Visiting the Galleria Umberto in Naples, Italy

I was in Naples on business. Figured I’d carry things over into the weekend so why not bring the family with me. After living there for six years, Naples is like a second home to me. Had a nice day planned out on Sunday, so what do you think happens – it rains. In fact, whoever coined the phrase “when it rains it pours” had this particular day in mind. We were already in dodging traffic in the car when the deluge hit and I had to think fast. Seeing as how our plans for a walk along the “lungo mare” (boardwalk) on the beachfront in nearby Mergellina were nixed by the weather, I decided we’d head indoors. Our destination: Galleria Umberto I which sits right off Via Roma in the near center of town. If we had to wait out the rain we’d do it here. Turned out to be a good choice.

With the rain slowing down to an annoying drizzle, I parked the car on side street and soon my wife, my daughter and I were gliding up the massive marble steps of the Galleria Umberto’s main entrance – which sits right off the Piazza Plebiscito and bracketed by the San Carlo Opera House on one side, and Via Roma on the other. The “Galleria” as it is affectionately called is an architectural masterpiece of glass, steel and stone, and patterned after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan.

Built in 1892, the arcade is cross-shaped, with a pretty mosaic of the zodiac on the floor at its center. At ground level, you’re surrounded by sidewalk cafÃ?©’s and ice cream shops, as well as gift shops, clothing boutiques and tobacco shop and a bank or two. At any given moment Galleria Umberto plays host to an array of visitors: trendy professionals taking a quick break from business, college students meeting with friends en route to their next class, and countless tourists and visitors from around the world who come here as a recommended stop on their vacation itineraries.

The trick to appreciating Galleria Umberto is to break the habit of looking straight ahead. I always recommend to friends to “tilt your heads back” instead. With a 184 foot tall arching dome at its center, you can easily become cross-eyes while gazing at the myriad upper-level offices, the turn-of-the-century architectural design and the glass facade that ties it all together. It’s difficult not to browse around and window shop, or sit and enjoy a cafÃ?©’ and not get a feel for what it must have been like for Naples’ turn-of-the-century upper class who frequented the Galleria and did much the same thing as were were doing now.

Galleria Umberto has weathered the passage of time rather well. And even now in 2006 it doesn’t look out of place in the crowded city center of Naples. But in its heyday, the Galleria represented the “new Naples”; a Naples that was trying it’s dandiest to break out of one it’s bleakest periods following a massive cholera epidemic in the early 1880’s. This particular time-frame in Naples’ chaotic history is known as the “Risanamento” (meaning re-sanitizing or re-cleansing). The idea behind the risanamento was to level several portions of the city that had fell victim to overcrowding and all the bad elements that came with it. The Galleria Umberto was a good example of the city trying to re-invent itself.

Architect Emanuele Rocco submitted an urban renewal plan that left a number of historic buildings in place, while at the same time space for what would be an enormous, almost cathedral-like, cross-shaped mall, peaked by a great glass dome braced by 16 metal ribs. Of the four glass-vaulted wings, one fronts on via Roma (still the main downtown thoroughfare), while another opens onto the San Carlo Theater. Two lesser “service exits” open up on two side streets that straddle the mall.
An inventive, grandiose use of glass and iron. So typical of the flamboyance of Italy and Europe, yet at the same time, Galleria Umberto is surrounded by a network of cramped side-streets that are so typical of Naples’ past. You’ve seen the ones i’m referring to: narrow alleys with clothes-lines stretched out from one side to the other. It’s apparent that certain aspects of naples’ will never fade away into obscurity.

The spacious center of the Galleria has welocmed concerts, art exhibits and fashion shows. During the Christmas holidays a 25 foot Christmas tree was erected for all to see and enjoy. Little touches like that ensure that Galleria Umberto will remain as a magnet for young and old alike for a long time to come.

Tourist notes: Galleria Umberto I (Via San Carlo, Naples, 80132) for all its opulence and flavor – is difficult to reach. Perhaps the most direct way is to take the train to the Piazza Garibaldi Train Station and follow the signs to Via Roma and Galleria Umberto. From the train station it’s about a ten minute walk. A new metro-line with a stop right near the Galleria has been under construction for the last two years and will hopefully come on line in December 2006.

Two and a half hours later the rain is finally letting up. Afternoon has segued into early evening and Naples’ second wave of citizenry has emerged from the nooks and crannies it calls “home”. The three of us peel out of the Via Roma exit and onto the main thoroughfare of Naples’ finest shopping district. An entire evening at our disposal before we take to the long road back home.

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