Achille Lauro’s palatial legacy
By James Brewer
A reminder of what was until the 1980s one of Europe’s greatest shipping fleets is a porticoed structure that looks out over the busy Piazza della Nunziata in a mixed residential, ecclesiastical and retail quarter of Genoa.
Palazzo Lauro, in the city’s historic district and a short distance from the sprawling port, was the administrative home of Lauro Line and its subsidiaries.
The building was beloved of empresario Achille Lauro who was a towering figure in the maritime life of Europe and the business, political and social scene of Italy for half a century. The words Flotta Lauro, the main business brand of the shipowner (1887-1982) who was also a newspaper editor and sports director, continues to be emblazoned on the façade.
Meticulously cared for, the impressive entrance hall and winding staircase of the elegant premises can these days be visited free by the public, although its grandeur is on a minor level compared with the great ducal palaces of the maritime republic of Genoa which are tourist attractions in neighbouring streets a short stroll away.
Palazzo Lauro recalls an era of flamboyant shipping magnates such as Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos. Achille Lauro’s power extended, together with that of members of his family, into the financial sphere well beyond the maritime sector. His romantic life kept the gossip columnists busy.
At the end of the 16th century the building was the town home of Nicolò Lomellini, father of Giacomo Lomellini, Grand Doge of Genoa at a time when the zone of Vallechiara was changing its nature from agricultural to urban. It became part of the network of Rolli palaces, which were reserved as lodgings for visiting nobility.
Nicolò reworked the garden, and this was followed by a reconstruction of the premises in the following century. It was recorded in1797 as one of the leading palaces in the name of Giuseppe Lomellini, who then made it over to the marquis Giacomo Durazzo. In the 19th century there were further changes of ownership involving the families Durazzo and De Mari.
The building was badly damaged by Allied bombing raids in 1943, and six years later Achille Lauro ordered a start on its restoration as a new prestige headquarters for his cruise and merchant fleet. He sought to celebrate the mercantile power of his business, as one of the information panels in the hallway puts it.
The reconstruction was led by architect Robaldo Morozzo della Rocca. He kept the original façade, and the ceiling of the new atrium was embellished with a fresco of angels in the style of the Genoese baroque painter Andrea Carlone after a mansion in nearby via San Luca.
In the atrium, one can climb the stairway that reaches to the top floor and view walls decorated in 1952 with features representing the four rival maritime republics of medieval times: Genoa, Venice, Pisa and Amalfi. Achille Lauro is depicted in a panel as Neptune.
Lauro died two years after his company went bankrupt, and the edifice was abandoned for a while. In 2003 it was acquired by Planetaria Hotels.
Completely restored, the building now comprises five floors of offices, although only one as far as can be ascertained, has direct connections to the shipping industry, and that is MOL Europe.
Lauro was at the centre of a phenomenon known as “laurismo”, which was an extensive network of interests around the cult of the ‘Comandante’ as he was known in Naples.
Born just outside Naples, Achille was the fifth of six sons of and Laura Cafiero and shipowner Gioacchino Lauro, and when his father died, he was left at the age of 20 to try to support his family from what he could make of his indebted business of three ships, which were then to be requisitioned in World War I.
After the war he created a company with employees as investors and began shipping coal from England to southern Italy and grain from Romania to Rotterdam. This was so successful that by the 1930s he had the largest private fleet in the Mediterranean basin. During the fascist era of the 1920s, he became national counsellor to the Camera dei Fasci e delle Corporazioni, with the support of the Ciano shipowning family. In the same period, he became president of Naples football club.
The day after Italy entered World War II, his 57 ships were expropriated by the government with compensation of a half share of the newspaper industry of Naples. After the liberation of that city in November 1943 he was arrested by the Allies and interned for two years, accused of collaboration with the fascists and suspected of having illegally enriched himself, but was eventually acquitted of all charges by the Court of Appeal in Naples.
He was among the astute post-war entrepreneurs who bought Liberty ships being sold cheaply by the US government, which gave rise to the highly profitable business of carrying thousands of Italian migrants to Australia and South America.
Freed of the cloud of suspicion of fascist-era collaboration, he re-entered politics, helping fund the new Monarchist Party and becoming for many years a controversial but popular mayor of Naples, overseeing its rebuilding, editing the daily paper Roma, and still at the head of its major football club. After a split in the monarchist party he founded a new party with a similar name which managed to get several deputies including himself elected to the national parliament. Later the majority group of that party entered the Italian Social Movement of the National Right.
The Lauro fleet got into financial difficulties in the 1970s and in 1987 the business collapsed, to be absorbed into MSC. In 1985 the name Achille Lauro was notorious around the world as the name of a cruiseship chartered to Chandris Line which was hijacked by a faction supporting the Palestine Liberation Organisation.In the terrorist episode, a disabled elderly American tourist was shot and killed. The ship had further years of service before catching fire and being abandoned off Somalia in 1994.
The ship had been ordered from De Schelde shipyard in Flushing in 1938 by Rotterdamsche Lloyd for the Dutch East Indies route, but construction was halted by the world war. The vessel was completed in 1946 as the 900-passenger Willem Ruys. That was the name of the grandson of the founder of Rotterdamsche Lloyd who was killed during the war.
The Willem Ruys was acquired by the Lauro group in 1964, rebuilt, and entered service in 1966 taking passengers to Australia. As the Achille Lauro the ship helped evacuate families of British servicemen during the Six Day War of 1967, and was converted to a cruiseship in early 1972, in the course of which suffering a severe fire – other misfortunes were a collision in 1975 and a fire in 1981.
Achille’s son Ercole had tried to save his father’s shipping interests, but failed to fight off the impact of the oil shock which hit all tanker fleets hard in the 1970s. The fleet was renamed Lauro Line in 1982 and put into receivership, passing into the hands of two businessmen who with a new company named Starlauro controlled a very large crude carrier Volere, and five cargoships named Cervo, Tigre, Gazzella, Palizzi, and Gioacchino Lauro and the cruiseship Achille Lauro.
In 1991, MSC bought out the partners to become sole shareholder, putting the assets into a new company Starlauro Crociere, later known as MSC Crociere. MSC Cruises was to develop into one of the world’s largest cruise lines.