As Shopping Malls Go, This One in Naples is a Spectacle

March 2022

The steel and glass roof of Naples' Galleria Umberto I soars 184 feet above its mosaic marble floor.

This city kid has never been a fan of traditional shopping malls. I like open streets lined with stores where I enter a different environment as I step through a shop’s door. A mall’s artificial atmosphere is a fake experience.

But give me a genuine galleria covered with glass and steel that transforms the traditional mall experience into a world attraction.

Like the grand Galleria Umberto I in Naples, Italy, for instance. An interior image of this architectural beauty, named after one of Italy’s kings, graces my 2022 Southern Italy calendar’s March page. Modelled after the Galleria in Milan, this exquisite structure connects the busy Via Toledo shopping district with Naples’ opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, and the nearby Piazza Plebiscito, home of the Royal Palace.

The UNESCO World Heritage site immediately awes as I leave the city’s hubbub and walk under the massive arch onto the Galleria’s mosaic marble floor and into relative calm of the cavernous, soaring space. Rising 184 feet overhead, glass and steel covers the cross-shaped four-block structure. Filtered sunlight softens the scene of local shoppers and tourists like me, who crane their necks to take in the building fronts embellished with classical columns and exuberant decorations in the Art Nouveau style. Retail stores, cafes, and open spaces line the marble floors; the rotunda displays an intricately detailed wheel of the twelve Zodiac signs.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Southern Italy, especially Naples, fell on hard times. With the formation of the new country of Italy in 1860, the government siphoned off resources from its prosperous southern regions to support the new capital city of Rome and its operations. Naples suffered dramatically. Four million people emigrated to the United States over three decades.

To combat this sharp decline, Naples undertook risenemento, a 30-year ambitious urban renewal project to restore the city’s glory. Completed in 1890, Galleria Umberto I replaced slums and crowned the mammoth revitalization effort. By the mid-twentieth century, the Galleria itself fell into ruin; recent significant investments restored the magnificent structure as a shopping and meeting place for locals and tourists.

The buildings' facades exhibit the exuberant Art Nouveau style popular during the design and construction of this 1890 complex.

I make a bee-line for a gelato stand and celebrate this glorious space with a large cup of my favorite flavor–stracciatella, “a rich vanilla base with delicate chocolate shards woven in.” It’s kind of like American chocolate chip ice cream, but completely different. Melted chocolate is drizzled slowly into the milk and egg custard mixture towards the end of the churning process. On contact, the bittersweet chocolate hardens and is immediately shredded into tiny flakes by the mixer’s blades and fuses with the ice cream. The chocolate shards melt upon contact with your tongue. If you get the opportunity to try this delectable treat, don’t overlook a tastebud extravaganza.

Passing under another grand archway, I’m back into the noisy shoppers’ and tourists’ world, grateful for the relative tranquility of the spectacular Galleria experience.

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