The Dante Alighieri was meant to be an important ship of the Italian Navy. While resting toward the sunset of the dreadnought era, the Italians had sought to keep up the race by revitalizing their navy. Naval technology had grown exponentially after the United States’ Civil War in which both the Monitor and Merrimack were launched, changing the way nations saw the future of navies and naval warfare. Nations such as the United States and Japan had modernized at just the right times to catch up in the naval race while others seemed to limp behind. The technology changed too swiftly for some and not nearly as fast for others.

The initial idea for the ship began in February 1908 when the Italian Royal Navy had decided to build the Dante Alighieri at Castellmmare di Stabia on the Bay of Naples. While the plans were set so early, construction didn’t begin until sixteen months later as enough quality and quantity steel sheets and other materials had to be gathered. Thus, by 6 June 1909 the construction was ready.1 However, construction didn’t begin until the following month in August 1909.2

While the ship was ready and launched on 20 August 1910, it still wasn’t ready for service for another three years when it would be completely outfitted and ready to fight. Upon its launching, the King and Queen and many others were there and “applauded the name of the Divine Poet on the Sea.”3 Even though it was a fierce design, it was one of six dreadnoughts of which Italy commissioned between 1913-1916.

The ship itself was meant to be fast. Designed by the Giovanni Ansaldo Company of Genoa, it carried ten steam turbines powered by 23 coal-fueled boilers, four three-bladed propellers and could speed up to and over 22 knots.4 As the Italians had sought to expand their overseas holdings in recent and future wars, especially with the tension that was building which would ultimately lead into World War I, they were preparing for revanchism and taking on and holding to old and new territories.

Even so, the namesake remained strong with the ship. Signora Ildegarde Occella wrote in a letter which accompanied the battle flag, “..we adorn you with the colors of the Nation. They are the same as those in which Beatrice appeared to Dante on the threshold of paradise. May they guide you, by the majesty of our Nation, to the temple of glory; and in the calm of sunsets, in the joy of celebrations, or in the heat of battle, may this be the voice that issues from the fateful flag: Italy, Italy, Italy, now and forever.”5 If it had shown anywhere, the idea of nationalism and assumed fate rode high in these words.

The Dante Alighieri had another noteworthy first in that it was the first “all-big-gun ship” to be launched by a Mediterranean power. It was even claimed at the time by Scientific American that the ship was “finer than those of the majority of modern battleships.6 But as has been mentioned, the idea of what was modern when it came to technology changed swiftly, sometimes from year to year.

Still, it had a great displacement of 19,400 tons, had twelve 12-inch 46 caliber guns in four center-line turrets. It’s alignment had been compared to previous Austrian design of the SMS Viribus Unitis and a Russian design of the Gangut class. While the Italians had often exchanged speed for defense, in the instance of Dante Alighieri, they were able to hold onto both at acceptable rates, again, having an incredibly fast ship for its time. She eventually did have other dreadnoughts around her, the Conte di Cavour, Leonardo da Vinci and Giulio Cesare.7

During this time, the Italians were building up their fleet even further. By 1909 they were planning for a total of 4 dreadnoughts, 3 scout cruisers, 12 destroyers, 34 torpedo-boats and 12 submarines.8 It would seem that they were modernizing just in time.

As World War I took flight, the Dante Alighieri’s role was underwhelming. The thoughts of Alfred Thayer Mahan which seemed to have worked for the Americans in the Spanish American War, the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese War, or the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 had become outdated and ineffective, if it had ever been a truly effective way at all for certain countries. The idea that two countries of nearly equal naval strength would come together in a single, deciding battle is a bit far-fetched and was never intentionally put into practice. For the Spanish-American War, the combatants still had naval power in Cuba and elsewhere, not all strength had come to bear in the First Sino-Japanese War and while the Japanese were slaughtering the Russians at Tsushima, the Russians had already had their Pacific Fleet essentially destroyed with a surprise attack and a sizable portion of the Japanese force was still blockading and enforcing the action around Port Arthur at the time of Tsushima.

Thus, the opposing side did what any other nation would do. They didn’t engage the Dante Alighieri. The Dante Alighieri was a modern dreadnought ship, but it was only one ship and could not possibly cover the entire Mediterranean alone. This was the essential flaw of the Mahan Doctrine. What if the opposing force simply did not engage? Coincidentally, some nations held onto this flawed but important doctrine even up to World War II.

The only significant involvement the Dante Alighieri had was a late war engagement on 2 October 1918 in the bombardment of Durazzo aka the Second Battle of Durazzo, in Albania. It should be noted that the Dante Alighieri did not take part in the actual bombardment but rather provided a “distant covering force” for the allied attack which involved British, French, American and Italian destroyers, submarines and aircraft.9 Notably for the Americans, it was the only surface action that US Navy forces had participated in during World War I.10 The Dante Alighieri hadn’t fired her guns against an enemy one time throughout World War I.

After the war the ship had suffered the same mostly forgotten fate. While it had hosted King Victor Emmanuel III and other delegates to the Genoa Conference and briefly served as a transport one time for Benito Mussolini, it had little other activity. It was refitted in 1923 in a number of ways but the costs were weighing on the nation. In spite of Mussolini’s lamentations in 1928, dreaming of Italy “in the name of Alighieri… the Italy of tomorrow, both free and rich, all-resounding, with seas and skies peopled with her fleets, with the earth everywhere made fruitful by her plows,” the dreadnought was decommissioned and scrapped in the same year.11 The ship Leonarda da Vinci would join it in the scrap yard.

The Italian navy and its revolution during this era are fascinating for a multitude of reasons. Not only was the world changing but so was Italy with new governments, new ideas and new technologies. The Dante Alighieri, while seemingly important for its time, had shared the fate of many dreadnoughts and important ships of previous decades. It is a great example of how quickly the technology moved and how the Mahan Doctrine wasn’t nearly as effective as politicians and some strategists had believed in the 1890s. Still, that doctrine helped to modernize flagging navies such as those from the United States and Japan, showing that navies could be important. This isn’t to say navies weren’t important, but they were important in different ways.

The Dante Alighieri highlights the technology of the time, the politics before the war and after it. It shows the nationalism and city-wide pride as it was launched. The dedication the people had and lamentations for a past which have never been recaptured. The age of the dreadnought is gone but it remains an important and pivotal part of history.


1 Raffa p51

2 ibid. p 53

3 ibid. p 53

4 ibid. p 54

5 ibid. pp 55-6

6 Haslam

7 ibid.

8 Halpem

9 Raffa pp 60-1

10 Cox

11 Raffa p 65

Work Cited

Cox, Samuel J. “H-021-3: U.S. Navy in World War I—First Naval Aviation Medal of Honor, First Ace, Railway Artillery, Heaviest Loss, and Only Surface Action, August–October 1918.” Naval History and Heritage Command, September 2018.

Halpem, Paul G. “The Naval War in the Mediterranean: 1914-1918.” Google Books. Google, n.d.

Hislam, Percival A. “The First Triple-Turreted Warship A New Italian Battleship Marks a Departure From Existing Types.” Scientific American. Accessed April 2, 2023.

Raffa, Guy P. “Battleship Dante Alighieri (1908–1928).” Dante Studies. Johns Hopkins University Press, November 13, 2021.