Milan – Centro Storico – a walk round Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan is considered to be one of the first, and finest, examples of a modern shopping mall.

It was designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni in neo-Renaissance style and built between 1865 and 1877.

On the pediment the dedication reads “To Vittorio Emanuele II from the people of Milan”. Victor Emmanuel of Savoy was the first king of the Kingdom of Italy and so at the time the galleria was a symbol of the unification of the country.

The main entrance on Piazza del Duomo was intended to resemble a triumphal arch.

The opposite arch on Piazza della Scala (location of the famous opera house) is not quite as fancy (Streetview here) and the side entrances are also less ornate.

The four-storey building consists of two glass-vaulted arcades in the form of a cross, intersecting an octagon with a domed cupola.

It was the first European building to combine a cross and a dome in glass. The roof is ribbed with a lowered arch which was an improvement on the pitched roof used in the covered passage arcades in other European cities, such as the Galerie Vivienne in Paris and the Burlington Arcade in London which were the precursors of the Galleria.

The fame of its iron structure was such that Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II became the model for other galleries in Italy, such as the Galleria Umberto I in Naples (my post here), Galleria Vittorio Emanuele III in Messina (my post here), Galleria Mazzini in Genoa (my post here), and internationally, for example the Galerias Pacifico in Buenos Aires (my post here).

At the top of the octagon walls are four lunettes painted by different artists, each representing a different continent. Europe is depicted in ancient clothes guarded by an angel holding a laurel (by Angelo Pietrasanta).

America is represented as a female figure with African Americans and a Native American around her (by Raffaele Casnedi, professor of drawing at the Brera Academy).

Asia is represented seated on a throne where indigenous people and other men with Asian features pay homage to her with gifts (by Bartolomeo Giuliano). Below the lunettes a line of windows are separated by pilasters decorated with caryatids (large female figures used as columns) and telamons, the male version of caryatids (also known as atlas, atlantes, or atlantids).

Africa is represented in the clothes of an ancient Egyptian flanked by a lion and a Moor who is giving her a bundle of wheat (by Eleuterio Pagliano).

On the third level a loggia with a beautiful balustrade, decorated with the coats of arms of the one hundred cities of Italy, runs around the building.

The lower parts of the pilasters are adorned with stuccoes of various florid designs.

In the centre of the floor of the central octagonal is a mosaic displaying the Savoy coat of arms (a white cross on a red background) by Salviati of Murano. Written several times in the circle around the coat of arms is the motto of the Savoy royal house, the anacronym FERT, the meaning of which is uncertain. Savoy’s detractors say it means ‘Frappez, Entrez, Rappez Tout’ which in French translates as ‘Strike, Enter, Break Everything’!

It’s surrounded by four other mosaics portraying the coats of arms of the four capitals of the Kingdom of Italy. The wolf symbolizes Rome, the lily is indicative of Florence, and the Flag of Milan (a red cross on a white field, representing Saint Ambrose rather than Saint George) stands for Milan itself.

Turin is represented by a rampant bull and local legend says that if a person spins around three times on one of their heels on the testicles of the bull, it will bring good luck. The tradition started as mockery by the Milanese against their main rival city, but is now only practised by tourists. It has caused a hole to develop on the poor bull’s wedding tackle which has required frequent repairs.

The Galleria is nicknamed ‘Il salotto di Milano’ (Milan’s drawing room), due to its numerous high-end shops and cafes (96 in total) and importance as a meeting place for the Milanese bourgeoisie. Louis Vuitton, Versace, Gucci and Armani, amongst many others, all have shops here. The first Prada store opened here in 1913 and the original shop is still going.

There are three famous cafes. Caffè Biffi is the oldest (founded in 1867 by Paolo Biffi, former pastry chef to the king) and Caffè Savini has a famous restaurant. I went to Caffè Campari, now known as Bar Camparino, which was one of the first businesses opened by Gaspare Campari, the inventor of the famous bitter liqueur, in 1915.

The Art Nouveau interior features work by cabinet maker Eugenio Quarti, master blacksmith Alessandro Mazzucotelli and painter Angiolo d’Andrea, who designed the iconic mosaic in the Bar di Passo. Campari happens to be one of my favourite cocktail ingredients, but it was a bit early in the day for an aperitivo (Negronis were €15 each in 2020) so I just had a caffè macchiato standing at the bar instead (the cheapest option).

Traditionally the third ingredient of a Negroni is Martini Rosso (although personally I prefer other vermouths), which is made in Turin. If you follow the line of the vista from the Galleria’s main entrance, you can see the advertising sign for the Terazza Martini trolling it in the distance. No doubt the terrace has a great view of the Galleria.

Another great view, this time of the Duomo, can be had from the Terrazza Aperol on the first floor of the Galleria.

The entrance is under the porticoes, to the right of the front entrance.

My video of the Galleria here.

My map here.

Streetview here.

Next time I want to go on the roof.

Off to the Galleria’s neighbour, the Duomo next!

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