Death in Venice  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The novella Death in Venice was written by the German author Thomas Mann, and was first published in 1912 as Der Tod in Venedig. It was adapted for film by Visconti as Death in Venice.


The novella is constructed on a framework of references to Greek mythology, and Aschenbach's Venice seems populated by the gods. By dedicating himself to Apollo, the god of reason and the intellect, Aschenbach has denied the power of Dionysus, god of unreason and of passion. Dionysus seems to have followed Ashenbach to Venice with the intent of destroying him: the red-haired man who keeps crossing von Aschenbach's path, in the guise of different characters, is none other than Silenus, chief follower of the god of unreason. In the Benjamin Britten opera these characters (The Traveller, the Gondolier, The Leading player and the Voice of Dionysus) are played by the same baritone singer, who also plays the Hotel Manager, The Barber and the Old Man on the Vaperetto. The trope of placing Classical deities in contemporary settings was popular at the time when Mann was writing Death in Venice: in England, at almost the same time, E.M. Forster was at work on an entire short-story collection based on this premise. The idea of the opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian seems to have been introduced by Nietzsche, and was also a popular motif of the time.

Gustav von Aschenbach's name seems to be inspired by the homosexual German poet August von Platen. The character's last name may be derived from von Platen's birthplace, Ansbach. The character of von Aschenbach may have been based in part on the composer Gustav Mahler (the film soundtrack makes use of Mahler's compositions, particularly the "Adagietto" movement from the Symphony No. 5). Mann claimed to have based Aschenbach's physical appearance, but not his character, on Mahler.

Thomas Mann's wife Katia recalls that the idea for the story came during an actual holiday in Venice, which she and Thomas took in the spring of 1911:

All the details of the story, beginning with the man at the cemetery, are taken from experience … In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband's attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn't pursue him through all of Venice — that he didn't do — but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often … I still remember that my uncle, Privy Counsellor Friedberg, a famous professor of canon law in Leipzig, was outraged: "What a story! And a married man with a family!"

Mann himself mentioned this story in a letter to his friend Phillipp Witkop on 7/18/1911, as he was working on it:

I am in the midst of work: a really strange thing that I brought with me from Venice, a novella, serious and pure in tone, concerning a case of pederasty in an aging artist. You say, "Hum, hum!" but it is quite respectable.

The real boy who inspired "Tadzio" is said to be Baron Władysław Moes, whose first name was usually shortened as Władzio or just Adzio. This story was uncovered by Thomas Mann's translator Andrzej Dołęgowski around 1964, and was published in the German press in 1965. Some sources report that Moes himself did not learn of the connection until he saw the 1971 film version of the novel. Moes was born in 1900, making him a few years younger than Mann guessed. Moes died in 1986 and is interred at the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw. Moes was the subject of a biography The Real Tadzio (Short Books, 2001) by Gilbert Adair.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Death in Venice" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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