Of Bulls and Mice

Probably few spots in Milano are more well-known than Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, especially to tourists. Linking two of the most famed places in the city, piazza Duomo and piazza della Scala, this sophisticated gallery is an iconic passage itself, with its eclectic decorations, tiled floor and the bright dome arching over the central octagon.

Designed by at-the-time young architect Giuseppe Mengoni and built between 1865 and 1877, the gallery was inspired by those great iron buildings – like the Crystal Palace in London – that embodied the most recent technological achievements and a widespread, unwavering faith in the industrial progress. Its dome, in turn, would inspire Gustave Eiffel a few years later for his own architectural work.

As soon as it came into existence, the gallery became “il salotto di Milano” (‘Milano’s salon’), with all its caffè – Caffè Biffi opened the first, soon followed by Caffè Campari (today Zucca in Galleria) – and the many luxury shops, restaurants, and a hotel. People would gather there to discuss politics in the newborn Italy, even heatedly: and many intellectuals and artists, like Giuseppe Verdi, King Umberto I or Carlo Carrà, were regulars at those caffè.

An unorthodox lucky charm

There’s a very peculiar tradition regarding Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.

If you get to the ottagono, the gallery’s central area where its two branches meet, and stroll around it looking at the floor, you’ll notice five coats of arms. The central one belongs to Casa Savoia, the reigning family back when Italy was a monarchy (that is, up until 1946 when the people, via referendum, chose the republic instead); the other ones, in a circle around it, are the crests of the four cities that have been, at various times, capitals of Italy. In order: Milano (in the Napoleonic era), Torino, Firenze and Roma (under the Savoias).

You see Turin’s? The one with a rampant bull? Maybe you can’t properly make out the crest because there are so many people around it—and someone’s circling strangely around their own right heel, it looks dumb…

Get closer. Their heel’s actually on the bull’s lower region, and you’ll notice that person’s turning around exactly for three times.

Still puzzled? Just follow the example. It’s good luck. 🙂

The allegories

After you’ve secured your fate, have another stroll around the ottagono, only this time with your nose up in the air.

You’ll see paintings alternate with the arches under the dome. Those four frescoes are the so-called allegories. An allegory is like a symbol, where certain images represent an idea, a concept that you understand through a rational interpretation. In this case, they represent four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa and America.

Aren’t they beautiful?

There were also four other allegories by the two short entrances, representing the Human Activities: Science, Industry, Art and Agriculture. They’re no longer at their place, though—today they can be found at the GAM (Modern Art Gallery).

A mouse at the speed of light – Meet the ‘rattin’

Now keep your nose up. Have you ever wondered how the dome was lit when there was no electricity?

You’d be amazed to know the job was done by a mouse. Rattin (the dialectal for tiny mouse) was in facts its name.

It was not a real one, though. At the beginning, lighting in the galleria was still provided by round gas lamps (that are still visible today, between a shop window and another), often with the addition of hanging chandeliers. But this was only in the very gallery, alongside shops and cafes.

How the dome was lit was another matter.

For that, architect Mengoni found a brilliant solution. At the base of the dome was a series of jets to burn with an open flame. To set them on fire, he built like a mini-rail where a spring-loaded device would run, soaked in some inflammable liquid, lighting up the jets as it passed. Ever since its first appearance, this mechanism awoke the Milanese’s admiration, and stories are told about how people would gather at lighting time just to see the little thing run around—just like a tiny mouse. 🙂

More on the gallery can be found in Italian over at Vecchia Milano (here and here). Also, don’t miss the coolness of a HD virtual visit at the ottagono!

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