Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the most iconic places in Milan, Italy, and rightly so! Ever since it was completed in 1867, proud Milanese have flocked to this architectural and design achievement, using it as a common meeting place in the center of the city and giving it the nickname, “Il Salotto di Milano” (”Milan’s Living Room”). Though you may see more tourists than locals there today, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II has never ceased acting as a main artery of historic Milan, with an elegance and class that can’t be denied.
In 1860, with the support of King Vittorio Emanuele II (the first king of a unified Italy, the city of Milan launched a competition to redesign the urban area between Piazza Duomo and Piazza della Scala, where the world-famous opera house, Teatro della Scala, dominates one end of the square. In 1861 and 1863, two further competitions were held, each time the municipal committee in charge of the project giving more specific instructions to the hopeful architects submitting designs. They knew they wanted a covered arcade, but in September of 1863 finally chose Giuseppe Megnoni’s design because of his understanding of functionality, attention to the scenic effects on urban design, and comprehensive plan for construction. After expanding upon and fine-tuning the design for the galleria in 1864, King Vittorio Emanuele II visited Milan in 1865 for the ground-breaking celebration. Relatively quickly, in 1867, the Galleria was complete and opened to the public.
The only thing left to design and construct was the triumphant arch that would become the entrance into the Galleria from Piazza Duomo. It took a full ten years to complete because of various financial issues and problems obtaining the proper materials. In 1876, City Hall gave a final lump sum toward construction of the arch, declaring that it must be finished by the last day of December, 1877. It was, however – sadly - Megnoni was not there to present it. On December 30, 1877, on the eve of the completion deadline, while closely examining the final finishing touches on the arch, Megnoni fell off of the scaffolding to his death.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II connects Piazza Duomo to the south and Piazza della Scala to the north, Via Ugo Foscolo to the east and Via Silvio Pellico to the west. The two walkways are covered in an incredible, arched, glass and iron ceiling four stories up. Enamel tiles lead you toward the octagon in the center, where mosaics portray the coat of arms of Italy and England (where the original company who financed construction was based), as well as allegorical representations of four Italian cities: a wolf for Rome, a lily for Florence, a bull for Turin and Milan’s white flag with a red cross emblazoned across it. Local tradition holds that it’s good luck to approach the bull of Turin (who is a historical rival to Milan) and spin on your heel right over its genitals with your eyes closed (needless to say, that part of the mosaic has had to be restored on multiple occasions).
Above the four corners of the central octagon are four lunettes with mosaics representing Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas (these were originally frescoes but were fading so badly that in 1911, they were changed to mosaics). Twenty-four life-size statues of renowned Italian artists, scientists and philosophers can be seen surrounding the base of the dome and stationed at the base of the two primary entrances (those of Piazza Duomo and Piazza della Scala).
But what about the important part? The shops! High-end stores line both corridors of the Galleria, cafés and restaurants interspersed among them. For two decades, a McDonald’s stuck out in their midst like a sore thumb but the city refused to renew its lease in 2012 (can I get a “grazie a dio”, anyone?).
Two restaurants stand out among the horribly over-priced and over-rated restaurants: Caffé Ristorante Biffi and Savini. Caffé Ristorante Biffi has been a tenant inside the Galleria since the day of its inauguration in 1867. It has moved locations (from the central octagon to the south wing of the Galleria) and owners over the years, but still maintains its Bell Epoque decor. Savini, however, is probably the most well-known and renowned restaurant in the historic halls, claiming celebrity clientele like Maria Callas, Luchino Visconti, Charlie Chaplin, and Grace Kelly.
And while the Galleria is beautiful and elegant and majestic at all times of the year, there is nothing quite like it around Christmas. Garlands are hung, lights are strung, and a massive Christmas tree is erected in the center of the octagon. Above it, blue lights cover the dome like a sparkling net with Milan’s crest, the white flag with the red cross, shining down like a midnight sun from the very top.