Warship Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019: Last Hurrah of the Pope’s Navy

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019: Last Hurrah of the Pope’s Navy

National Library of Rome.

Here we see the pontifical steam corvette Immacolata Concezione (Immaculate Conception) at the Papal port of Civitavecchia in 1860. She was the final ship of the Papal Navy (Marina Pontificia).

On 17 November 1860 King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia (who would be crowned King of unified Italy as a whole four months later) decreed that the Sardinian, Partenopea, Sicilian, Tuscany and Pontifical fleets would be merged into a new Royal Italian Navy, the Regia Marina. However, the body would not be made official until Victor sat on the unified throne in March 1861 following the proclamation of the formation of the Kingdom of Italy.

While the Papal Navy dates to the 9th Century and fought an epic series of engagements (see= the Battle of Lepanto) against the Ottomans and various pirate forces over its existence, most of that is far out of our scope. Operating steamers since the 1830s and proving themselves off Egypt, as far as I can tell the largest, most modern and best-equipped vessel the Pope ever fielded was the Immacolata Concezione.

Constructed by Thames Iron Works & Shipbuilding Co., Orchard Yard, Blackwall in 1859, she was intended as an armed yacht capable of carrying Pope Pius IX on visits from Rome abroad, for instance to the Holy Land. Some 178-feet long, she was powered by a single steam engine with an auxiliary brigantine schooner rig and armed with eight 18-pounders.

From the August 20, 1859 edition of The Illustrated London News.

Cardinal Wiseman and a “distinguished gathering of Catholics saw her off from the Thames ironworks at Blackwell,” notes a 1939 archival article.

The new corvette (pirocorvetta) was the flagship of the 300-man Papal Navy, and, as taken below from the 1869 Statesman’s Yearbook, remained its most important vessel.

In her term of service, Immacolata Concezione was used to suppress smuggling on the Lazio coast and clocked in against the Piedmontese in 1860.

The 1860s era uniforms of the Pontifical fleet, very similar to those of England of the same period.

However, all good things must come to an end and the Papal States, landlocked and confined to a portion of Rome by 1870, had no need of a Navy any longer.

With that, Pius largely disbanded the force but ordered Immacolata Concezione to sail in secret from Civitavecchia for friendly Toulon under the command of CAPT. Alessandro Cialdi, where she would remain a fleet-in-exile. The French allowed the move until Pius died in 1878. At the same time, the Regina Marina carried the vessel on their naval list to save face.

The newly installed Pope Leo XIII, with the Holy See lacking a “sea” port for eight years, ordered Immacolata Concezione disarmed and sold in November 1878 to the Dominican St. Elme school in Arcachon, France– an ecclesiastical naval college– for 50,000 francs, so that the school could utilize it for their cadets. Her naval flag (Bandiera Pontificia) was carried back to the Lateran Palace, where it remains today.

Said Dominican maritime college, though no doubt noble, could not afford the upkeep on such a fine vessel and sold the Immacolata Concezione to commercial interests in 1882, reportedly for double what they paid for it. The school went defunct shortly after.

The ship’s ultimate fate is not known, although she is reported by some sources to have been around until as late as 1905 in one form or another. One of her boats is in the collection of the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci” in Milan.

Nonetheless, Immacolata Concezione is well-remembered for a few different reasons.

While still in Papal service, she conducted some of the first serious research into aquatic pollution. This was done by Angelo Secchi in 1865 during a summer cruise around the med, with the literal blessing of the Pope. The Secchi disk, invented by the scientist that year, remains in use today.

Further, the Papal Navy is seen by the modern Italian Navy of today, the Marina Militare, as a forerunner and is counted as part of its historical lineage.

The more you know…

Displacement: 652 tons
Length: 178.8 ft.
Beam: 26.57 ft.
Propulsion: 150hp steam engine, one screw, 12 knots. Auxillary sail rig.
Crew: 46 to 52
Armament: 8 brass 18-pounder cannons

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