October 22, 2008 / 1:22 PM / 11 years ago

Disrepair, decay tests Milan's "drawing room"

MILAN (Reuters Life!) - Milan’s historic shopping arcade, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, has been described as a flower in the buttonhole of Milan, but lately its thorns are showing as it falls into disrepair.

Inaugurated in 1878, the vaulted confection of masonry, iron and glass that provides a pedestrian thoroughfare from the Duomo cathedral to La Scala opera house has long been a source of pride to the Milanese, who refer to it as their “drawing room.”

Prada opened there in 1913. Gaspare Campari mixed liqueurs in his shop. Charlie Chaplin and Maria Callas have dined at its restaurants. Street performers, rock-throwing protesters and the poor receiving Christmas packages have all flocked there.

But now luxury shops like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada line a pocked mosaic floor whose dazzling motifs are marred by cracks, missing tiles and black splotches.

Some of the rooms surrounding the main thoroughfare are padlocked or abandoned, with decaying walls and gaping holes. In September, blocked sewers turned a downpour into a flood.

“This place is falling apart. It’s more than falling apart,” said Maria Teresa Baldi, who has worked for 13 years at the National Association of War Volunteers, which has an office in the 19th century complex.

“Have you seen the walls?” she asked, sweeping a hand toward a wall-length crack poorly concealed by a suspended green helmet and war photographs.

“In my opinion, it’s shameful.”

Last week the city set a December 10 bidding deadline on a 1.5 million euro ($1.93 million) floor restoration contract after the previous offer drew no takers.

“The Galleria needs to shine once again,” Maurizio Cadeo, the city official in charge of the contract, was quoted as saying in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper.

But some, like Lorenzo Carvelli who lives in the complex in an apartment his family has leased for 60 years, are not holding their breath for change.

“They won’t fix it, and that’s not right,” said Carvelli, who said his grandfather used to invite singers home from La Scala for dinner. Resigned to the galleria’s fate, he has covered a corroded wall with a giant Benetton poster of a Cuban mental patient.

Plenty of glitz still remains, though. The Octagon, capped by a glass and iron dome 39 meters (128 feet) in diameter, spans both a McDonalds and the Town House Galleria, a hotel so luxurious it offers transportation in a Bentley.

And the disrepair and decay is not readily apparent to tourists, who flock to the Galleria, some to try out a popular good-luck ritual centered around bull testicles.

“It’s our first time here, and it looks fine to us,” said Susan Chase, manager of a New York City jewelry business, who had just performed the rite by twirling her heel on a mosaic of a bull’s privates.

Editing by Deepa Babington and Paul Casciato

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