Masters of the Italian Line by Ian Sebire
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raffaello
As a child I was fascinated by ships and the sea, in truth of course I still am. Perhaps it is in the blood (Sebire may be of Norse origin, meaning ‘Sea Bright’), or the result of long summer holidays spent on Guernsey and Herm in the Channel Islands. Whatever the reason, passenger liners have always held a particular interest. If the mighty France/Norway remains my all-time favourite, the Italian Liners of the 1960’s, with their svelte profiles and often exotic names, collectively captivated me most.
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raffaello were the most prominent of these vessels and amongst the most significant passenger ships (the twins were the fourth longest and largest post-war built liners, exceeding P&O’s Canberra) of their era. Perversely I was aware of the ships long before I knew about the artists for which they are named, yet prior to the advent of the internet there was little information about them, especially in English. Peter C. Kohler changed all that in the late 1990’s with his superb history of the Italian Line entitled ‘The Lido Fleet’; my threadbare copy bears witness to the numerous times I have read it, or ‘dipped in’ and inevitably it was a key reference source for me.
Nevertheless, to my knowledge there has never been an English language book prior to ‘Masters of the Italian Line’ that focussed exclusively on these three magnificent vessels. My hope is that this book helps to fill that void.
Leonardo da Vinci remains, in my view, the most beautiful ship of all time; tangible evidence of the Italian genius for synthesising form and function. Unique, she also seems to have been a happy ship, imbued perhaps with the benevolent spirits of those seeking to avenge the loss of her predecessor, Andrea Doria. That she was unable to make the transition from ocean liner to cruise ship was particularly disappointing, her elegant silhouette would have graced the piers of every port she visited. Political sensibilities aside, making the switch would still have been difficult without reconfiguring the engine rooms and installing diesels to replace the thirsty turbines. Of course the fire at La Spezia in July 1980 destroyed all those dreams.
Inevitably Michelangelo will always be synonymous with her wave encounter on 12th April 1966. That single dreadful event overshadows a decade long career, during which the first of the ‘make work’ sister ships transported tens of thousands of passengers across the Atlantic and on languid pleasure cruises. She always took centre stage and inevitably her final departures from both New York and Genoa drew the largest audiences and media attention.
In contrast Raffaello has always seemed more distant and enigmatic. Perhaps it’s an Englishman’s penchant for the underdog, or more rationally my preference for her modern, bright, European decor but Raffaello has always been my favourite of the two. Pathos pervades both the superliners’ careers but the manner of her demise, sunk as an innocent ‘civilian’ victim by the Iraqi Air Force, gives her story a particularly sad final twist.
At times exhausting and frustrating, writing this book, including collating the information and photographs has nevertheless been a wonderfully rewarding experience. As a novice I am indebted to many people from several different countries who generously helped, those directly involved are included in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. There is however one person not mentioned who has been instrumental throughout. Thanks to a fortuitous delay in the departure of Fred Olsen’s ‘Black Watch’ several years ago, I met Nigel Lawrence, editor of Shipping Today and Yesterday magazine, at the end of Dover’s Prince of Wales pier. We got chatting and Nigel subsequently published my article about the Italian line in the magazine and has printed several of my ship biographies since, giving me the confidence to pursue this project and see it to fruition. I am really grateful.
Ian Sebire's new book Masters of the Italian Line is available for purchase now.