16 June 2020

Achille Lauro - shipping magnate and politician

Businessman once dubbed the ‘Neapolitan Onassis’


Achille Lauro at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples, which he had built
Achille Lauro at the San Paolo Stadium in
Naples, which he had built
The businessman and politician Achille Lauro, who at his peak controlled the largest private shipping fleet in the Mediterranean and whose achievements as Mayor of Naples included building the San Paolo football stadium and the city’s main railway station, was born on this day in 1887 in Piano di Sorrento in Campania.

Lauro inherited a small number of ships from his father, Gioacchino, but lost them at the start of the First World War, when they were requisitioned by the government. When the conflict ended he had no money but managed to launch another fleet by creating a company that was essentially owned by its employees, who invested their savings in return for a share of the profits and a guarantee of employment.

Within little more than a decade, Flotta Lauro consisted of 21 vessels. Lauro's business plan avoided the union problems that were prevalent in the 1920s as his staff concentrated on making the business profitable, knowing that they would benefit too.

The company became renowned both for reliable service and punctuality and grew rapidly. By the 1930s Lauro owned the largest private fleet in the Mediterranean basin.

By the time Italy entered the Second World War, he was operating 57 ships. Again, his entire fleet was requisitioned by the state, but as a member of the Fascist party since 1933 Lauro was fully supportive of Mussolini, who compensated him by giving him 50 per cent of all Naples newspapers, which had previously been state controlled.

Lauro was elected Mayor of Naples in 1952 by a landslide margin
Lauro was elected Mayor of Naples
in 1952 by a landslide margin
His support for the Fascists became known to the Allies and when Italy surrendered in 1943 he was arrested as a collaborator and spent 22 months in jail. Ultimately he was cleared of any criminal activity and allowed to resume his business, albeit with a fleet reduced to just five boats. Ever the astute operator, however, he snapped up passenger vessels being sold off by American companies and capitalised on the mass migration of Italians to South America and Australia.

By the early 1950s, the Lauro line’s complement of ships was already back up to 50, re-establishing his position as the Mediterranean’s biggest shipping company.  Known often as 'Il Comandante', he was also dubbed 'the Neapolitan Onassis' after the Greek shipping magnate.

Lauro entered politics in 1952 when he stood for Mayor of Naples as a member of the Monarchist National Party, a political group that had continued to win support despite the nation’s vote to disband the royal family and become a republic after World War II.

He won a landslide victory, after which he presided over a massive building programme in Naples that included the construction of the Stadio San Paolo football stadium in Fuorigrotta as a new home for the city’s football club and a new railway station for the city at Piazza Garibaldi.  The city also saw multiple apartment blocks spring up.

Lauro moved into national politics after he had been ousted as Naples mayor in 1958 and was elected first as a deputy and then a senator in the Italian parliament.

The MS Surriento was an ex-US Marines transport ship that Lauro turned into a passenger liner
The MS Surriento was an ex-US Marines transport
ship that Lauro turned into a passenger liner
In the meantime, his business continued to progress. In 1973, he took back control of Flotta Lauro from his sons, who had managed it while he concentrated on politics but not, in his opinion, particularly well. He bought two giant oil tankers, the Coraggio and the Volere, and developed his media interests by moving into television, opening Canale 21, a Naples-based broadcaster that was the first privately-owned television channel in Europe.

Blue-eyed, handsome and always well dressed, Lauro had a reputation for womanising, having been sent away to sea by his father at the age of 14 after a dalliance with one of the family’s maids. His first wife, Angelina, who bore him three children, shared his affections with his mistress, Jolanda, who was mother to another son. After Angelina's death, Lauro, then 83, married Eliana Merolla, a beautiful young actress 50 years his junior.

The international oil crisis eventually caused Flotta Lauro to go into decline, plunging the company into deep financial difficulty.  In his efforts to shore up the business, Lauro sold scores of business and personal assets, including his house in the heart of Naples, his luxurious villa on the Sorrento peninsula, plus much of his collection of paintings, silverware, Capo di Monte porcelain and antique furniture, including a billiard table said to have belonged to Admiral Nelson.

When Lauro died, aged 95, in November 1982, the fleet was broken up and sold.

His popularity was such that thousands of Neapolitans turned out for his funeral. In Sorrento, a square was named after him.

Three years after his death, the name Achille Lauro became known to a wider audience in unfortunate circumstances after the MS Achille Lauro, a passenger liner registered in Rotterdam, was hijacked by members of the Palestine Liberation Front off the coast of Egypt.

The bathing area at Piano di Sorrento, the viillage where Achille Lauro was born
The bathing area at Piano di Sorrento, the viillage where
Achille Lauro was born on this day in 1887
Travel tip:

Piano di Sorrento is a fishing village that forms part of what might be termed ‘greater Sorrento’, along with Meta, Sant'Agnello, Vico Equense. The Victorian poet Robert Browning is said to have stayed in the area and mentions the countryside of Piano and other localities of the Sorrentine peninsula in the poem "The Englishman in Italy".  Piano di Sorrento’s prosperity increased, and the supply of power and water to homes was improved, after the creation of a railway tunnel between Vico Equense and Castellammare di Stabia.  This also shifted the area’s economic base from fishing, agriculture and boat-building towards tourism.

Sorrento enjoys a spectacular cliff-top setting overlooking the beautiful Bay of Naples
Sorrento enjoys a spectacular cliff-top setting overlooking
the beautiful Bay of Naples
Travel tip:

Sorrento is a beautiful cliff-top town overlooking the Bay of Naples with wonderful views of the volcano Vesuvius and the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida in the distance.  Known by Italians as La Gentile, Sorrento has a mild climate and excellent tourist amenities, making it one of southern Italy’s most popular holiday destinations.  The historic centre has a wealth of elegant architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with some Greek, Roman and medieval structures still preserved as a reminder of historical roots that go back to 600BC. Modern Sorrento has many fine hotels and excellent restaurants, plus shops selling locally-made ceramics, lacework and marquetry and the speciality liqueur limoncello.

Also on this day:

1700: The birth of sculptor Pietro Bracci, creator of the Oceanus statue at the Trevi Fountain

1942: The birth of world motorcycle champion Giacomo Agostini

2008: The birth of novelist Mario Rigoni Stern


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