The construction took it’s time, partially because of the changes made to the planned designs, and finally the Michelangelo was launched on 16 September 1962 in Genoa Sestri shipyards. A representative of the Roman Catholic Church was present at the launch and gave the ship the church’s official blessing, and on this occasion Giuseppe Zuccoli, the chairman of Italia Line stated that “The future of marine travel, allowing 8 days instead of 8 hours to cross the Atlantic, resides in the height of luxury and the height of quality”. Was Laura Segni, the wife of the President of the Italian Republic, was chosen to launch the ship.
On 11 March 1965 she was ready to proceed on her sea trials, which she performed flawlessly (unlike the QE2 did four years later). The only issue were strong vibrations of the hull when steaming at full power, which were fixed in the successive winter.
Michelangelo was fully completed and delivered on 21 April 1965, 5 years from the start of her construction. The ship had cost Italian Line $50 million, but at the time Italian Line considered this a worthy investment.
As a last rehearsal she cruised in the Mediterranean sea.
On May 12. 1965, with great celebrations, the new pride of Italy started with 1.495 passengers for her maiden voyage from Genoa to New York, under the command of the Captain Mario Crepaz. The Michelangelo performed her service perfectly, and within two months she had a sister, the Raffaello. She gained popularity among the few passengers who chose to travel by sea with her great service that included for example 50 different types of pasta (how very Italian), and a steward that attended only to the needs of the passengers pets. As a sign of people´s affection to her, she soon received the nickname ‘Mic’.
As previously stated, the only thing that bothered the Italian Beauty were the vibrations in the stern that were very common on liners (the HAPAG’s Blue Ribbon winner Deutchland had such strong vibrations that she had to be withdrawn from transatlantic service).
To fix the vibrations, the Michelangelo’s screws and some parts of the transmission were modified during her first winter, overhaul in January 1966. The new propellers did not only provide more stability to the ship, they also increased her speed: on her post-refit trials the ship clocked an impressive speed of 31.59 knots, which made her theoretically the fifth-fastest liner in existence (surpassed only by Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, United States and France). It also meant that she was now faster than her sister, who had been slightly faster before, thanks to her slightly different hull shape. However the service speed remained still at the more economical 26.5 knots. The modifications were executed also on Raffaello.
Although she had gone through a successful overhaul in spring 1966, the year proved to be a dangerous one for the Michelangelo. While she was steaming into one exceptional storm in the middle of Atlantic Ocean, waves 20 meters high hit the ship again and again. One abnormal wave tore into the forward superstructure of the ship, tearing a great hole into it; the wave killed two passengers and one crew member.
This was the only serious accident ever to take place on the Michelangelo, since her repairs were very well done. She later survived a similar storm without any damage. On the page “Michelangelo accident” you can read one the exceptional and dramatic report about what happened that day.
The Michelangelo did not serve only on the Genoa-New York route, she also served in the northern Southampton-New York route and made occasional cruises, though from the start Italian Line recommended that the ships should not be used for cruises.
The times when the ships were simultaneously travelling on the transatlantic route were very exciting for the passengers. The two beauties would pass each other on the sea, both travelling at approximately 26 knots, thus passing each other with combined speed of over 50 knots. The ships would blow their horns, passengers would fire flares, fly balloons and the powerful wake shake the other ship. The ships were ordered to pass each other as near as was safely possible to get the most from such occasions.
As the years progressed, it was becoming more and more clear that the age of the great liners was over. Towards the end of the 60’s 96% of all transatlantic travellers did their crossings by air.
The English company Cunard Line withdrew both of their Queens in 1967 and 1968, respectively. In 1969 The advent of the new jet-airliners such as the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet and the supersonic Concorde set into flight for the first time, delivering the final blow for the liners.
That same year United States Lines withdrew their flagship United States from service partially because of strikes by the crew. The relations between Michelangelo’s owners and her crew did not always go well either. Trade union rules dictated that a ship of Michelangelo’s size needed a double crew, 725 on service and 725 on shore switching turn every two weeks.
This meant that the ship, that usually carried only about 400 passengers when her full passenger capacity was 1775, had a crew of 1450. This of course made her running costs extreme, with less and less passengers choosing to use her services. When Italian Line’s directors tried to negotiate with the crews representatives on cutting down the number of the crew, the trade unions refused all action and instead demanded raises to their wages, which meant that the Italian government had to subside the ships more to keep them running. It did not help the ship’s situation that the crew often started lightning strikes for the silliest reasons. They even walked out once because the crew was served tap water instead of mineral water (the story does not tell weather this happened on the Michelangelo or the Raffaello).Italian line tried to compensate for their losses with measures such as cutting the cruising speed of the ships and other measures, but to no avail.
In 1972 another idea for compensate their ever-grooving losses, was to offer trips with special prices in the US.
Although this promotion, not all people thought it was a good idea to pay even so small a price for a pleasure trip. It was soon clear to almost everyone that the Atlantic market was simply too small to support the once so large fleet. By the end of 1973, only four ships carried passengers from Europe to the US: the Michelangelo, Raffaello, Queen Elizabeth 2 and France. All of the ships were kept alive by alternative cruising, but most importantly government subsidiaries.
At this time the little money the Italian Twins did made was from cruising. Other than the strikes’ crews, also the complaints by the private cruise companies, because of the invasion of government competition in the Mediterranean cruise market, were not helpful to the situation.
Things turned even worse when the oil crisis began in 1974. The price of an oil barrel rose from $35 to $95 dollars almost overnight. Since the Michelangelo, like all other Atlantic liners of the time, used oil as fuel, her running cost became enormous.
Michelangelo spent most of 1974 and 1975 cruising instead of Atlantic crossings, but cruising was not the ultimate cure for her. Even though she had vast deck space (an important feature for a cruiseship), she was considered too large for the cruise market of that times. The irony is that in 1979 the biggest ship of the time, the “France”, was transformed into a cruiseship under the name Norway, and turned out very profitable.
As explained on the “Designing” page, the problem that impeded the success of cruising for the Michelangelo and Raffaello was the fact that their accommodations were divided into three classes: first, cabin and tourist. This was unacceptable on the cruise market, which was much more democratic than the liners were. The 700-odd tourist class cabins were considered “too spartan” by cruise passengers, and were not used on the Michelangelo’s cruises. Italian Line tried many different kinds of cruises for the ship, from the ordinary Carribean cruises into special voyages to Rio de Janeiro or Nordkapp (North Cape). None of the tried routes proved succesfull, and on 26 June 1975 the Michelangelo set out on her last crossing from New York to Genoa.
By 1975 the government subsidiaries to her were 100,000,000 lire per day, or $700 per passenger.
Italian newspapers started demanding reasons for why the taxpayer’s money was spent on the “floating memorials of a bygone era,” and proclaimed that the ships should be sunk, not subsidied. The Italian government stated that they simply could not keep paying Italian Lines 100 millions Lire a day to keep the ships running, and in spring 1975 the government informed Italian line that their ships wouldn’t receive any more government support. This meant the death of the Italian Sisters.
The Michelangelo might not have been a profitable ship, but she was well liked among the few people who travelled by liner. During her last crossing she carried 1.202 passengers, probably her record in the 70’s, all wanting to pay a final visit to her. Her last voyage was short from brilliant or solemn. The ships library and laundry were closed during the entire crossing, the shops closed soon after leaving New York, the cigarettes and schnapps ran out, the air conditioning was switched off while Mid-Atlantic, the once exceptional service was sloppy and souvenir hunters were “taking into custody” everything that was not secured.
On 12 July 1975, Captain Claudio Consulich steered the ship into the port of Genoa for the last time, and the successful docking was greeted by shouts “Bravo Capitano!” both from the ship and the several thousand people standing on the pier. Before the passengers had a chance to leave the ship, the crew started taking down wall decorations and packing the cutlery and crockery.
So after only 10 years of service, 121 Atlantic crossings and 245 839 passengers for line trips, the flagship of Italy was laid up.
After spending a short time in Genoa, the Michelangelo was sent to La Spezia, sadly to be laid up too near an infamous scrapyard.
There she met her sister for the last time. However, her destiny was not to be scrapped just yet. Several steamship lines eyed the sisters for purchase, but most deemed the ships too large. In fact, in the ’60s and ’70s the cruise market was still developing. Cruise travels were a kind of status symbol and few people could afford such holidays. For this reason, the bigger cruise ships of that times were about 30.000 tons tonnage in size.
The Norwegian shipowner Knud Kloster visited the ships and he preferred buying the Michelangelo and Raffaello instead of the France, because their outside decks were more suitable for cruises. They were more spacious and had 3 pools, absent on the France’s decks. Unfortunately he decided to buy France instead because she required less transformation work inside and already had more portholes. Also the companies Chandris and the Costa Armatori of Genoa didn’t want the ships for the same reasons: costs.
The American company “Home Lines” wished really buy the ships, but they were incredibly turned down by the Italian Line who did not wish to be associated with the embarrassing money-losers. The Home Lines wanted to keep the ships under Italian flag and use them with Italian crew for Caribbean cruises. Italian Lines’ answer was a firm “No”. Finally, in 1976 a buyer emerged who would fulfil Italian Line’s demands. The Shah of Persia wanted to buy the great ships and use them as barrack ships for army personnel and oil workers.
With great disappointing from all the people who travelled on them and of all the people who worked years at their construction, Italian Line accepted and in December 1976 a deal was struck. The prides of Italy that had originally cost $45 million each, were sold for only $2 million each.
Emptied by their original furnishings, in July 1977 the Michelangelo set out on her last voyage under her own power to Bandar Abbas, a port in south-east Persia, where she was permanently moored. In the presence of the Shah she was now officially made a citizen of Persia, but fortunately she still retained her original name and 50 Italian workers were permanently employed aboard for her care and maintenance. During 1977 she was rebuilt to accommodate 1 800 personnel.
For 15 years the Michelangelo served as a barracks ship, but after the Shah of Persia was overthrown in the late ’70s, the Italian personnel was dismissed and returned to Italy.
In 1978 one reconstruction of the two ships was suggested to utilise them as cruise ships catering to a deluxe clientele, reducing the passenger capacity to 1.300 persons. The project foresaw also two new names for Michelangelo and Raffaello: “Scià Reza il Grande” and “Ciro il Grande” (‘Shah Reza the Big’ and ‘Ciro the Big’ respectively).
A commission of experts, purposely sent from Italy to examine the ships and execute some maintenances, immediately noticed the poor state of the ships. The hulls were rusted, the wood that covered the outside decks was becoming deformed by the sun, and their interiors were invaded by rats. It was clear that these ships, who only a few years prior, were the admirals of the Italian fleet, would never sail again.
Before 1983, was rumoured around Italy the possibility of recovering the ships by some non Italian agents, but it never became true.
The great Michelangelo continued to be neglected, rust covering her fine lines and rats inhabiting her once so gracious halls. Finally in 1991 the officials of Persia, now called Iran, decided that the ship was too old for any use and she was towed into a Pakistani scrapyard, where she arrived on 7 June 1991. There, the specialists started to dismantled the once great, majestic ship. For several years, the street dealers of Karachi sold “memorablia” from the Michelangelo: kitchen equipment, water taps and toilet bowls…
This was the end of the greatest Italian liner ever.