If, after travelling to Milan, you have the feeling that you have visited more than one city at the same time, don’t consider yourself a fool. The capital of the Lombardy region is one of the richest in history, art and architecture, and one of the best examples of this variety, which has developed over time, is without a doubt the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
Considered a place of transit in the core of the city and called the salotto di Milano (Milan’s living room), as you walk in, you can’t help but be impressed by the different facets of the place, which is perhaps the oldest shopping mall worldwide. The Galleria is housed within a double arcade and has been named after Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of the unified Italy. Designed in 1861, it was completed in 1873, twelve years after Giuseppe Mengoni started building it.
The story behind this magnificent place is much more controversial than expected: as the French-Piedmontese troops liberated Milan from the Austrians in 1859, an urban renovation began, which also included Piazza del Duomo, considered by locals as the civil and spiritual heart of the city.
Because of its irregular structure, everybody agreed the square needed a new look. For the first time, they considered the possibility of creating a path from the Duomo to the Teatro della Scala, thereby connecting the northern and the southern parts of the city.
It took years of projects and ideas before a plan was finally found: Mayor Antonio Beretta started running the project for the “first Italian town hall”. In April 1860, a competition of ideas was announced to gather suggestions regarding the future construction of the new Piazza Duomo. One year later, another competition was opened to real experts.
Among all the projects, the best ones came from Emilian engineer Giuseppe Mengoni, and professor at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera, Giuseppe Pestagalli. Between the two, Mengoni’s proposal seemed to show not only more functionality but also more attention to the scenic effects of the urban design. Forget for one second how the square looks right now: at that time, the route of the road, which had become a commercial street with glass and iron roofing, was made of one single arm, however it already included an octagonal area at the center of the path.
As soon as completed, the Galleria immediately became famous for its large size, totally extraordinary for that time. The Gallery opened in 1867 and was inaugurated by Vittorio Emanuele II, King of a the united Italy. Mengoni wasn’t there, since he had passed away a few days before his creation was opened to the world.
The Galleria is 104 feet high, and 353 tons of iron were used for the skeleton of the cover, allowing its octagonal-shaped roof to reach a height of 154 feet. The ceilings are decorated with mosaics representing the continents: Asia, Africa, Europe and America. The mosaics at ground level depict Italian history and heritage: the coats of arms of Vittorio Emanuele’s Savoia family, as well as the symbols of Milan, a red cross on a white field; of Rome, a she-wolf; of Florence, an iris; and Turin, the bull which has become the main attraction of the whole gallery.
Well known for being one of the sites of the city’s luxury shopping, together with Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga, the Galleria is the place where you will find the most prestigious labels and brand shops, as well as the most famous cafès and restaurants.
Walking in the Galleria and taking a tour around store windows and cafè tables will take you back in history: this is what people of any age have been doing for more than a century, under the portico which came from an original idea of designers who wanted to create an indoor street, with spots where they can enjoy an Italian aperitivo or have dinner after the opera.
The place is not only cozy, but shows the importance given to details: indeed, inside the gallery, all the stores must display an insignia with gold writing on a black background.
And, if you believe in traditions, before leaving the Galleria, don’t forget to spin with your heel on the bull’s mosaic, located on the splendid central octagon. Once considered a gesture to ward off evil, it is now part of the Milanese tradition.