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VM inspiration: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan

VM choice: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Shopping malls, home to many of today’s retail stores, have a surprisingly long history. The first, the Galerie du Palais Royale (1781) in Paris, provided a covered walkway around the gardens of the Palais-Royal, then home of the French royal family before the further development of Versailles. While this was a perfectly respectable place to shop during the day, at night it initially became a venue for brawling soldiers and ladies of the night.

Other galleries followed in further European cities. Milan’s version, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, named after the first King of the newly-united Italy (Vittorio Emanuele II, 1820 – 1878), was built on a Latin cross footprint to offer an all-weather, glass-roofed building, facilitating shopping in inclement weather for better-class customers.

Constructed in little more than two years between March 1865 and September 1867, the Galleria was

designed by Guiseppe Mengoni (1829 – 1877) only 15 years after Britain’s Joseph Paxton created the Great Exhibition’s ‘Crystal Palace,’ and 20 years before Gustave Eiffel’s tower was built in Paris.

The 4-story double arcade, close to the Duomo in central Milan, is a veritable cathedral of Italian retail confidence, blending seamlessly with the adjacent urban landscape.

While the external appearance of the Galleria confirms to Italian classicism, with covered arcades at street level shading the windows from the sun, the entrances grandly announce their presence in much the same way as London’s Burlington Arcade, opened in 1819.

For Mengoni, the Galleria represented Italian unity and self-confidence, and the building is feast for the eye: from the fresco-style mosaic panels representing the primary continents at the octagonal crux, to the serried ranks of windows, each level following a Renaissance hierarchy of importance.

Decked with neo-classical architectural details, statues on the pilasters offer a visual complexity of golds and warm yellows. A mix of mirrored and classical patterns, they represent eminent Italians, including writers, artists, scientists, explorers and politicians, whose work glorified Italy.

The glass ceilings of the two unequal arcades of the Galleria meet in an umbrella dome in the central octagon.

Similarly, the floor is a complex mixture of mosaic patterning with, most famously, the bull mosaic on the floor under the central glass dome. Tradition has it that to stand on the bull’s testicle and to spin in a circle three times ensures good luck, hence the subsequent wear of the mosaic.

Today, the Galleria is home for premium brands and, deservedly, a tourist attraction. But it also stands as a reminder that retailing and the places in which we shop should be a complete visual pleasure, as much to embody a nation as well as to facilitate spending.

Photos: Marica Gigante.