By Giulia Gianfranchi
Before I came about, Piazza del Duomo (the Duomo Square) and its surrounding area had the unhappy title of of Piazza dei Polli (The Square of chickens), a place filled with street vendors, poulterers, wine makers and polenta merchants.
1838. The illustrious Engineer Carlo Caimi refers to me as a “Covered Contrada with a central Octagon, a useful connection between the Cathedral and San Fedele Square.
5 June 1859. Today is a big day! The Austrians have retreated in defeat. Milan is returned to its citizens.It’s time to do something to celebrate this victory, this new beginning. It’s time to give a breath of air to the Duomo, choked by dilapidated porticos.
4 December 1859. A Royal decree has authorised a lottery, a part of the proceeds of which, will go towards my construction.
3 April 1860. The new Lord Major Beretta has ordered a survey of the square and its surroundings. Now anyone with an idea for this area can make a proposal.
9 January 1861. The lottery has not been a success. Only a fifth of the funds needed have been gathered.
June 1862. The City Council has decided to hold a competition for my design. 18 projects have been selected from about a hundred proposals.
August 1963. We have three finalists: Architects Carlo Pestagalli, Nicola Matas and “Dante”Under this pseudonym lurks my future father! Giuseppe Mengoni.
17 September 1863. Mengoni wins the competition, he is given responsibility for the entire project!
My labour was difficult… it was not easy to win the hearts of the Milanese. Demolish the existing for a rebuild was not easily accepted as an idea… those old stones were of great sentimental value, having accompanied the lives of many people. “… The soul of our old Milan is being taken away”, commented Cesare Correnti in a letter to Clara Maffei.
21 July 1864. Despite the criticisms and the satirical, poisonous cartoons published daily, the building contract has been signed today with the English company of the Knight Eugenio Francfort.
7 March 1865. It’s seven in the morning, it’s snowing, what terrible weather for a ceremony… better not to think about it. At exactly eleven o’clock the first foundation stone is due to be laid, my true beginning. I shall take the name of my King, Vittorio Emanuele II and I shall be blessed by the church in the presence of the public!
I did not have a happy childhood, although it was filled with surprises and illustrious visitors.
6 November 1866. Alessandro Manzoni walks the building site with nimble step, just days after a visit from the King of Portugal who was welcomed by two lines of labourers bearing torches. Even the Emperor of France Napoleon III, on official state visits came to see me twice!
15 September 1867. Finally, a Sunday of sunshine to celebrate my inauguration.Built in record time, just 822 days have passed since the first stone was laid! As the time draws near, the streets fill with people, guests in ceremonial dress, the roll of the drums and the fanfare announce the arrival of the King, just alighted from his carriage, he describes me as a “miracle”!We are in the octagon: the King has signed the Inauguration act, my father Giuseppe Mengoni presents his team of artists and engineers. That evening the cheers ringing from the crowds at the Café Biffi continue late into the night.
15 September 1868. Finally I have been accepted! A year has passed since my opening ceremony and now I am a favourite place, a meeting point, a stage for all the Milanese to parade upon. They wake me early in the morning, as they cross me; the Milanese work relentlessly. The most magic moment of all however is at sunset, when my six hundred gas lamps are lit! People come to the gallery to bathe in this light and to admire the “Rattin” (little mouse in Milanese) which lights up the lamps of the dome, this is a favourite pastime of passers-by.
27 June 1872. Mengoni is working hard on the triumphal arch at my entrance onto the Duomo Square, the last part of me to be completed.
13 June 1874. A terrible storm arrives at 4.30pm. Enormous hailstones completely destroy my glass dome, after just six years I have lost my glass sky, my transparency…
1 October 1875. Today demolition has commenced on what remains of the Rebecchino area, in preparation for the forthcoming visit of the German Emperor.
19 October 1875. Yesterday I met the Emperor Wilhelm I. In honour of his arrival Giuseppe Mengoni lit up the Duomo Square in the most magnificent way! The chorus of La Scala Opera House sang a piece by Bach in my octagon! All the newspapers and magazines are at work creating a special issue to mark the occasion!
At 9pm, the first issue of the “Corriere della Sera” by Eugenio Torelli Viollier is released. There are 77 people on the editorial staff, who occupy two rooms on the mezzanine level with the entrance on via Ugo Foscolo.
30 December 1877. Today is a special day, all the work is finally finished. My father will celebrate tomorrow evening with Leone Fortis! Will his newspaper “Il Pungolo” have the scoop?
31 December 1877. Anger and emptiness… last night I lost my father. They say that he committed suicide because of debts, incurred by me. I can’t believe this, he loved me so much. It must have been an accident! While he stood to admire the last frieze on the arch which was to be displayed today to King and country, he slipped from a scaffolding, which had been built to keep all his labourers from harm!
9 January 1878. At only ten years old I have lost my King to pneumonia. People read the posters in disbelief. The shops close in mourning.
24 February 1878. The last act, today the arch that faces onto the Duomo Square is to be uncovered.After all the scandal and criticism, I am surrounded by unanimous applause. Milan loves me and cannot do without me. My father would be so proud.
l am the most important arcade in Milan, a refuge when out on a walk or a place where you can meet old friends who have travelled from afar. Life in the gallery continues by day and by night. Luigi Capuana describes me in this way “ The pulse of city life is here. Just when it seems that every movement has ceased, you can look into the big crystal eyes in the floor to discover that this centre of activity never sleeps but continues to work unconsciously just as a living being falls asleep…..” Under my glass roof lie lies the fruits of my father’s eclecticism endorsed by many trips abroad. These shops and businesses add to my fame: Biffi Restaurant, the Gambrinus, the Stocker beer house, the Fiaschetteria Toscana, Café Gnocchi, the Liquor store of Gaspare Campari, the elegance of Savini. The other residents are a mixed collection: from the newspaper offices of the Corriere and of the “Pungolo”, the famous satiric publication, the publishing house of the Ricordi music company, Sonzogno, the bookshops Bocca and Rizzoli, the lacework of Finzi, the artisan furniture makers Thonet, the Duroni opticians to the Murano glass, to painters, antique dealers, jewellers, associations. Gaetano Savallo dedicated a quarter of his guide “ The new guide to the city of Milan and its surroundings” just to me!
7 March 1880. I am only fifteen years old but I seem far more mature, influenced by the innovative energy that brings life to Milan, which has by now grown into a metropolis. I have been part of the political, cultural and social scene of my city for quite some time!
21 August 1880. Electricity has arrived at Café Gnocchi. A real comfort! The new world advances, although, to tell the truth, I am so sorry to loose my “Rattin” and its show which is still a spectacle every evening.
22 October 1889. This morning a huge crowd filled the Duomo Square: the Palazzo of the Bocconi Brothers was officially opened. Now ladies can further satisfy their desire for the latest fashion! The refined Corriere delle Dame will definitely have some new design suggestions to make.
31 January 1891. The coldest days of winter have really made themselves felt this year! A relentless freeze has damaged my 24 plaster statues. They have completely crumbled and will have to be removed. I don’t think they will be replaced with marble statues. I will miss them!
22 March 1897. Just one week has passed since the opening night of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème and yet the octagon is already filled with its arias. What charm Paris of the early 18th century conveys with its bohemian artists!
28 April 1906. Brochures and fliers in perfect Art Nouveau style publicise Milan’s Universal Exhibition. I am ready to welcome all visitors to Milan!
7 March 1910. We are in the new century. I am forty years old. I am surrounded by electric trams, their noise mixes with the sounds of rehearsing tenors and are amplified in my octagon bringing rhythm to my days. They bring me colour and movement, especially the futurists with their voices, the theatrical performances and the lively patterns of their costumes and posters! Sometimes they fight but peace seems to be restored at the Camparino, the Stockers or at Zucca. They are all here: D’Annunzio, Marinetti, Treves, Toscanini, Ruffo Titta and many others. When they are not shouting or debating in a lively fashion, they sing, they meditate in religious silence, raising a glass as they discuss the progress of the new century, with its inconsistencies.
28 June 1914. I fear that we will soon be at war: today the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria was assassinated.
9 May 1915. What a parade! How many flags! How many cheers! Today I was at the centre of the procession of the activists!
24 May 1915. We are officially at war along side France and Great Britain.
15 February 1916. Yesterday two Austrian airplanes bombed the city! I was not damaged but Porta Romana and Porta Volta have been destroyed.
4 November 1918. Today they will sign the peace treaty, after 1258 days of war!
10 June 1940. Not even 20 years have passed and yet Radio airs Mussolini’s voice… we are at war yet again!
Monday 16 August 1943. The city is deserted; even the sirens have been silenced. The last air raid completely gutted me just after midnight on Sunday. The ground shook violently as the British RAF Lancasters approached, flashes of the explosions lit up the already bright sky. The air was heavy with the acrid smell of fire, and then a deafening explosion….
1 May 1945. I think it will take many years to heal my wounds. A property company wants to buy me but my citizens shout that want me: The Milanese Salon must belong to the Milanese!
2-3 June 1946. Yesterday voting started on a referendum. For just 2000 votes, Italy is now officially a Republic. After reigning for 85 years the Savoys leave Milan.
7 December 1955. At just over ninety, on the feast day of Milan’s St. Ambrogio, I can finally celebrate my restoration! Apart from my mosaic floor, I also have a brand new dome made of glass block. This glass block has a stripped pattern and is not so bad as it ties in well with the iron structure. I feel strangely lighter, as if this “cleaning” has at least wiped away the images and the horrors of war….
7 March 1967. Today I am 102 and as beautiful as ever! The mosaic floor has been perfectly restored with brilliant colours. I can’t stop looking at it!To mark the occasion the director Ermanno Olmi has made a special documentary about me and the film script has been written by one of the greatest poets of our time: Dino Buzzati!
April 2015.They have finished the big restoration project! Now I am really splendid! The city council asked two great fashion houses for help with my makeover: Prada and Versace! In record time, working 24 hours a day, they made me new clothes! I am ready for Expo 2015!
1 May 2015. Welcome to my High-line! From today on, everyone can admire my splendour from outside, above my vaults. From here, I bestow unique views of the old and of the new Milan!
For the production of this exhibition “Vittorio Emanuele II° Gallery. Extracts from my Diary” we wish to thank: Alessandro Rosso Group, Townhouse Hotels, Seven Stars Galleria. For the images, a special thank to Idea Books.
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