Cruise ships: In Seattle or Italy, they are meant to be impressive

Whether sitting in harbor or, tragically, tilted in the water, cruise ships are out of scale. Perhaps that is part of their attraction.

Crosscut archive image.

The Costa Concordia after it hit a rock

Whether sitting in harbor or, tragically, tilted in the water, cruise ships are out of scale. Perhaps that is part of their attraction.

As it happens, on Friday the 13th of this month, along with many others, my wife Patricia and I took a passeggiata on the boardwalk at the port in Civitavecchia. We were spending the night in the city, and before setting out for dinner, decided on a walk. It was a crisp, very clear evening, and the sea was flat, as the Italians say, sereno.

There is a massive and beautiful 16th century century fort on the city’s edge at the port, attributed to many, including Bramante, but finished by Michelangelo. The impetus for the fort came from the Papacy, since Civitavecchia and the towns and land around it were then in the Papal States. The money for the fort’s construction came from the sale of the mineral salt alum.

The Pope was then in the big business of cornering the market on alum, a highly prized mordent and highly valuable commodity — the essential ingredient necessary for holding color fast to wool and silk. Dyers and luxury cloth producers throughout Europe depended on the Pope’s alum to finish their beautiful and very expensive cloth and yarn. The fort was built to protect the shipping out of Civitavecchia, by far the most valuable cargo being alum.

Agostino Chigi became Italy’s richest man selling the Pope’s alum. The nightly news from Rome almost always begins with an analysis of the happenings at the Palazzo Chigi, site of Italian government.

Since Friday evening, the news in Italy has begun with the latest revelations in the running aground of the giant cruise ship, the Costa Concordia. It’s been centuries since alum was the raison d’etre of Civitavecchia, also known as the Port of Rome. It’s now Europe’s second busiest passenger port, where ferries come and go to Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and ships dock that cruise Italy’s very scenic coastlines.

The Concordia, until its terrible mishap late in the evening of Friday the 13th, sailed weekly from Civitavecchia where it returned seven days later. As Patricia and I walked along the Port, we first took in the fort, having read in the guidebooks all about it. An architect and an artist, respectively, my wife and I tend to find such historic monuments of interest. But we also saw and were nonplused by a very tall brightly colored statue fashioned from the Eisenstaedt photograph of the Times Square embrace between a sailor and a nurse on VJ Day. We had no idea what it was doing there.

What actually stopped us in our tracks, however, was an enormous cruise ship, totally out of scale with its surroundings. Berthed at the nearest dock, it was many stories high, gleaming white, and several blocks long. It was all lit up. We immediately assured one another that it was really a city, couldn’t be something that actually plied the seas. We’d seen the white cruise ships that call at downtown Seattle, but this one would have easily dwarfed any of those.

We finished our walk fore and aft (the passeggiata involves walking alongside many others doing the same in one direction, and then at some apparently agreed upon point, turning around and proceeding in the opposite direction), and went and had a lovely risotto with the scent of the sea. When we left the restaurant, the ship, or the mirage alla Fellini, was gone.

In Italian, ferries and cruise ships do the same thing, they make crossings. To take a cruise is to ‘fare un crocciere’. The English word cruise comes from the 17th century and from the sea-faring Dutch, but is based, as is the Italian, on the Latin crux- the cross. Thinking about commodities making complex criss-crossing trajectories in the world of trade, the word makes sense. To call a week’s circular voyage a crossing, does seem a stretch.

The following day we hiked up a wooded mountainside with Angelo Padroni, a genial local historian, climbing to see abandoned alum mining sites. At one point, we were high enough to look out to the Civitavecchia port and the sea beyond. This occasioned a discussion about the port’s historic and current functions, and we recounted seeing the huge ship.

Angelo asked if we’d seen the morning’s paper, which we hadn’t. He explained that the ship, the very one we’d seen the night before, had beached itself about an hour after it left port and was now on its side lying lifeless very close to the island of Giglio.

Seeing the newspaper photos and the TV coverage on Saturday (Jan. 14) of the Concordia, I kept thinking of Gulliver’s Travels. The mammoth size of the ship instantly miniaturized its surroundings. In the days following the disaster, and as the number of dead continued to mount, the Italian newspapers devoted an ever-increasing number of pages  to coverage of the catastrophe.

Panoramas of the ship lying sideways in daylight and lit with emergency lights at night splashed across both sheets of the tabloid newspapers. There are probably several interlocking reasons for the attention the event has garnered in Italy. It was a terrible tragedy, and covering such events is, of course, one of the things newspapers do. Italy, along with Greece, is the pre-eminent cruise destination in Europe, and its luxury liners are considered  state of the art.

Despite the Euro crisis, or even perhaps because of it, the cruise line Costa, the ship’s operator, had been racking up profits. Travel on cruise ships, even for a few days, has been considered an affordable luxury, and the cruise business is a very visible sign of Italy’s economy.

Costa is now owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, an Anglo-American company, which also absorbed Cunard Lines, the company that launched the ill-fated Titanic. Over and over again Concordia passengers recounted how being on the ship as it began to sink seemed horribly right out of the movie Titanic.

In the articles that were written after the disaster, it was explained that the ships were that big because with thousands of passengers aboard, they could bring in equally large profits. No doubt there were good economic reasons for building a $450 million ship. But psychologically, the attraction of the ship, both upright and on its side seems to be its enormity.

The largest number of the passengers on the Concordia were in fact Italians, many of whom, in the countless articles and interviews recounted after the mishap, said this was their first (and surely their last) crossing. They were honey-mooners and retirees, starlets, vacationers and fun-seekers.

What they had paid for, and what they had dressed in  evening wear  that night for, was to see and be seen (a more theatrical version of the passiagata in which we had participated on Friday). With thousands of others on boards, there were plenty of eyes on everyone. But I would suggest that the greatest thrill was just being on such a colossus as it made Italy’s beautiful coastline small and easily digestible. The ship instantly inverted the scale of everything — the islands they were to sail by would be reduced to living stage sets, framed in the huge windows of the ship.

The sheer girth of the gargantuan ships in the Concordia’s class sailing into small harbors or Venice’s grand canal renders terrafirma harmless and quaint, except when a rock goes through the hull, which of course is part of the morbid appeal of the story. From shore, the effect is entirely the same: even sailing upright, the ship's size dramatically casts it as being central to the scenery. In fact it is being said that the ship’s captain had taken the Concordia off course, close to Giglio, to show off its gleaming, lit-up presence to one of his colleagues who lives on the island (but wasn’t on the island that night).

In other words, it appears that the attraction of the ship for its passengers is the way it produces a basic and thrilling disorientation — one that was to come without seasickness or terrorist threats. Cruise ships had been considered a very safe alternative to the ever more compromised and uncomfortable business of flying. And while being on an airplane perhaps provides a small window’s vantage point on the world passing swiftly by below, the enormous ship offers acres of high-up viewing decks as the toy islands and coastline glide smoothly past.

There are now calls in the European Union and the Italian Senate for much stricter regulation of the giant cruise ships, as dangers from the tons of fuel they carry are being seen as an unacceptable risk to the environment. There is talk that they shouldn’t be allowed in certain waters. But it is being where they don’t belong that makes the giants so attractive in the first place. Imagine being a kid with a huge toy boat that almost takes up the entire bathtub.

There is something outrageously exciting, even naughty about the whole idea. And like entertainments written for kids, the out-of-scale aspect of the enterprise yields a sense of power to those without much of it. On one of the enormous cruise ships, a couple floating in new marital bliss would seem to hold the world in its gaze, swathed in glowing white as far as the eye can see. The world might not seem, at least for a week, out of whack or they so vulnerable.

(The writer is currently a fellow at the Northwest Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in Italy. He is in Italy investigating the historic role of alum.)


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