The sea is a fascinating world which holds many mysteries, all waiting to be explored or solved. Among the many, one may encounter the story of the Italian steamship, the Ercole. In the night between 4/5th March 1861, Colonel Ippolito Nievo, together with a few subordinates and the Giuseppe Garibaldi accounting records of the military administration, boarded from Palermo the ageing ship Ercole which was bound for Naples. The steamer never reached Naples and was presumed to have gone down with all hands during the night somewhere not far south of Capri, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. No trace of the wreck was ever found. The mysterious circumstances of the sinking fueled speculation of a political plot. Therefore, was it a tragedy or sabotage?

For this task, U-Boat Malta Ltd., been kindly invited by the team of Dr. Ugo Di Capua, Director of Sea and Subaqua Archaeology, to search the seabed of Capri, hoping to shed further light, if not solve the mystery.


The main character of the story is Ippolito Nievo, an interesting figure of nineteenth-century Italy, who was born in Padua on November 30, 1831. There, he studied law, but upon graduating refused to join his father’s profession as it implied submission to the Austrian government which at that time Padua was under. He was politically inspired by Giuseppe Mazzini’s thought and wanted to join the struggle for the independence of Veneto and a united Italy.

So in 1848 the young Ippolito took part in the insurrection of Mantova. Then he joined the troops of Garibaldi, the ‘Cacciatori delle Alpi’ in the Second War of Independence (1859) but Nievo was disappointed and embittered by the ‘Peace of Villafranca’ and joined the ‘Expedition of the Thousand’. During the sail to the coast of Sicily, he was given the post of Deputy Superintendent, which meant responsibility for the administration of the expeditionary force and, later, Army South. After having defeated the Bourbon army in Sicily and Southern Italy, gave those regions to the King of Sardinia Victor Emmanuel II. On 18 February 1861, in fulfilment of Nievo’s hopes, Italy was finally unified under the House of Savoy.

Besides this, Nievo was also a prolific and innovative writer who within a period of ten years, before his premature death, wrote five novels, several short stories and plays, collections of verse, political and historical essays, newspaper articles, and numerous private letters. Yet for a long time his work was overlooked by literary critics insofar as his masterpiece was the historical novel, Le Confessioni d’un Italiano (The Confessions of an Italian), written 1857-1858, published 1867.

Fig. 1 - Ippolito Nievo
Fig. 1 - Ippolito Nievo


Back to our story. Ippolito Nievo, in office as Deputy Superintendent of Finance, had been instructed by his superior, the Intendant General Giovanni Acerbi, to return to Palermo and collect the accounting records of financial firms of Garibaldi in Sicily, for the transition of administration from Garibaldi’s management to Piedmont. Acerbi was required to submit to the Minister of War Manfredo Fanti (Cavour government) an exact statement, for the forthcoming merger of the Superintendency of Garibaldi with the Italian regular army.

The two men, Nievo and Acerbi belonged to important families who had lands and houses in the Mantovano countryside. Nievo had definitely had contact with Acerbi in the 1859 war and had probably known him, however slightly, in Mantua. But only in 1860 he became friends with Acerbi and as Nievo had experience in administration, as he helped his mother in the management of the property that the Nievos had in the municipality of Rodigo (Mantova).

A fully responsible position this, open to criticism that became malicious and often slanderous in the fight between factions who saw oppose Cavour and Garibaldi. It was to defend against these slanders, which they had found in the press of a grandstand heard and feared that Nievo was forced to draft a statement in which he demonstrated, with meticulous precision, his work and the whole of stewardship.

So although Nievo hated the Sicilians and little loved the heat, the flies and dust of Sicily, returned there to retrieve the documentation of costs incurred by the partisans, and finished under investigation. On February 15, 1861, he embarked from Naples, the ship Elettrico, the jewel of the Florio company, and arrived in Palermo after three days, where he set to work on the enormous assets of the Banco di Sicilia, estimated at 5 million ducats, which the revolutionaries had seized. There he reacts to the accusations by completing an accurate account of the costs incurred in the war. Towards the end of the month, after Ippolito meticulously marked every exit, every expense, every name, he had collected a massive paper trail that was stowed in six large crates. Recourse to that draft was a correct move, but in the dossier had contained confidential information, that would not be appropriate to disclose. It was time up to return back to Naples with his report and all documents.

The previous day to Nievos departure, while he was having lunch at Alfonso Hennequin (The commercial consul of the city of Hamburg) home, said that he was feeling sick in his stomach. Hennequin advised him to have regard for his health, to postpone the voyage as the Ercole, the steamer he had to sail on, was an old vessel and the trip would last at least 16 hours in good weather. He suggested to wait for the start of March 7th and voyage again with the swift and modern ship Elettrico, but Nievo replied “I’ll be lying all the time – and I get to Naples rested.”


In the harbour, along with the Arsenal Wharf of Palermo, eleven boats were moored, including four steamships. The first vessel to depart was the Ercole. The twenty-nine years old steamer Ercole, with a long history of civil and military transport in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and requisitioned by the Sardinian Navy, arrived in Palermo on the 2nd March 1861. The Ercole with its large side wheels like those that crossed the Mississippi River had been the technological advancement proudly produced by the Bourbon dynasty, especially by Ferdinand II.

The two hundred and thirty tons, wooden hull steamer, was built in England, in 1832. Andrea de Martino who in January 1840 formed the ‘Societa di navigazione per traffic de battelli a vapore nel Mediterraneo’ (Company for steam navigation in the Mediterranean Sea) bought the steamer Vesuvio. The ship reached Naples on December 12th under Raffaele Cafiero’s command. It was employed for the following 2 years to sail to Tropea, (which commenced on the 3 April 1841), Messina and Palermo.

When de Martino died, in May 1842, a new partnership was formed: it was the Societa Vicisvinci & C., later named Societa Calabro-Sicula per la navigazione a vapore (the Calabrian –Sicilian company for steam navigation). Giusepe Vicesvinci was in charge of it in its office in Naples. The Vesuvio was restored and renamed, first Faro, then Polifemo). Together with other steamships, she sailed from Naples to Messina with an intermediate call in Calabria.

During the Sicilian risings of 1848 the steamships commandeered until February 1849 and used to carry troops; then, starting from the month of June, the courses to Calabria and Sicily were reactivated. The four steamships of the company were alternatively under the command of Agostino and Antonio Cafiero, and Michele Mancino. Finally, in 1856, the Polifemo was laid up, his engines were replaced and it was renamed Ercole.

Fig. 2 - A steamship similar to the Ercole
Fig. 2 - A steamship similar to the Ercole


As Nievo was urgently required in Turin, he boarded the Ercole on the evening of March 4. Naples was only one leg of his trip, as all the Commissariat General, including Acerbi, had left Naples for Genoa on 23 and 25 February, to continue to Turin. The sea was calm, although announcing stormy weather, but the captain Michele Mancuni showed no concern and none the harbour master discouraged departure. She set sail from the Arsenal pier of Palermo to Naples at 12.55 p.m. Three hours later it was followed by the Pompeii who also set sail not caring that much of the forecasts.

On board the Ercole were the nucleus of the (Intendenza Garibaldina of Sicily). According to a ‘corrispondenza palermitana del Diritto 26 Marzo 1861’ they were: Colonel Ippolito Nievo; Maiolini and Salviati, Garrison Major, commissioner of the Marina; il direttore dei servizi/contabilita/Intendenza, Serretta/Servetta/Berretta; il scrivano contabile Giuseppe Fontana. Also, the Chaplain, Ferretti; Simone Pietro; Sollima Placido; Carracappa Francesco; Forno Paolo; and Ventre Francesco. La Monarchia Italiana, 3 April, 1861, published that onboard the Ercole were 16 passengers and 32 or 24 crew members (the number is uncertain because of two different testimonies of the time). Ippolito had with him half a dozen trunks with all management documents. The Ercole was carrying 232 tons of merchandise.

Fig. 3 – The last voyage of the Ercole
Fig. 3 – The last voyage of the Ercole

Of the five ships which were on the same route to Naples, the only one that did not reach her destination was precisely the Ercole. In Naples, no one noticed the no-show as confusion at the time was at its best. Governments that melted, armies passed from one hand to another, ships were changing flag. Only the port realized that the steam had not thrown the tops at the dock. Eleven days had passed. No one moved, not even the Ministry of War, nor the shipping company or the port authorities. The newspapers were silent and the families were unaware.

The news arrived in Turin just a fortnight later, and only because Acerbi telegraphed to Palermo to ask about Ippolito. Rescuers left with a huge delay and no judge was allowed to open an investigation. The first newspaper that broke the news of a probable shipwreck was “The Independent” by Alexandre Dumas.

The Ercole disappears without leaving even a wooden surf, which turns out to be strange, if it was an accidental shipwreck something would be found. This fact feeds the suspicion of sabotage or explosion that would justify a sinking so quick to swallow anything. Twenty-five days after the sinking, the newspaper Omnibus of Naples published the news of the discovery of a shipwrecked man, an old man in a daze he told a strange story that did not coincide.

Months passed before finally the investigation was made public. The official statement of that time was that at dawn, between Capri and Sorrento, during a storm, the steam ship of the line Palermo-Napoli, Ercole sank. Today many historians argue that the shipwreck of the Ercole was only the official version and not an accident.

The commander of Pompeii recounted that during the night the sea raised in a storm and at dawn the storm was in its full. He caught sight of the Ercole slamming into the waves, about twenty miles (32 km) below the island of Capri. Captain Paynter of Exmouth sighted the ‘wreck’ 140 miles (225 km) from Palermo, on the Calabrian coast.

Confusion was spread, the Omnibus of Naples, April 2, reported that the Ercole had burned halfway. Another story added, “only one man saved himself”. And the Diritto, in a Palermo correspondence of the April 6, concluded: “After twenty-five days we have the painful certainty that the Ercole was shipwrecked in d’ Ischia seas. Two newspapers of the time, published in Naples, give news of obvious traces of the shipwreck. They suggest that the sinking took place in front of the Bocca Grande Capri, where ships always passed, the Palermo-Napoli route since the Phoenicians. The Florio Society, to which the Ercole was registered, made it known that the ship was lost ten miles from Capri, around three or four o’clock in the morning, 20 miles from Capri. In the documents of the Ministry of War it reads that a fire broke out on board during the trip.

To add more confusion, there was another wreck that was shattered on the Calabrian coast, the Livornese brig Adele, which was accidentally hit by a cannon ball fired from the Citadel of Messina. The crew and passengers were saved.


Was there a treasure on the Ercole? Regarding the so called significant sums donated to Garibaldi by the English Freemasonry, around 10 thousand Turkish gold plates (200 million Euros of today), there is no trace in the documents of the time, preserved in Italy. Most probably they never existed as they are a modern invention. The story begins in 1988, at a conference of the Piedmont Freemasonry, when Giulio Di Vita, a Freemason scholar, presented a report entitled: ‘Finanziamento della spedizione dei Mille’ (Financing of the Expedition of the Thousand). Vita explained that he managed to find documents in London’s archives proving that the English Freemasonry funded Garibaldi (3 million French francs in Turkish gold ‘piastre’). But to this day, these documents have never been exhibited or published.


Over one hundred and fifty years after the death of Ippolito Nievo and the Ercole shipwreck, the story still has many obscure points: there was no survivors and bodies were not found, not even the shipwreck. It was passed at the time, like a shipwreck due to adverse weather conditions; yet, on the register of ships it shows that on that day and in that place there were no “bad weather conditions such as to cause the sinking of a ship of the line.” Throughout the years, different historians came to the same conclusion that most probably the cause of the sinking was an intentional explosion of boilers to destroy the little substantive evidence to prove lawful and compromising situations.