In an era where retail spaces seem to evolve at the speed of light, Italy’s historic shopping arcades are long-standing beacons of social and urban culture that date back to the 1800s. The home of many a luxury brand, they are hubs for Italy’s social and creative networks, adding to their enduring appeal.
The beautiful people
‘We call it il salotto [the living room], where the beautiful people meet, shop and dine,’ explains Giulio Ruggieri, an Italian native and design director for a leading creative agency, talking about the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. Designed and built almost 150 years ago by Giuseppe Mengoni and named after the then king, it is Italy’s oldest and most famous shopping arcade
House of glass
Composed of two glass-vaulted arcades with an octagon where they intersect, its arching glass and cast-iron roof proved influential in the design of retail spaces in the years that followed; both the glass roof and the term ‘galleria’ are evident in the design of shopping centres today. It was here that Mario Prada chose to open his first store in 1913, where he sold a selection of leather goods, and which is still in operation. Together with Louis Vuitton, the Prada store takes centre stage in the Galleria’s imposing octagonal space.
Dating back to the late 19th century, the Galleria Umberto I in Naples is situated opposite the San Carlo opera house, and was designed by Emanuele Rocco as part of the rejuvenation or risanamento of the city at that time. Tall and airy, it is topped by a glass dome braced by 16 metal ribs. After many years of being left to decay, it was returned to being an active centre of Neapolitan life and today is home to the boutique Art Resort Hotel, alongside shops and cafés. On a smaller scale, the Galleria Alberto Sordi (previously the Galleria Colonna) in Rome, which opened in 1922, is notable for its ornate art nouveau stained glass. More modest than its Milanese and Neapolitan counterparts, it’s home to fashion and accessories labels and a bookshop, and is a popular and charming meeting place.
If all of Italy’s historic arcades are a draw for the country’s elite, it’s the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II that is most famed for its clientele, many of whom have frequented the Savini, whose reputation since its launch in 1884 has been legendary. Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly are among the famous names to have dined at Savini, and Charlie Chaplin famously commented, ‘I’ve never eaten so well.’ The neighbouring Bar Zucca and Caffè Biffi have a similarly starry following, the latter having been opened in 1867 by Paolo Biffi, then pastry chef to the Italian royal family.
That these popular haunts are nestled next to fashion houses such as Gucci (which has its own cafe where you can enjoy chocolates featuring its distinctive logo) and Tod’s, makes for a rather seductive mix ‘The old tenants such as Savini add that romantic touch, the jewellery stores maintain the prestige,’ says Ruggieri.
However, the history of Italy’s best-known arcade has not been without its controversial moments. During the 1990s the drive for exclusivity appeared to waver, and McDonald’s was one of a handful of somewhat unexpected additions to the Galleria. While many fell by the way, the hamburger chain traded for 20 years, right up until 2012, when the renewal of its tenancy was rejected. Ruggieri, for one, was relieved: ‘The city seems to have made it its goal to restore its cultural heritage.’
Such cultural heritage comes in the form of Prada, which launched the Prada Galleria project to mark the centenary of its first boutique. The new menswear store includes a restaurant and exhibition space dedicated to the Prada Foundation which promotes contemporary art. And, while the motivation for the project was to reconnect the brand with its Milanese roots, it has also strengthened the relationship the Galleria has with the worlds of art, fashion and high society, in many ways the legacy on which its reputation has been built. What emerges is a partnership between retail and culture that is unsurpassed: an alluring, exclusive and inspiring place to shop, but – as Ruggieri highlights – ‘… first of all, a place to be seen’.