Architecture, Best Of The Week

The world’s oldest mall

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Housed within a four-story double arcade in central Milan, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the world’s oldest shopping mall. The structure gets its name after Victor Emmanuel II – the first king of the Kingdom of Italy – and was designed in 1861, and built by architect Giuseppe Mengoni between 1865 and 1877.

The structure consists of two glass-vaulted arcades intersecting in an octagon over the street connecting Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala. The street is covered by an arching glass and cast iron roof, a popular design for 19th-century arcades, such as the Burlington Arcade in London, which was the prototype for larger glazed shopping arcades.

In the centre of the structure is a large, octagonal mosaic, depicting Italian capitals; Roma, Florence, Turin and Milan. There is also a tradition that it is lucky to place your right heel on the bull of Turin, then turn around three times. Over time, this practice caused damage to the mosaic and a hole developed on the place of the bull’s groin.

 

During the mid-August RAF bombing raids of 1943, the Galleria was among the many buildings in Milan that suffered damage. 2,268 tons of bombs were dropped to the city over three nights. After the war, it became an important place for meetings, discussions and demonstrations.

The Galleria is famous for being home to some of the oldest shops and restaurants in Milan, such as Biffi Caffè (founded in 1867 by Paolo Biffi, pastry chef to the monarch), the Savini restaurant and the Art Nouveau classic Camparino in Galleria.

The real reason that brings thousands of people to visit this beautiful complex is its luxury boutiques, bookshops, cafés, bars, art gallery/shops, hotels, etc. Almost every Italian and world-famous luxury brand is represented in the Galleria: Dolce & Gabbana, Brioni, Prada, Roberto Cavalli, Versace, Valentino, Moschino, Ferragamo, Laura Biagiotti, Gianfranco Ferré are just some to name.

A rather unique fact about the Galleria is that the shops inside are required to display their name in gold letters on a black background. Even McDonald’s had to follow this rule in order to obtain permission to operate in the centre of the Galleria, in Octogon Square.

From an artistic point of view, each intricacy surrounding the Galleria is better than the next. The enamel covered floor is a very elegant creation of a group of Venetian artists. The shops, which add up to 96 and occupy the entire ground floor on both sides of the building, are vast, elegant and closed by large glass doors. Between the two entrances and above marble pedestals rise pilaster strips that are decorated with varied stucco designs that ascend above the first floor. A balcony runs around the entire building, surrounded by a beautiful balustrade, on which the coats of arms of 100 Italian cities are represented. The first floor has large and majestic windows and rises above a second floor, which is very low and almost completely hidden by the balcony railing.

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