Italian Seafaring in Ancient Times

Since ancient times, Italy’s unique geographical position in the centre of the Mediterranean has been dramatically strategic for the rapid development of navigation. The presence of safe anchorages in the peninsula and the length of its coasts have offered the most favorable conditions for the successive settlement of Etruscans, people of Syracuse, Taranto and Anzio, and have enabled the navigation of the Mediterranean Sea where trades and piracy raids were carried out over the centuries.

The Roman fleet also played a vital role in the conquest of the Mediterranean, as it succeeded in defeating at sea the dominant naval power of the time, Carthage. The decay of the Roman empire was also due to the decline of its navy.

Early Navies

In the late Middle Ages, after a long economic standstill, new sea-powers developed in order to support the Maritime Republics: Venice, Genoa, Pisa , Amalfi as well as Ancona, Cagliari, Gaeta, Palermo, Messina, Bari, Trani.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Italy enjoyed great prestige thanks to its unique and skilled skippers and engineers. The Italian seamen Da Noli, Cà da Mosto, Pessagno, the two Cabots, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Verazzano, just to name a few, carried out daring exploratory voyages broadening the boundaries of the old world, often on behalf of other nations. 

The Venetian naval power enabled the “Serenissima” to play a leading role in the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean for a long time, until its maritime superiority was threatened by Turkey growing maritime interests.

On October 7, 1571, Lepanto was the theatre of a historical naval engagement between the Christian fleets and the Muslim forces. Venetians, Genoeses, Tuscans, Neapolitans, took part in the great victorious battle with a large number of ships.

After the discovery of the Americas, the hub of the world trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, where the new rising empires Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Holland and France took on a leading role. However, despite its decline, the Mediterranean Sea still had an influence on the countries along its coasts.


Pre-Unitary Navies

The Royal Sardinian Navy

In the 19th century, the Kingdom of Sardinia was under the rule of the Savoy family and consisted of the northern regions of Liguria, Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont - near the French border - and the Island of Sardinia.

The Royal Sardinian Navy was established in 1814 thanks to the far-sighted project of Baron Giorgio Andrea Agnes Des Geneys (1761-1839). Originally, it was a small navy equipped with light units, mainly tasked with coastal defense and the protection of the merchant traffic from the Barbary pirate raids. Later, the Navy included frigates that could be operated on the high seas. Sardinian warships were also deployed to South America waters, especially off Brazil and to the Mar de la Plata. The ship’s deck crew consisted mainly of Ligurians and commands were given in French. However, it was not until January 7, 1815, after the formal acquisition of Liguria, that the new Navy would be constituted. The Savoy gained access to the strategically located Genoa port and benefitted from its excellent infrastructures: the arsenal, wet dock and shipyards.

In less than four years, Des Geneys’ commitment led to a remarkable development of the fleet which consisted of three frigates, one corvette, two brigantines, two schooners, four demi-galleys, two small launches and four gondolas.

On April 9, 1822, under the command of Baron Des Geneys, a naval squadron consisting of the frigates Maria Teresa and Commercio di Genova, the brigantines Nereide and Zeffiro, and the schooner Vigilante, manned by 2,000 crewmembers, sailed from Genoa and reached Morocco to sign a trade agreement which had been strongly supported by the Genoese ship-owners. In 1835 Baron Des Geneys carried out counter-piracy operations against Tripoli aimed at further thwarting the raids by Barbary pirates on the coasts of the Sardinian kingdom.
During his ten years reign (1821-1831), Carlo Felice of Savoy promoted a substantial boost of the Sardinian Navy. Its vessels were engaged in the protection of merchant traffic, which was steadily growing after the peace agreements with the Barbary states.

Under the reign of Carlo Alberto (1831-1849) the development of the Royal Navy was significantly downsized. However, Des Geneys continued to support trade initiatives mainly in the enterprising Ligurian colonies established in South America.

On February 25, 1834, for the first time the frigate Des Geneys set sail to cross the Atlantic Ocean to reach Rio de Janeiro. In August 1836, the frigate Euridice reached Montevideo. On September 8, 1838, the frigate Regina set off from Genoa to attempt the circumnavigation of the globe. Admiral Des Geneys died in Genoa on January 8, 1839.

By Royal Decree dated October 11, 1850, the Navy was included in the so called “Ministry of the Navy, Agriculture and Commerce.” Within the new Department, Prime Minister Massimo D’Azeglio set up an ad hoc body, led by a high-profile figure, Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, tasked to give a joint boost to home economy and the embryonic industry. Until 1859, the Ministry was headed by Alfonso La Marmora, except the short time between 1856 and 1857 during which he was in command of the Crimean expeditionary force. He was substituted by Cavour. The experience acquired during the Crimean War was very helpful when the Sardinian Navy became the core of the newly formed Italian Navy. In 1857 it was decided by act of Parliament to transfer the Navy to La Spezia.

The Tuscan Navy

The Tuscan Navy descended from the medieval maritime republic of Pisa. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany made limited investments to modernize his Navy so that it declined progressively, limiting its naval activities to the defense against the Barbary pirates threatening the Tuscan coasts. Until the Italian unification, the pre-existing coastal defense systems, based on fortified watch-towers and defensive works, were the only facilities to be strengthened in the naval field. In 1816 the Tuscan fleet comprised a brigantine, a schooner, a xebec, four gun-boats and three small sailing boats, which played a mostly defensive role.

In the following years, the cease-fire agreed with the Muslim regencies of Africa led to a dramatic downsizing of the Navy. After the 1849 Restoration, the reorganization of the Tuscan armed forces and the rearmament plans provided for by the Army Commander Federico Ferrari da Grado in 1857, involved also the Navy. 

The Papal Navy

The Papal Navy’s sole objective was to play an active role in the struggle against non-believers. Within this context, in 1571 a papal squadron successfully took part in the Battle of Lepanto together with other Christian powers.

In 1823 the papal fleet comprised the 12-gun schooner San Pietro, a cutter, a felucca and a gig. Two squadrons, consisting of twelve patrol boats, were engaged in coast guard duties and counter smuggling operations along the Adriatic coasts and in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In the 1840’s Commander Alessandro Cialdi, head of the Papal Navy, implemented a structural improvement program. He organized and led an expedition to Egypt, sailing up the Nile. In 1842 he purchased three paddle-steamers built in England, capable of sailing upstream the river Tiber, the main trade route of the time which also offered two dockings in the centre of Rome: Ripa Grande and Ripetta. The three streamers were joined by a fourth ship called Roma, which took part in the First Independence War (1848) under the command of Lt. Col. Cialdi.
During the Roman Republic, the ship Roma distinguished herself off Ancona and, exploiting steam-power in the period of calm sea, contrasted successfully the Austrian sailing fleet, which had besieged the Adriatic city.

In 1856 the separate Navy (Marina da Guerra), the Finance Navy (Marina di Finanza) and the Tiber Navy (Marina del Tevere) administrations were merged and referred to as Pontifical Navy. In 1869, under the command of Lt. Col. Cialdi, the Papal Navy received a substantial boost, mainly after the acquisition of the steam corvette Immacolata Concezione, whose lifeboat is currently housed in the National Museum of Science and Technology “Leonardo da Vinci” in Milan, while her flag and scale model are now exhibited in the Vatican Historical Museum in the Lateran Palace, Rome. In 1865, the Jesuit astrophysicist Pietro Angelo Secchi, scientific advisor to the Pope, carried out his experiments on board the Immacolata Concezione to test a device used to monitor water transparency. This instrument, known as “Secchi disk”, still remains worldwide one of the most common and efficient devices in the study of limnology.

The Navy of the Two Sicilies

In June 1815, the Bourbon King Ferdinand IV reorganized the Armed Forces of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily) and, according to the Treaty of Casalanza, set up a board charged with the setting up of the new Navy.

With the advent of the steam-powered navigation, the king granted a monopoly to navigate with this new type of propulsion and ordered the laid-down of a 200 ton steamer. Named after Ferdinando I, this vessel was launched on June 24, 1818 and under the command of the Royal Navy Ensign Giuseppe Libetta, set sail on September 27 for her first voyage, reaching Naples, Livorno, Genoa and Marseille. 

The Navy was divided into three operation naval districts: Naples, Palermo and Messina, while administratively it was divided into a military branch and an administrative one which both reported to the Navy Council.

In 1820 the Navy was considerably strengthened and could dispose of three Naval Divisions consisting of as many as 70 warships with different tonnage, yet, most of them light weight.
In the years 1827-1828, the Castellammare di Stabia Shipyards launched the 44-gun frigate Regina Isabella, the 32-gun corvette Cristina and the brigs Principe Carlo and Francesco I. In 1830 the fleet was joined by the sail-boat Etna, in 1832 by the 18-gun bric Zeffiro, in 1834 by the 50-gun frigate Partenope and the 46-gun frigate Urania.

Due to his strong interest in steam-powered navigation, in 1834 King Ferdinand purchased three English steamers which were renamed Ferdinando II, Nettuno and San Venefrido. He replaced the English naval engineers and established the “Royal Military Mechanical Works” (Real Opificio Meccanico Militare) in Pietrarsa and the first Italian “Mechanical Engineers School” (Scuola di Ingegneri Meccanici).

After the arrival of General Garibaldi in Naples, the history of the Bourbon Navy ended with the fall of Gaeta on February 15, 1861.