By the turn of the 1960’s, it was abundantly clear that commercial jets had decisively defeated the transatlantic liner as the most popular way to cross between Europe and America. In just four short years from 1958 onward, the big jets had seized more than seventy per cent of the travelling trade.
For the great ocean liners, the writing was not so much on the wall as in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the Boeing 707’s and DC-8’s that could cross the Atlantic in mere hours, as opposed to days. The Atlantic liner seemed as outmoded as the dinosaur, and every bit as doomed to extinction.
All of which made the decision in 1958 of the Italian Line to build not one, but two huge new ocean liners for the trade between Italy and New York seem nothing short of incredible. Not only that, but the two vessels would be siblings, and the largest liners built in Italy since before the war.
At 45,000 and 46,000 tons respectively, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello would be floating showcases for Italian art, style and culture; ships of state in every sense of the word. In their design, they would embody a mixture of the strikingly modern and the truly backward.
For a start, they would remain strictly three class ships, an anachronism in an age where civil rights was steamrollering all in its path. And, amazingly, none of the cabins in third class had portholes of any kind.
Technically, each ship was crowned by a brace of stout funnels, wrapped in a kind of birdcage, and topped by a racy, aft facing wind deflector that resembled a widow’s peak. The purpose of this was to deflect funnel smoke away from the ship, through the sides of the caging. It is a design adapted often on modern ships these days, but it featured first on those two Italian show ponies from 1965.
Sailing against the odds from Day One, the Michelangelo and Raffaello were built primarily to give work to the Italian shipyards, as well as harbour workers and the crews that would sail them. And the Italians also managed to convince themselves that, for them at least, there was a chance that these twin superstars could defy the airborne threat completely. Why?
In the peak summer months of 1964, even older liners like the Queen Elizabeth were still sailing full between Europe and New York. Never mind that the numbers for the off season were disastrous. The Italians also noted that the 1962 built SS France- the longest liner ever built- was still sailing at an average occupancy rate of something like eighty per cent, year round. To these crumbs of comfort, Italian Line directors in Genoa added a few of their own.
Like the Greeks, the Italian people have always been particularly sea minded as a race. The jets took much, much longer to gain a foothold on the routes from Italy to America than they did in the northern hemisphere. Throughout the early sixties, their people continued to patronise liners sailing from Italy and Greece in large numbers.
And those voyages from Italy to America and back had a far more languid, indolent quality than did those crossing on the often stormy run between England, France and America. The Italian liners started from sunny Genoa, calling at Naples, Cannes and sometimes Barcelona, before passing through the Straits of Gibraltar and heading north west for New York. Basking for much of the way in sunny climes, these voyages had more of an outdoor, Riviera style emphasis and vibe.
Each class had it’s own, open lido deck with a pool, surrounded by sun loungers and umbrella shaded tables and chairs. Smartly turned out Italian waiters delivered drinks and snacks, creating a dolce vita lifestyle out on the ocean. It was all very appealing and, with the Michelangelo and Raffaello, this Fellini-esque sense of style and indulgence would be taken to new heights.
Both of these graceful giants were built in Italy; the Michelangelo at the Ansaldo shipyard in Genoa, and the Raffaello just across the country, in Trieste. Like all their forebears, the two sisters were strikingly beautiful creations; bold and yet, at the same time, instantly familiar to generations of seafaring men.
Each ship had the gorgeous, raked clipper bow and elegant counter stern that was virtually an Italian line trademark. Crowned by those graceful lattice funnels and painted in bridal white from stem to stern, Michelangelo and Raffaello were suave, striking ripostes to the all conquering airborne armada. Follies they may have been, but that did not detract one bit from the sheer dazzle, finery and sense of panache that both ships exuded. By any standards, they were a quite extraordinary pair.
Of the two, it was the Michelangelo that got away first. She left on her maiden voyage to New York that May of 1965, and arrived in Manhattan to a gala welcome of buzzing helicopters, spraying fire boats, and an escort of tugs that conveyed her all the way to her Manhattan pier. The new Italian flagship seemed to have made an auspicious debut.
But the Michelangelo encountered serious vibration issues at full speed, a problem that would initially also dog the Raffaello. It was cured that same December, by a dry docking that replaced the propellers. Following this, the ship re-entered commercial service.
Meanwhile, the Raffaello had by now joined her sister ship in service, crossing to New York on her maiden voyage in July of 1965. Her Art Deco interiors received a lot more critical acclaim than the more modern, sixties interior styling of the Michelangelo. At 46,000 tons, Raffaello was a full thousand tons larger than her sister. Each of these twin liners cost some $45 million to build.
Yet it was always the Michelangelo that seemed to command the bulk of the media attention. And not always for the right reasons.
In April of 1966, the Michelangelo was bound from Genoa for New York, when a huge freak wave crashed over her bow in mid ocean. The force of impact caused the forward superstructure just below the bridge to crumple like so much wet cardboard. A large part of the aluminium bulkhead was simply slammed backwards. Two passengers were swept out to sea, and another crewman died later. More than fifty passengers were injured to varying degrees during the accident.
The Michelangelo eventually limped into New York two days later. Once home, urgent repairs were carried out. All the aluminium in the forward bulkhead was replaced by steel; the same precaution was subsequently carried out not only on the Raffaello, but also on the France and the SS United States. Following repairs, the ship resumed service on the Genoa to New York run.
For a while, the two Italian liners did, indeed, hold their own against the jets. Passenger numbers were encouraging right through 1968. Both ships became a byword for style and flair. In summer, they were often completely sold out.
When either ship arrived in or departed from New York, tug boat captains had to drape white canvas sheets over their bows, so that the grimy tugs’ pushing and shoving would affect their brilliant white paintwork as little as possible. On board, all was Italian flair and finesse.Between them, the two sisters represented the only truly stylish way to sail from Bella Italia to America.
But reality was ready to intervene, stage left. As the sixties ended, more and more passengers began taking to the faster, more economical jets. Both sisters were sent on cruises, mainly down to the Caribbean in winter, with increasing frequency. Here, their true major weakness became fatally apparent.
Simply put, Michelangelo and Raffaello had far too many small, inside cabins to work as successful cruise ships. And it was a shortcoming that could only be put right at astronomical expense. A cost that, as things turned out, the Italian Line had neither time nor means to carry through.
As things got worse, strikes among both the on board crews and the Italian dockers broke out like a series of random forest fires. It became nothing unusual for the two ships to sail in and out of New York days off their advertised schedule. With that, they lost their two most vital playing cards- punctuality and reliability.
The final nail in the coffin was the massive increase in oil prices that resulted from the machinations of the OPEC oil cartel in the early seventies. Both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello had a massive operating subsidy from the Italian government. It was the only thing that kept them afloat, both financially and actually.
By 1975, this figure had ballooned to around a hundred million lire-around $150,000 a day- for each ship. The fast, powerful sister ships guzzled crude oil as if it were so much cheap table wine. The Italian government folded, and threw in its hand.
The proud Raffaello sailed from New York for the last time in April, 1975. Among the passengers on that final crossing was the ailing Duchess of Windsor, the wife of Edward VIII. That same July, the Michelangelo sailed eastbound for the last time, too.
Following their withdrawal, both ships were laid up together at the naval base of La Spezia, and put up for sale. Their future did not look good; they were far too expensive to convert into cruise ships and, by the standards of the mid seventies, both ships were far too big for such a role anyway.
Even so, the Italian Line turned down a genuine bid from the rival Home Lines, who were seriously intent both on buying both sisters, and investing the sums required to make them into modern, contemporary cruise ships.They would have been based primarily in the Caribbean. For reasons that have never been adequately clarified, the Italian Line threw this lifeline to the winds with a dismissive shrug.
Knut Kloster, the CEO of then Norwegian Caribbean Lines, also looked at the two ships. He intended to convert at least one of the four massive, laid up transatlantic liners into an all singing, razzle dazzle cruise ship for the new generation of nascent cruisers then emerging. Though impressed by both Italian ships, Kloster ultimately plumped for the larger SS France, reincarnating her as the Norway, and thus making her a legend for the second time in her career.
Eventually, both ships were bought by the Shah of Iran, to use as accommodation barracks for his armed forces. In 1976, the two sisters sailed round to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Having cost something like $90 million to build between them, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello were offloaded for a total cost of $4 million.
Soon, plans began in Iran itself to reactivate the two vessels as full time cruise ships. But the Shah’s three decade old, repressive regime was itself on borrowed time. With the accession to power in Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, any realistic attempt at revival sank on the spot.
The Iranians made a bad job of maintaining the ships to any level of decency.They simply did not have the necessary experience. Both began going downhill quite quickly. And Iran’s pariah status post 1979 made the possibility of foreign experts being brought in a complete non starter.
The end was long, and drawn out, with both sister ships slowly degrading at their Bandar Abbas anchorage. In 1983, the Raffaello was hit by a torpedo during the Iran-Iraq war. She sank in shallow water and, over the next few years, divers and looters scavenged the ship. Parts of her hull still exist, just under water, to this day.
Another abortive attempt to resurrect the surviving Michelangelo as a cruise ship was made that same year of 1983. But a specially assembled Italian survey team concluded that the ship had already endured such overall neglect that reviving her was simply not feasible.
She lingered there at Bandar Abbas, gathering rust and rotting, until 1991, when her once graceful hulk was quietly towed around to Pakistan. Here, at Gadani Beach, the ship that had once carried the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Wallis Simpson was hauled ashore and butchered. It took months to dismantle her carcass.
Michelangelo and Raffaello were bold, beautiful, and totally unrealistic. Many of their features were space age, but the thinking that charted their construction and subsequent operation was often backward and stubborn to the point of madness. Caught between the rock of the OPEC oil crisis and the hard place of the Iran-Iraq conflict, they never really had a chance.