When an acquaintance of mine who had been raised in the countryside came to live in Bologna several years ago, the city seemed to him a dreary labyrinth. He arrived in the abbreviated days of winter when the Apennine chill and Po Valley fog press a steel lid on the town for weeks. The streets throughout the historical center are lined with porticoes, and to my friend the citizens coursing up and down the gloomy arcades were mysterious bolts of shadow scrambling for constant shelter. William Dean Howells detested Bologna for that same reason: the portici make the sidewalks “a continuous cellarway; your view of the street is constantly interrupted by the heavy brick pillars that support the arches.” The entire city, he says in Italian Journeys, is “dull, blind, and comfortless.” Howells, like many visitors to Italy, was intent on the picturesque, the ample and immediately...


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