Conte di Savoia

Scott Houston McBee's rendering of the Conte di Savoia.
by Scott Houston McBee

My fascination for ocean liners began around the age of nine or ten when my parents took me to see a movie called “The Poseidon Adventure.” The opening scene, a giant ocean liner punching its way through a North Atlantic gale mesmerized me. I had never seen anything so big and yet so majestic moving through the water.

Her unique and unusual feature was the installation of the million dollar ($50 million in today’s currency) “Sperry gyro stabilizer.”
That image inspired me forever after. If I wasn’t drawing an ocean liner or reading about one, I was building one from scratch. I am not only fascinated by the architecture of ocean liners of certain eras but also the social, fashion, artistic movements that followed each era. I loved reading up on who traveled on which ships and where they traveled to. I fell in love with the glam/celebrity factor of the whole idea of traveling to Europe via ocean liner -- sailing day, dressing for dinner, all the formalities of travel that no one seems to care about anymore.

With my first showing of paintings of the great ocean liners at the Chinese Porcelain Company (see NYSD 11/14/08), I tried to capture some of that life gone by. One of my favorite liners is the Italian Conte di Savoia. To me she is the quintessential ocean liner -- fast, beautifully conceived, with sumptuous interiors and a warm friendly crew. Her crossings from Genoa to New York were mainly in the Gulf Stream which allowed for lots of time by the pools and on the lido deck. If I had my choice I would be traveling to Italy on her.

She was built by Cantiere Riuniti Dell Adriatico at Trieste, Italy in 1932 at a cost of $15 million. Christened by the Princess Marie Jose, wife of Italy’s Crown Prince Umberto before a crowd of 100,000 people, the ship’s name was personally selected by Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini in honor of (and to impress) the ruling House of Savoy.
Sailing day on the Conte Di Savoia.
The Conte di Savoia weighed in at 48,502 tons, 814 feet in length and 96 feet wide. She was powered by high pressure steam turbines that gave her an output of 120,000 horsepower. Her service speed was 27 knots. Her unique and unusual feature was the installation of the million dollar ($50 million in today’s currency) “Sperry gyro stabilizer,” because of which she was known as the “roll-less ship.” She was the first ship of any kind on the Atlantic run to have this new stabilizer system -- publicized as having the ability to greatly reduce the rolling and pitching of the ship in any weather. It was to be the end of seasickness which also made it a great selling feature to traveling public.

She carried 2200 passengers, 500 first class, 366 second class, 412 tourist class and 922 third class. A round trip, first class from Italy to New York was $770 per person. Your suite would consist of an outside room with two beds, a sitting room, a bath and toilet room, a baggage room and a verandah.
Sailing day on the Conte Di Savoia.
Each class on board had its own promenades, verandahs, and lounges. Her 11 decks featured a 900 ft-long, floor to ceiling, glass enclosed promenade, two large saltwater pools -- one indoor and one outdoor -- a gymnasium, four dining rooms, a variety of intimate lounges and bars, a shooting gallery, a winter garden and a garage for 30 automobiles.

Among the people of note who traveled on her were Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton, Gloria Swanson, Crown Prince Umberto of Italy, Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Prince of Savoy.

From a design viewpoint, the Conte di Savoia was a tour de force of Italian decorative splendor. Some of her public rooms were designed by Gustavo Pulitzer Finali, as well as the Studio Coppede of Florence and Suardo Studio of Trieste. One of her most beautiful public rooms, the immense first class main hall, the “Salone Colonna” was 117 ft long by 65 ft wide with a ceiling height of 24 ft. Its walls were furnished in rich marbles inspired by the Gallery of the Colonna Palace of Rome. There was a great domed ceiling featuring vast murals and impressive entrance ways and towering statues atop pedestals lining the port and starboard sides.
One of many lounges.
The pool area and one of many bars.
The Conte Di Savoia was an elegant looking ship with a sense of nobility and romance about her. Resembling a giant yacht, with rakish lines that gave one a sense of speed, she represented the best of Italy’s art and culture. When boarding her you were made to feel like you were already in Italy before you left the docks of New York.

The route she traveled was referred to as the “Sunny Southern Route.” In the 1930s, the Italian Line‘s service and cuisine were considered to be the finest on the Atlantic route. There was a heavy emphasis on the Conte Di Savoia’s abundance of outdoor deck space, cabanas and pools areas. Her crew had the reputation of always being warm and personable. I think that is why I’m drawn to this liner. I love the sun, water and all things Italian. I would have wanted to travel on her as a regular -- first class of course!
The “Salone Colonna” was 117 ft long by 65 ft wide with a ceiling height of 24 ft.
Conte Di Savoia’s orchestra.
Sailing day on the Conte Di Savoia were always a bit hectic and exciting. Anticipation was always in the air with a boarding passengers and families saying their good byes, with celebrities and their entourages, reporters and photographers, baggage handlers, steamer trunks, porters, company officials and the ship’s crew returning from their shore leave.

A typical Transatlantic crossing might go something like this: Daylight hours would be spent on the top most part of the ship -- a broad and long expanse of deck -- surrounding a large, brightly tiled pool filled with crystal clear sea water. Around the pool area people would be lounging in swim wear, stretching out on white soft towels to catch the sun’s rays while others would be sitting around tables, under brightly colored umbrellas playing cards or backgammon. Now and then a plunge in the pool, and then back to your wicker deck chair to finish your novel.
The glass enclosed promenade.
At night the brightly colored lights festooned around the pool and lido decks adding to the gleam of a full moon and the vast ocean night sky. Then the pool looks even more inviting with its pastel tiles brilliantly lit by the underwater lights. There would be some elegantly dressed passengers dancing under the stars to the Conte Di Savoia’s orchestra, with some passengers taking a stroll along the glass enclosed promenade on their way to a late dinner in one of the four dining rooms aboard.

The Conte Di Savoia continued her Atlantic service crossing until the spring of 1940. On her final sailing to New York, the Italian Line announced her service to be suspended due to the oncoming war with plans to resume that September of the same year when the war was expected to draw to an end. Returning to Italy, the Italian Line sent her to the Adriatic for safe keeping where she was laid up in Malamocco, near Venice.

On September 11, 1943, only eleven years after her launching, the Nazis ordered that the Conte Di Savoia be set afire to prevent it from escaping or falling into Allied hands. She burnt out completely and sank in shallow waters. She was eventually refloated in October of 1946 and sold to the scrappers at Monfalcone.
Scott McBee standing before his rendering of the the Conte Di Savoia.

Click here for NYSD Contents