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The golden age of glass-roofed shopping arcades

Valeria Carullo

The Galleria Umberto 1, Naples was just one of the many glazed arcades that transformed shopping across Europe during the 19th century

The Galleria Umberto 1,  Naples
The Galleria Umberto 1, Naples Credit: Edwin Smith/ RIBA Collections

In the 19th century, glazed shopping arcades were built in many of Europe’s largest cities. One of the oldest is the Burlington Arcade in London of 1818, although some covered passages in Paris are earlier predecessors. Arguably the most famous of the later larger arcades, covered by vaulted glass and cast-iron roofs, is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, built between 1865 and 1877 and now a major landmark of the city.

Less well known and slightly later, a similar project started taking shape in another Italian city, Naples, as part of the Urban Renewal Plan, developed after the 1884 cholera epidemic. Located opposite the renowned San Carlo opera house, the Galleria Umberto I was designed to house shops, cafés and businesses, as well as apartments on one of its upper floors, and to provide a covered public space for the city. The arcade soon became a meeting place for local musicians and composers, and the heart of cabaret entertainment in Naples. It is now part of the Unesco listing of the Historic Centre of Naples as a World Heritage Site.