The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: Milan’s Drawing Room

Arched interior of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

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Anywhere else in the world, a shopping mall would be just that: a place to get your shopping and perhaps to grab a drink and a bite to eat. But this is Milan, fashion capital of a country where style is de rigeur, and the architecture of the Galleria Vittorio Emaneule II is just as impressive as the shops within it. Known as il salotto di Milano (literally Milan’s drawing room), the magnificent Galleria is as much a place to meet and to be seen as it is a place to shop.

The Oldest Arcade In Italy

Glass covered shopping arcades became popular in the 19th century with the building of the Burlington Arcade in London. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was the first such arcade in Italy. It was larger than earlier structures, and in its turn it influenced the design of future shopping centres, including the Galleria Umberto I in Naples.

Looking through an arch towards the Galleria
Looking into the Galleria from the outside

The arcade is situated in the heart of the city, between the Cathedral and La Scala opera house. Opened in 1877, it was named after King Vittorio Emanuele II, the first ruler of the newly created Kingdom of Italy.

The Galleria also incorporates a luxury art-themed hotel, the Galleria Vik Milano.

Architecture of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Like other arcades of the time, the Galleria is an extravagant neo-classical iron and steel structure. It is built in the form of a cross with two intersecting streets and an octagonal space at the centre. The whole area is enclosed: a glass and iron roof covers the streets and above the octagon is a huge glass dome.

Shops and glass roof of the Galleria
A covered street in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Beneath the dome are four frescoes depicting Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Mosaics on the floor represent the coats of arms of the Savoy royal family and of the major cities of the Kingdom of Italy.

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A Curious Custom

You may be surprised to see tourists spinning wildly on one of these mosaics. This is due to a legend that promises good luck to anyone who spins their right heel on the genitals of the bull that forms part of the arms of the city of Turin. (But you have to do it properly, making sure that you spin backwards for exactly three turns.)

I’m not sure exactly where this custom comes from, or even how traditional it is. However it may be due to the bull being exceptionally well-endowed, thus suggesting virility and fertility. Either way, the unfortunate result of repeated spinning is that a hole has been worn in the floor…

Mosaic picture of a bull
Repeated spinning has worn a hole in the bull mosaic (photo copyright munroe_ru, via Flickir)

Shopping And Eating In The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

In the 21st century we are familiar with the concept of indoor shopping centres. However it was a new idea when the Galleria opened in 1877. For the first time the people of Milan could shop, sit outside a café or just chat to their friends without regard to the weather. It is possibly this aspect that led to the arcade being dubbed “Milan’s drawing room”.

Arches and the glass and steel roof of the Galleria
Pinnable image of the architecture of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Today’s visitors will find that this is not a place for everyday shopping. The streets are lined with luxury shops and elegant boutiques. Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci are just some of the names you will find here. Although if you look hard enough you will discover places where you can pick up inexpensive souvenirs.

But you may prefer to stop for a long leisurely coffee or a meal at one of the restaurants. I always find Il Salotto a good choice, but you could also try Biffi, the oldest restaurant in the Galleria. There is no fast food here (McDonald’s was chased out in 2012). So you will have plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and watch people going by.

About Bewitched by italy

Bewitched By Italy is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), but Italy remains one of my favourite destinations. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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