and an expensive one, with tickets averaging as much as the modern equivalent of $10,000 for a round-trip flight across the Atlantic. A modicum of glamour prevailed: since airlines generally carried only a small number of well-to-do passengers, they all dressed for the occasion and spent their hours smoking and drinking aboard Constellations, Comets, and DC-4s. Flying, though, was still often an unnerving experience: lacking pistons, planes vibrated terrifyingly in turbulence, and accidents were not infrequent. Growth was inevitable. In 1948, some 273,000 travelers flew across the Atlantic; by 1951 the number had risen to 342,000, and by 1955 airlines could lay claim to almost half the transatlantic passengers.6
The ocean-liner industry struggled against these unwelcome aerial interlopers. Unable to beat the speed of airplanes, they sold the journey as its own end, offering a more pampered and relaxed experience—“Getting there is half the fun!” ran one Cunard ad.7 Aboard a ship there was time to drink, dance, read, and sleep; lavish meals full of exotic foods contrasted with the frequently unpalatable portions meted out from Radaranges in the sky. But increasingly, as Captain Harry Grattidge of the Queen Mary recalled, “there was a subtle change in the mood” aboard transatlantic liners.8 “First class,” wrote one maritime historian, “began to reflect the incursion into what was left of society by those who belonged more strictly to café society, along with pashas of the expense account and tycoons of the credit card. Instead of carrying fastidious women to the Paris openings,” liners were “more apt to carry … the entrepreneurs of Seventh Avenue. Instead of individuals bound, guidebooks in hand, for Mont-Saint-Michel and the chateaux of the Loire,” there were “business people with an eye out for something French or ‘French-y’ on which to slap their company labels. The dining habits of these new passengers were so fixed and unadventuresome that the expert chefs and sommeliers serving them suffered erosions of spirit. Prepared to serve up exquisitely subtle dishes in commemoration of Auguste Escoffier, wines preserved in rows as hushed as the vaults of Cartier, they found themselves responding to endless requests for planked steaks, mashed potatoes and double J & B’s on the rocks.”9
This was the dichotomy Italy now faced as it struggled to reclaim its traditionally rich nautical heritage. The Italian Line, officially called Società di navigazione Italia, had come into existence in 1932 as part of Mussolini’s consolidation of industry in his fascist state. The line had built two immense and glamorously luxurious liners in the 1930s, Rex (which was then the fastest ship afloat and briefly captured the famed Blue Riband) and Conte di Savoia. Neither survived the war or its aftermath. What remained were four smaller liners, all at least a decade old: Conte Biancamano, Conte Grande, Saturnia, and Vulcania. Increased emigration after the war promised immense revenues, as did the gradual return of tourist travel. The problem was funding. Italy was still suffering through the years of postwar depression, and Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi successfully turned to America, asking for and receiving loans through the Marshall Plan so that his devastated country could rebuild its merchant fleet.10
Two new liners were commissioned in 1950. Not only were they to reclaim Italy’s seafaring traditions, but they would also carry larger, more symbolic messages: that Italy had recovered from the devastation of World War II; that it offered tourists exciting and beautiful adventures; and that they, too, could enjoy its art, culture, and traditions, on land and also on the sea. The ships were to be floating Italian ambassadors, containing the work of her most prestigious artists and designers and equipped with the latest technology. As one of the ships’ interior designers, Gio Ponti, once explained, the new liners were not only a means of transport but also, more importantly, “a manifestation of the arts of the country that the ship represents … There is no reason why passengers who come to Italy attracted by Italian art should not find its expression (naturally its most noble expression) on ships which are themselves Italian.”11
The liners were born in Genoa. The great Italian port city had produced two memorable maritime figures: Christopher Columbus and Admiral Andrea Doria. The first made his name and reputation traveling the oceans, mapping trade routes, and searching for new lands; the second helped establish Genoa as a sea power, repelling the French, the Turks, the Spanish, and an onslaught of pirates in the fifteenth century, frequently changing his allegiances to take advantage of the fortunes of war. He ended his days ensconced in a palace in Genoa, celebrated for his heroic deeds and ruthless determination.
Founded in 1853, Giovanni Ansaldo & Company sprawled at Sestri on the outskirts of Genoa. It had long been one of the country’s oldest engineering companies and had a proud tradition of naval architecture. On February 9, 1950, the keel for the first of the new liners was laid on the company’s massive Slipway No. 1, the same slip where Rex had been built.12 Designated only as No. 918, the new liner took sixteen months to frame, plate, and deck.13 Gradually a massive hull began rising from the slipway, encased in a web of orange gantries, cranes, and scaffolding swarming with workers. The intimidating bow towered above the yard; plating began to shape her graceful stern. By the spring of 1951, framing neared completion. The still unfinished hull, reported The New York Times, was “visible for miles,” its red bottom adding “color to this otherwise drab and dreary part of Genoa.”14
Inauspiciously the launch had to be postponed by six days while work continued at a rapid pace. Finally, on the morning of June 16, 1951, an immense crowd gathered beneath a beautiful, sunny sky at Ansaldo to watch the festivities. Scaffolding and tools had been cleared to provide a pristine dais for the new ship. Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, archbishop of Genoa, blessed the vessel before Giuseppina Saragat, wife of the former minister of the Italian Merchant Marine, stepped forward, and, with a small silver hatchet, sent a bottle of sparkling wine smashing into the bow of the newly christened Andrea Doria. Amid cheers the great hull slowly freed itself from its ways and drifted down its slip into the water with an immense splash, the rumble of her drag chains temporarily drowning out the applause and the band playing the national anthem.15
Another eighteen months were spent finishing and fitting out the new liner at Ansaldo, even as her sister ship, to be christened the Cristoforo Colombo, rose on a nearby slipway. Not until December 1952 was Andrea Doria completed. She was 697 feet long—nearly two hundred feet shorter than Rex—ninety feet wide, and at 29,100 tons almost half the size of her illustrious predecessor. Everything about her suggested the streamlined aesthetic of the modern 1950s era. From her sharp bow with its bulbous nose, her black hull stretched back, topped with a white superstructure largely built from aluminum alloys to save weight. Aft, three decks cascaded gracefully down to the gently curved stern, each pierced with its own swimming pool, a reminder that the vessel sailed the usually sunny southern Atlantic route. Topping the liner was the Belvedere Deck, left clear for games but dominated by a single, thirty-eight-foot-high funnel, raked back slightly, its main body of white topped with a slender ribbon of green and a larger band of red, the colors of the Italian flag.16
Andrea Doria boasted a number of technological innovations and improvements on past Italian liners. She was completely air-conditioned (even the garage on B Deck was climate-controlled), and all cabins had a telephone connected to the ship switchboard.17 Great efforts had gone into ensuring that she was fireproofed: special flame-resistant insulation was used in nearly all interior spaces, and automatic doors could quickly seal off entire sections of the ship in the event of a fire. In addition to the automatic sprinkler system, the Doria boasted a special carbon dioxide–suppression system and even had its own small but dedicated fire brigade.18
Safety concerns extended to the bridge. The liner was equipped with the latest navigational systems, with two radar screens; a radio direction finder; and the relatively new loran system, to assist in long-range navigational bearings.19 And, should unforeseen disaster ever strike, there would be no repeat of the Titanic disaster. The liner carried sixteen aluminum lifeboats, eight on each side, operated by electric winches: two emergency boats, each capable of holding fifty-eight passengers; two motorized boats, each holding seventy; and twelve regular Fleming lever boats, each capable of carrying 168 persons.20 Together, these lifeboats could hold 2,008 people, some two hundred more than the Doria was designed to carry.21
Twin sixteen-foot-diameter bronze screws, driven by steam turbines capable of attaining 35,000 horsepower, propelled the Doria through the water. Three diesel and two steam turbine generators powered the ship and gave her a top speed of 25.3 knots. For added safety, the main electrical generators were in a separate watertight compartment from the main engine room; there was also an emergency diesel generator, situated in its own compartment on a higher deck, designed to run emergency amber lights and power the bilge and ballast pumps in the event of a crisis. Fuel oil tanks in the ship’s bottom and along her port and starboard sides allowed the Doria to carry just more than four thousand tons of diesel.22
Fuel oil and fresh water also served as ballast in the side tanks and in the tanks spaced along the ship’s double bottom. These offered additional protection in the event of any collision or if the ship struck something along the bottom of its hull. Steel bulkheads divided the liner into eleven watertight compartments; these rose as high as A Deck. Designers followed the requirements outlined in the 1948 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (called SOLAS): the Doria could float if any two adjoining watertight compartments were breached. These same standards theoretically assured that the liner would never be subject to more than a list of 7 degrees to either port or starboard; even so, the Doria exceeded these requirements, being capable of surviving a list of up to 15 degrees. No one could envision a scenario in which any ship would acquire a list beyond 20 degrees and still remain afloat: such a list would render the watertight bulkheads extending to A Deck largely useless, enabling water to flood into the ship unchecked.23
Getting the ship safely from port to port was of course the greatest concern, but nearly as much thought and attention went into ensuring that Andrea Doria’s passengers reached their destinations in style. Some eighteen months were devoted to the liner’s final fitting out and decoration.24 In addition to the cabins, there were more than two dozen public rooms. The breakdown in these accommodations, spread over ten decks, signaled a new reality for ocean liners. They still clung rigorously to class divisions, although the new names bestowed on the tiered accommodations were meant to emphasize progress and mobility. Thus Second Class became Cabin Class, with its implication of privacy, while Tourist Class, replacing the outdated terms “Steerage” and “Third Class,” as maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham wrote, suggested “respectability” and “frugality.”25
The Italian Line had never been quick to follow modern trends. Rex’s interiors had walked an uneasy—and ultimately discordant—line between historicism and modernity, but Conte di Savoia was more adventuresome, reflecting a kind of art deco merged with insistent modernity as exemplified in the First Class Lounge, where a coved and painted ceiling resting on neobaroque marble columns sheltered above overstuffed club chairs covered in startling zebra patterns.26
Copyright © 2020 by Greg King and Penny Wilson