The Italians had shown a distinct flair for bold and original designs with the Caio Duilio class of 1873/1880, designed by Benedetto Brin and closely imitated by the British in HMS Inflexible and succeeding classes. Italy's pre-eminent naval architect moved on to another startling new concept for the Regia Marina's next pair of capital ships, Italia and Lepanto, built at Castellammare and Livorno, respectively. These were the largest and fastest battleships afloat when finished, and carried the biggest guns. Both ships had one central military mast, in a layout common to most late 19th-century Italian steam warships. With six stacks, the huge central mast, and a towering crane on the quarterdeck, Italia had a profile like no other battleship of the era; Lepanto had a similar layout but made do with four funnels and a different arrangement of the boiler uptakes. Rather than a solid superstructure, the Italias made extensive use of hurricane decks, as had the Duilios. Though there were some similarities to the earlier ships, the Italia class's differences were pronounced; their originality, breathtaking.
First, both vessels were built primarily of steel, already recognized as the material of the future. They were higher freeboard vessels than the Duilios, and deployed their four 17" guns differently: these were barbette ships. The central citadel (or "redoubt") comprised a very large, off-center oval barbette with a pair of guns mounted on each side, staggered on each beam. Each gun could train independently, so theoretically the ship could be firing at four different targets with its main armament. As in the Duilio class, the rate of fire was very slow -- a common fault among battleships that relied on "monster guns." At the time they were building, it was thought that naval artillery could pierce any armor made; so, daringly, the ships were produced without any armor protection on the hulls; there was a 3" armored deck internally and the redoubt was protected by 19" compound armor. The unarmored ends relied on minute watertight subdivision. This plan was known as a cellular raft construction. Each vessel was designed to carry an entire 10,000-man infantry division for a Mediterranean crossing. Like the giant ocean liners of the World Wars, they were intended to have a strategic impact on campaigns by speedily deploying troops; but there is no record of this capability having been utilized.The Italias have been called battlecruisers, fast battleships, and armed transports by naval historians; but they defy categorization as stubbornly as a Fellini screenplay.
The Italia class pioneered many approaches to watertight subdivision. They had double bottoms and 16 watertight compartments. There were means of filling compartments with protective material, making them cofferdams against flooding in case of damage to the outer hull. Although not all of these strategems proved successful, the ships were years -- if not decades -- ahead of their time. However much of that lead was squandered in long build times. Both ships were laid down in 1876; at right, launch of the Italia at La Spezia, 1880. She did not commission until 8 years after the keel-laying; the Lepanto, not until August 1887, after 11 years building.
Specifications for the Italia class:
Dimensions: 409' x 74' x 28'8" Maximum draft full load: 33' Displacement: 13,678 tons (std.); 15,900 (deep laden). Hull freeboard: 25' Height of barbette lip from upper deck: 7'6" Armament: (4) 100-ton 17.7"/26 RML, (7) 5.9"/32 BLR, and (4) 4.7"/32 guns; (4) 14" torpedo tubes. Armor: Creusot steel. No belt. 19" redoubt, 16" boiler uptakes, 18" barbette tube/magazines, 4" conning tower, 4"/3" deck. Fuel capacity: 3,000 tons of coal. Propulsion: 8 oval and 16 cylindrical coal-fired boilers; (2) vertical compound engines developing 15,797 ihp, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 17.8 kts Italia; 18.4 kts Lepanto. Tactical radius: 5,000 nm @ 10 kts. Crew: 701.
Dimensions: 124.7m x 22.5m x 8.8m. Maximum draft full load: 10.1m Displacement: 13,678 tons (std.); 15,900 (deep laden). Hull freeboard: 7.62m Height of barbette lip from upper deck: 2.3m Armament: (4) 100-ton 450 mm/26 RML, (7) 150 mm/32 BLR, and (4) 119 mm/32 guns; (4) 356-mm torpedo tubes. Armor: Creusot steel. No belt. 483 mm redoubt, 406 mm boiler uptakes, 457 mm barbette tube/magazines, 102mm conning tower, 102/76 mm deck. Fuel capacity: 3,000 tons of coal. Propulsion: 8 oval and 16 cylindrical coal-fired boilers; (2) vertical compound engines developing 11,780 kW, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 33.9 km/hr Italia; 34.1 km/hr Lepanto. Tactical radius: 9,260 km @ 19 km/hr. Crew: 701.
Above, Lepanto steams through the Mediterranean in the 1880s. At left, Admiral Canevaro gathers with officers of Italia for a group portrait beneath the barrels of the ship's great guns in 1897. These 17.7-inch 26-caliber Model 431C guns weighed in at 102½ tons each. They fired a 2,000-pound (907-kilogram) shell with a muzzle velocity of 1,755 feet per second, or 535 meters. Like most warships, the Italias saw their secondary armament revamped several times in the course of their nearly 30 years in service. The world's largest and fastest battleships when they first commissioned, they did not hold onto these distinctions long. In a time of burgeoning technological advances, they were leapfrogged by foreign competitors within five years of entering service.
Nonetheless, these vessels were stoutly built. Both survived into the early 20th century. They were modernized in an 1890s rebuilding; Italia was rebuilt 1905-08 with four funnels, to resemble her sister; both received a pair of smaller masts in place of the huge central post. Lepanto served as a gunnery training ship from 1902, and later a depot ship at La Spezia from 1910-12. Briefly recommissioned in 1913-14, she was turned over to the breakers March 27, 1915. Her sister led an even longer life, serving as a torpedo training ship in 1909-10, then assisting in the defense of Taranto in 1914, and later at Brindisi. From Dec. 1917 to 1919, she underwent conversion to a bulk grain carrier and sailed for the Italian State Railways for some years in an attempt to avert famine and instability. Turned back to the Regia Marina in 1921, she was sold for scrapping at that point, thus just missing the Mussolini years.
Stern view of the Italia by Aldo Cherini, showing the vessel's homely buttock lines and capacious admiral's walk, circa 1885. Also visible from this angle, the daringly cantilevered sponson containing the starboard gun barbette. Enlarge
The end of the line: the Italia at Brindisi, 1917. Shields have been installed over her barbette guns. In her 1905-08 refit her tophamper was revised to four funnels and two masts. Enlarge
Renamed Stella d'Italia, the old ship was serving out her days as a gunnery training ship at Brindisi. Here the 17" guns are discharged in target practice, 1915.
Diagram showing how the 17.72" monster guns for the class were built up. They were manufactured at Armstrongs gun foundry, Elswick, Northumberland. Enlarged view
Profile of the Lepanto. Inside the ship's capacious hull was room for thousands of infantrymen and all their equipment in case the vessel needed to be used as a fast transport. Click here for an awesome enlarged view.