A chill February wind from the Alps shuffles me from the open piazza in front of the Duomo di Milano into the relative warmth of the corridors that make up the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The oldest active shopping mall in the world, this galleria in Milan was completed in 1877. It is an architectural marvel, with two giant glass-vaulted arcades over the streets connecting Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Scala that intersect in an octagonal central dome. The glass-and-iron roof is a distinctive 19th century design.
I join the flow of locals and tourists wandering aimlessly amongst the artistically modern window displays of luxury brands like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton that vie for attention alongside 150-year old stuccos, friezes, columns and a sigh-worthy mosaic floor.
I see a river of people pooled around a curious sight on the mosaic floor. I peer into the crowds, looking through slits and gaps between arms, waists and handbags to see the figure of a rampaging bull in beige-on-blue mosaic. Odder still, I see visitors join a queue for the chance to go up to the mosaic and “crush” its testicles by standing on them, and rotating thrice at the spot.
“Do it if you want to return to Milan,” a knowledgeable young man whispers to his date. The girl giggles hesitantly, and then swivels, ballet-style, on her boot’s heel. Nothing remains of the said testicles but a blackened little crater on the floor between the rampaging bull’s legs. A tourist guide informs his entourage that this custom is considered good for fertility. Another calls it a way to ward off ill-luck, especially if you come and rub the testicles at midnight on 31 December each year. “The Milanese believe this,” he cries in ecstasy.
Scholars, on the other hand, ascribe the superstition to an ancient rivalry between the cities of Turin and Milan. The mosaic bull is part of the coat of arms of Turin, its name literally meaning “bull”. After the unification of the kingdom of Italy, in which Milan played a big role, Turin became the capital in 1861 and through the 19th century, the two cities, 150km apart, remained competitive commercially and culturally. It’s not just some ancient rivalry either: In 2003, fans of football teams Torino and AC Milan got into a fight in the stadium, and play had to be stopped.
This rivalry is why the Milanese still grind the masculinity of Turin’s coat of arms into the dust, though the real story is perhaps now forgotten under layers of genteel superstition. The subject merits much discussion, though, especially in the Milan mayor’s office, during meetings discussing the conservation and restoration of the galleria’s mosaic floor.
The galleria has more tales. Its architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, mysteriously fell off the scaffolding during an inspection, just a few days before the marvel was inaugurated. Some whispered it was suicide. Others, that he was murdered by rivals. Maybe he forgot to ride the bull’s privates, yet others wonder even today.
As if by fate, I encounter another piece of bull artwork while shopping on a cheaper street. This time, it is at the Via Torino, or the road to Turin, which has a 3m-tall sculpture of a bull, upside-down, its horns and head crushed into the pavement in front of a popular branded store. The work of contemporary artist Christian Balzano, it is part of a series on the bull that Balzano calls Resilience, his message one of strength and regeneration. Of the work on Via Torino, it was said that the bull symbolizes “a world of hope, desire and action”, which fits well with Milan’s “global reputation for dynamism”.
Is there a deeper message here? For artistic symbols are powerful, building new myths atop the skeletons of older, forgotten ones. Traditionally, Turin was the bull, the symbol of strength, the capital city, but now it is somewhat forgotten outside Italy, attracting fewer people to its cobbled streets, compared to Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. Is its symbol, the animal it’s named after, being appropriated too?
I mull delightful little conspiracies over dinner with my partner, surrounded by the clink of glasses and the chatter of tourists. It’s a cold night, and a waiter brings me another tale with my cocktail. That story begins in 1786, under the porticos of Turin’s Piazza Castello, where, after years of toil and failed attempts at mixing, Antonio Benedetto Carpano finally managed to create a perfect blend—an infusion of herbs added to a dash of white wine. And thus was born Italian vermouth, the sweet Italian aperitif perfect before lunch. In 1860, Milan got its own liquor, created by Gaspare Campari and then popularized at his family bar, the famous Il Camparino, which still stands in the galleria in Milan.
They created a mixture of, some sources say 86, ingredients that included aromatic herbs and fruits infused in alcohol, that we know now as the Bitter Campari. In 1870s, at the height of the rivalry between the two cities, the sweetness of the red vermouth united with the bitterness of Milan’s Campari to create one of the most popular cocktail in the bars of young Italy today—the MiTo, or Milano-Torino cocktail, that I hold in my hand. Swirling the two cities in my cocktail glass, I ponder the things that divide us and those that unite us. Saluti.
This article was first published in Livemint in August 2018