The Italia in the English Channel in June 1978 in her Costa livery. (FotoFlite)

Precisely pinpointing the genesis of the modern cruise industry is an impossible task but a significant milestone can be traced to a collection of bespoke ships that emerged in the mid to late 1960s. Perhaps the greatest irony of this new fleet’s success is that it was dependent on a symbiotic relationship with the airlines. In effect the jet, the ocean liner’s nemesis and vanquisher, became the cruise ship‘s greatest ally.

One of the most impressive of this new breed of cruise ships was laid down at the Felszegi shipyard, Muggia on 23rd June 1963. These were the halcyon days of Italian post-war shipbuilding, and yard number 76 would become the final works of two of the era’s greatest exponents of external and internal ship design, Nicolò Costanzi and Gustavo Pulitzer Finali. The new ship certainly borrowed design elements from Costanzi’s other work, especially the Oceanic, then being built in the nearby Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico (CRDA) yard at Monfalcone. Nevertheless she was also highly original, part of a generation that broke away entirely from the concept of the passenger ship as a means of transport, towards the notion of passenger ship as a holiday destination.

Italia was ordered by Sunsarda S.p.A, a subsidiary of the Giacomelli Group which also owned the shipyard amongst its diverse business interests. She was originally to be one of a pair and the intention from the start was to supply the expanding charter market, however despite the merits of her design she would endure a long and troubled gestation. Construction delays can be traced to several factors, a lack of skilled labour due in part to the demand from rival yards, a lack of and delays in supplying materials for similar reasons and arguably most significantly the owner and builders perilous financial position. Amongst the usual ceremony Italia was named and launched into the Adriatic on 20th April 1965, but when first the line and then the builders were declared insolvent, the incomplete hull was transferred to the largest creditor, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL).

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BNL ultimately arranged for the ship to be completed, thereby securing the shipyard workforce’s short term future and established a new company, Crociere d’Oltremare, to manage the completion, operation and ultimately sale of the vessel. Plans for the second ship were quietly dropped. Thus it was four years and three months after the initial keel laying that Italia finally departed her builders for trials in the Gulf of Trieste.

At 12,219grt, the 149.78 metre long ship was small by modern standards. Her aft engines configuration created the archetypical cruise ship silhouette and there are clear similarities to Oceanic, arguably Costanzi‘s seminal design, with a heavily raked mast situated above the bridge, a large central lido and a funnel sited aft. The latter was located above a deckhouse that incorporated air-conditioning and ventilation machinery as well as the ship’s Gymnasium. Amongst the plethora of weird and wonderful stack designs proliferating from the world’s (and especially Italian) shipyards at that time, Italia’s was amongst the most unique. It actually almost defies description but ‘sculpted’ is perhaps the most accurate adjective. It is also the most appropriate because unlike Michelangelo and Raffaello, or even the Lloyd Triestino twins and Eugenio C, it was not designed by an aeronautical scientist but by a local Trieste sculptor, Ugo Carà.

The Italia arriving at Lisbon in April 1977. (Don Smith/photo-transport.com)

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