Of all those great glorious ‘Ships of State’ that came into being in the thirties, I have always had a especially soft spot for the sublime Conte Di Savoia.
Part of that feeling stems from my impression that she never, ever really got the acclaim that she deserved. Beaten in the speed stakes by her near sister, Rex, and then overshadowed just two years later by the genesis of, first, Normandie and then the Queen Mary, the graceful Italian giant seemed to somehow fall between two stools.
She lasted in commercial service for less than a decade, before the increasingly erratic sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini catapulted the world into the most destructive conflict in living memory. In the course of this, the great, glorious Conte Di Savoia would suffer an ultimately fiery demise in the last months of 1944.
Of course, both she and the Rex were built to be the most fabulous, flamboyant expressions of Italian art, science and style anywhere. When rival lines steered full speed ahead into the age of Art Deco, the two Italian beauties remained almost magnificently aloof; a pair of great, gilded confections that combined over the top public spaces with the sheer joy and sassy dolce vita lifestyle of the mother country. By any modern standard of accounting, both ships were superb.
Like the Rex, Conte Di Savoia was advertised as ‘The Riviera Afloat’, a happy coincidence of the route they were obliged to sail, between the usually sunny Mediterranean to New York and back.
While the ships on the colder, busier northern route were largely enclosed creations, the Conte Di Savoia boasted open air swimming pools in specially constructed lido decks, surrounded by real sand. They sat in the middle of sun splashed open decks, sprinkled with umbrella shaded tables, chairs and sun loungers.On both ships, the Italian Line created a kind of raffish, indolent, carefree vibe that made them true standouts. For a few carefree years, it would endear them to many who preferred the pleasures of the ‘Sunny Southern’ route to the northern alternative from Southampton, Bremerhaven and Le Havre.
Despite their pace and panache, both ships began to suffer in the economic back draft that resulted from Benito Mussolini’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. As slightly- and it was only slightly- the slower of the two ships, I have often wondered if this impacted more on the Conte Di Savoia than on the faster, slightly more flashy Rex. In either event, both ships were on borrowed time by June of 1940, when Mussolini’s poorly equipped legions loomed into the south of France in ‘support’ of an ally who had already swept the board.
Truth be told, neither ship was ever really a massive financial success. But, like the French, the Italians measured profits more in terms of the style, flair and prestige these two great liners brought to Italy as a country. And for sure, the Conte Di Savoia had style in spades.
I have always felt that she was marginally the prettier of the two ships. Her twin stacks were staunch, graceful affairs. She always seemed to me to be somehow more fuller, matronly and rounded out than the Rex. Finely styled, immaculately served and, of course, beautifully fed, the Conte Di Savoia was, for me, the finest ship ever to make the fabled run from Genoa to New York. In so many ways, she was the apogee of the great Italian steamships.
I will always feel a sense of palpable regret that I never got to sail on her. In my mind, I rarely envision her tragic, fiery death, or the passing of her capsized carcass as it was towed away to be butchered in some scrap starved, post war Jugoslav shipbreakers.
What I see instead is a ship filled with light and music, a magnificent, majestic vision, casting off from her berth in Genoa on a warm summer night. There is laughter, applause, the muted popping of champagne corks, and a tangled, twisted technicolor torrent of streamers flailing against her soaring, immaculate flank as she stands out into the early evening hue of the Mediterranean.
This bold, beautiful ship had bravado in spades, but luck never quite seemed to be with her. And, for the classy, sassy Conte Di Savoia to be seen as somehow always trailing in the wake of her sister ship-glorious as the Rex most certainly was- has always seemed to be more than a little unfair to me.
The great lady deserves better than that.