Carlo Pellion, Count of Persano’s Folly

Turin’s military monuments were not all erected to commemorate individual kings and commanders. Some of them are collective memorials, representing units of the armed forces, principally the bersaglieri (who are always shown running) but also the cavalry, the carabinieri and the Alpine regiments. Only one monument, that dedicated to the men who went to the Crimea, contains a statue of a sailor.

Piedmont had no nautical traditions; indeed, until it was given Liguria by the Congress of Vienna, it possessed no coastline except around Nice. Its insignificant navy did little in the early wars of the Risorgimento and was never required to fight a proper battle. United Italy, however, had an extremely long coastline. Since it also had aspirations to join the Great Powers, it set about building an impressive fleet, though its only plausible enemy was Austria, which had little naval history or ambition of its own. By 1866 this new fleet included twelve new ironclads and was commanded by an admiral, four vice-admirals and eight rear-admirals. The Austrian navy was smaller, slower and less well equipped: it possessed only seven ironclads. The Italian force was thus superior in all material respects though generally inferior in most human ones, most markedly in the abilities of the admirals in command.

The Italian commander was Carlo Pellion, Count of Persano. Unlike Garibaldi, who was a seaman both by birth and by aptitude, the Piedmontese Persano had seafaring neither in his blood nor in his upbringing. He came from the inland rice-growing area of Vercelli and was apparently unable to swim. Some people believed he chose to be a sailor because there was so much less competition for posts in the navy than there was in the army. He himself owed his very rapid promotion not to his exploits but to his talent at flattery, intrigue and making himself popular at court. He managed to ingratiate himself with Cavour and became an unlikely friend of Azeglio, possibly because that amorous statesman was attracted to his English wife. A vain and quarrelsome individual with a taste for fighting duels, Persano was both frivolous and irresponsible: he once asked Azeglio, who was prime minister at the time, to give him a false passport so that he could pursue a ballerina in Austrian-held Milan. His friend refused to help.

Persano’s seamanship could be embarrassing. In 1851 he ran his ship aground outside Genoa harbour when carrying Piedmont’s contribution to the Great Exhibition in London. Two years later, even more embarrassingly, he ran aground again, this time while transporting the royal family to Sardinia for a hunting trip; apparently he was trying to take a short cut and hit some rocks that were not marked on his charts. Although he was arrested and reduced in rank for six months after this episode, the setback did not harm Persano’s career. In 1860 Cavour entrusted him with the job of shadowing Garibaldi and stirring up trouble in Palermo and Naples, and in the autumn of that year Persano assisted Cialdini in the capture of Ancona by bombarding the papal port from the sea. Over the next two years he became a parliamentarian, the minister of the navy and the admiral who in 1866 found himself in charge of the fleet at Ancona under government orders to defeat the Austrians and rescue Italy’s reputation after the fiasco of Custoza.

Persano was not, however, eager for combat and, although he had only brought his ships up from Taranto, claimed that they needed an overhaul. To repeated orders from Agostino Depretis, the current naval minister in Florence, he responded with a range of reasons for delay: the fleet was not ready, the crews were not trained, water had got into the cylinders and something was wrong with the coal; most important of all, the Affondatore (the Sinker), the best and newest ship, was still on its way from England, where it had been built. When Depretis told him to make himself master of the Adriatic, Persano replied that he had no proper charts of the one conceivable sea where his navy might fight. While the fleet was still being overhauled after its voyage from Taranto, the audacious Austrian admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff appeared with his navy off Ancona, fired a few salvoes and waited for the Italians to come out and engage him; when they remained in port without returning fire, he sailed away and claimed a moral victory.

An exasperated government eventually used the threat of dismissal to force Persano out and attack the island of Lissa off the Dalmatian coast. The navy was duly shelling the Austrian batteries on the island and preparing to land its troops when Tegetthoff reappeared and made a reckoning unavoidable. While Persano was organizing his line, the long-awaited Affondatore steamed up, its arrival persuading him to abandon his flagship, the Re d’Italia, and direct the battle from an armour-plated turret on the new vessel. Most of his captains were unaware, however, of the changeover and continued to look for signals from the Re d’Italia – until it was rammed and sunk by Tegetthoff’s own flagship. The simultaneous loss of another ship, which caught fire and exploded, convinced Persano that the battle was lost, even though he flagship. The simultaneous loss of another ship, which caught fire and exploded, convinced Persano that the battle was lost, even though he still easily outnumbered the Austrians and could have carried on the fray. Like the generals at Custoza, he converted a setback into a disaster and, as with Lamarmora, ordered an unnecessary retreat, leading his ships back to Ancona, where expectant crowds were waiting to cheer captured Austrian vessels.

Lissa ended the career of Persano, who was accused of cowardice but cashiered for the lesser sins of negligence and incapacity. The defeat had other repercussions, especially for the future of the Italian navy, which henceforth tried to avoid battles on the open seas; one consequence of this was the disaster of November 1940, when the British disabled half the fleet that lay anchored in the harbour of Taranto. Yet the most insidious effect of the 1866 war was its impact on the psyche of the Italian nation. The very names Lissa and Custoza became reproaches, incitements to redress and redemption. Instead of persuading Italians not to attempt to become a Great Power, they encouraged them to try even harder. As Austria seemed the obvious place to seek such redemption, Victor Emanuel suggested to Bismarck in 1878 that a joint attack on the Habsburgs would give each of them victory and new territory. When the chancellor replied that Germany was big enough already, Italy abandoned the idea, became an ally of Austria and embarked on colonial adventures in Africa. Yet the defeats of 1866 rankled and continued to do so well into the twentieth century. The obsession with amends was a fundamental motive in the decisions to take part in the world wars in 1915 and 1940.

Ironclad Palestro

The only high-seas fleet action of the ironclad era was the Battle of Lissa fought between the Piedmont/Italian and Austrian navies on 20 July 1866. The opposing fleet commanders were two very different personalities. The Austrian admiral, Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, upon the declaration of war, immediately made for the Italian port of Ancona and challenged the Italian fleet to battle. For various unconvincing reasons, the Italian commander, Count Carlo Persano, refused to come out. Persano was the type of officer often highly praised in peacetime for his organizational ability, which usually consists of reorganizing the previous reorganization. Persano hoped to win by his material preponderance, which was, in all truth, his only advantage. His fleet could boast of 11 ironclads (soon to be increased to 12) compared to Tegetthoff’s technologically inferior seven. But Tegetthoff had already won a moral advantage off Ancona. He also drilled his crews constantly while Persano idled his time, conducted a useless bombardment of the Austrian island of Lissa, and continued to complain that the odds were still not in his favor.
On 20 July, Tegetthoff’s fleet appeared in the Adriatic mist in a ramming formation something like a flying wedge, and his captains had their straightforward orders: “Armored ships charge the enemy and sink him.” Tegetthoff knew that he had to get in close to the Italians to negate their superior rifled gun range with his own concentrated fire and his ram bows. Persano’s exhausted command was confused, scattered, and unready. Persano added to their trials by a series of complex and conflicting orders, particularly when he discovered that his fleet faced the wrong direction. Then Persano decided to transfer his command to the newly arrived ironclad ram Affondatore (Sinker) but neglected to inform his captains. As it was, Affondatore failed to touch any of its enemies with its truly de Bergerac snout, although its rifled guns wrought sad execution at pistolshot range on the timber upperworks of several Austrian ironclads.
A point-blank melee followed, with the ironclads ramming and maneuvering to avoid the ram-mostly the latter. (The Italian wooden warship contingent, for unexplained reasons, remained aloof from the battle.) The Austrian Kaiser (the only ship-of-the-line ever to fight ironclads) scraped by the Italian Re di Portugallo, broadside flaming, leaving its bow sculpture on the Italian’s deck. Yet very little damage was inflicted on either side, as the ironclads mutually avoided or harmlessly bumped into each other and their broadside discharges bounced off armor plating. The misnamed Italian ironclads Terrible and Formidabile proved useless-the former loitering with the spectator wooden ship squadron, while the latter left for Ancona to repair what its captain claimed was serious damage from the Lissa Island bombardment. Meanwhile, Persano dashed about in Affondatore, incognito, turning away from several ramming opportunities, although the ram did fire some three shots at the Don Juan de Austria, breaking off some armor plates.
The battle turned decidedly more deadly when the Austrian flagship Ferdinand Max suddenly rammed the putative Italian flagship Re d’Italia, which heaved on its beam ends and sank like a stone. For decades following, the example of the Italian warship would be held up as a prime example of the awful power of the ram. Actually, Re d’Italia was almost dead in the water at the moment of its ramming. Still, considering the weakness of the guns of that era against armor plate, and the technical inferiority of Tegetthoff’s warships, ramming was probably his most promising tactic.
Lissa’s immediate aftermath for the Italians was almost as grim as the battle itself. The ironclad Palestro, set afire during the battle, soon after exploded with all hands. Affondatore later foundered, not from battle damage but from stormy seas. When the wretched Persano inquired as to the whereabouts of his cherished ram, the reply was perhaps unintentionally ironic: Affondato (sunk). The real tragedy of Lissa is that it was unnecessary; the Austrians had already agreed to an armistice and to hand over Venetia (the bone of contention) by way of France, but the Italian leadership vaingloriously felt that they had to appear to win the province and city by their own efforts.


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