Narrrowly avoiding a fatal blow from the Italian ironclad ram Affondatore, Commodore Anton von Petz, commander of Austrian wooden-hulled ship of the line Kaiser, came under fire from the heavy rifled guns of another enemy ironclad, the Re di Portogallo, on July 20, 1866, near the Dalmatian island of Lissa in the Adriatic Sea. This time, instead of evading the other vessel, Petz brought his ship on a collision course with the enemy’s armored hull. The 92-gun Kaiser supplemented a full set of sails with a two-cylinder steam engine. Gathering speed and momentum from her boilers, one of Europe’s last wooden ships of the line was seconds away from ramming one of Europe’s first ironclad warships in a history-making naval encounter of the Third Italian War of Independence.
For centuries Italy had been a collection of divided and rival monarchies, some of them under foreign control. The post-Napoleonic political order left much of Italy under the rule of Austria’s Hapsburg dynasty. Three wars were fought to unite Italy and win its independence. Each of these wars placed the Austrians against the Italian forces and their allies. Dominant among the Italian states, the Kingdom of Sardinia grew as it annexed the Austrian territory of Lombardy, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Tuscany, and several smaller principalities after the second war in 1859. In 1861, the combined nation was proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy. King Victor Emanuelle of the Sardinia-Piedmont became the new country’s first king. Unification was not yet complete. French troops still garrisoned the remnants of the Papal States around Rome, and Austria still controlled Venice.
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Ironclad warships like those participating in the Battle of Lissa had three primary characteristics: an armored hull, steam propulsion, and guns capable of firing exploding shells. An early version of the ironclad was first used during the Crimean War when the French employed floating ironclad batteries against Russian coastal fortifications on the Kinburn Peninsula in October 1855. It was an impressive debut. Despite receiving fire from Russian batteries, the ironclad batteries in concert with wooden warships destroyed the Russian forts in just three hours.
Seven years later, Union and Confederate ironclads clashed at Hampton Roads during the American Civil War on March 8-9, 1862. The battle on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States marked the first true naval combat between vessels built of iron rather than wood. Union and Confederate ironclads saw more action during the conflict, and European naval officers and ship designers eagerly studied accounts of these encounters. However, no bat- tle between fleets of ironclads occurred during the four-year conflict. That landmark event occurred about a year after the end of the war when approximately 20 ironclad ships of the Austrian and Italian navies fought at Lissa.
By European standards, the navies that clashed off Lissa were both new. Italy’s navy, the Regia Marina, was formed in 1861. It was predominantly a combination of the navies of Sardinia-Piedmont and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with contributions from smaller states. Count Carlo Pellion di Persano, a veteran officer of the old Sardinian navy, commanded the united maritime force of the new kingdom. Persano had joined the Sardinian navy in 1824 and advanced rapidly through the ranks. He commanded the Daino during the First Italian War of Independence in 1848-1849 and a decade later participated in naval actions as a rear admiral during the Second War of Italian Independence for which he was promoted to vice admiral. In 1862 he became Italy’s Minister of Marine and afterward rose to full admiral.
With part of their country still under Hapsburg rule, the Italians saw Austria as their most likely adversary in a new war. In a major expansion and modernization program, two oceangoing ironclads were ordered from New York shipbuilder William H. Webb. The Webb vessels were the armored frigates Re d’Italia and the Re di Portogallo. At 5,700 tons each and plated with 4.5- inch armor, both ships carried impressive batteries of heavy rifled and smoothbore guns.
The New York Times reported that the engines of the Re d’Italia were built at the Novelty Iron Works, the same firm that built the distinctive turret of the USS Monitor. When first contracted by the Italian government in 1861, the Re d’Italia was begun as a wooden steam frigate. After the ironclads Monitor and CSS Virginia fought at Hampton Roads, plans were changed to include armor plating for the Re d’Italia. The design left the propellers and rudder unprotected by armor. Two smaller ironclads, the 2,700-ton iron corvettes Formidabile and Terribile, were purchased from France. An armored turret ship, Affondatore, was built in England. Essentially a double-turret monitor, the Affondatore carried only two pieces of artillery, both 10-inch Armstrong guns. The Austrian Empire arose from the land- locked interior realms of the Continent, and for centuries its Hapsburg rulers paid little attention to naval affairs. In the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio, the Hapsburgs swapped the Austrian Netherlands with Revolutionary France in exchange for Venice and the Adriatic coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia. With Venice came a ready-made navy for the Hapsburgs.