IN VENICE Redux
retraces Aschenbach's steps at The Lido
Hotel Des Bains
Manns novel 'Death In Venice' portrayed the city through the
intense eyes of lonely writer Gustav von Aschenbach in the early
twentieth century. But what would he have made of Venice today?
Nick Richards re-traced the footsteps of the central character 91
Id never read the book Death In Venice before, but as my train
pulled out of Milan, I began to feel some kind of affinity with
the central character in the classic book.
My destination was Venice, some 300 miles to the east of Milan and
I was arriving 91 years after Thomas Manns Gustav von Aschenbach
glided into the Lido, an island across the main lagoon from central
He came to Venice seeking a new experience, or as Mann puts it:
a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes while
I was merely joy-riding in his memory. He wanted a break from what
had become a safe and mundane world as a writer in his native Germany
and I just wanted to pretend that I needed to step away from my
high-society lifestyle and join him.
While any stressed-out high-powered executive may head for a weekend on
a health farm or a bit of extreme sports in 2003, back in the early 20th
century a holiday in Venice seemed to be the best bit of escapism you
The Lido was the most fashionable resort in Italy at the time the book
was written and flicking through the 48 pages of the novella the overall
feeling is that Aschenbach came to the Lido to find beauty and inspiration.
Rather than just visit Venice like any normal tourist, I wanted to walk
around the city as if I was an upper class wealthy German taking a holiday
before the outbreak of the First World War.
I wasnt searching to find anything for myself but wondered what
the Lido symobilsed in order for Mann to set his book there.
The fact that it is set against the backdrop of an outbreak of cholera
is no coincidence in 1911 while Death In Venice was being written,
upwards of 30,000 people died of the disease in Italy.
In the book Aschenbach doesnt spend a great deal of time wandering
around the tourist spots of Venice, but where he to do so today he would
be able to purchase pigeon food in Piazza San Marco in euros the
same currency as his native Germany a fact which Im sure
would have been explained in great deal in the slow text of the book.
Arriving in Venice by boat, though, is a big deal for Manns Aschenbach.
He laments that to arrive by land at the railway station was like
entering a palace by the back door.
Only by ship, over the high sea, should one come to this most extraordinary
Well for most people now the starting point is at the station either after
a short hop from the airport or by train from another Italian town or
Arriving at Santa Lucia station and getting straight on to the vaporetti
chugging though the green foamy water is a magical sight and the first
chance to really feel an affinity with Aschenbach.
Step out of the station and the first view of Venice is of the same magical
world of gondolas bobbing up and down like burnt potato skins on a platter
of butter that would have greeted our literary hero.
In the book, the central character gets in a gondola at the station and
orders to be taken to the vaporetti stop in order to get to the Lido.
But the gondolier is corrupt and decides to take him all the way to the
Lido hoping for a big tip.
Imagining Aschenbach on his corrupt gondola cutting a path through the
water is rather stomach churning.
On board the modern vaporetti is a stuffy affair. I had to move up on
to the deck so the cold Venetian air could strike my face and fill my
Travelling by gondola across the stretch of water from the Veneto to the
Lido is not something youd want to do in 2003. In Luchino Viscontis
1971 film version, Dirk Bogarde looks like hes riding across a millpond
on his gondola, but this wouldnt really happen now.
This must be one of the busiest stretches of water in the world as boats
carrying tea-chests, beer and all kinds of strange items Im
sure I saw two men in a tiny boat with a fridge as their cargo.
Once on the Lido, the brooding aura of the book explodes into apparent
sexual tension when he becomes obsessed with watching a teenage boy prancing
around on the beach and giving him perplexing stares. I think Aschenbach
would still feel at home on the Lido now with its glitzy boutiques and
Reading the book and watching the film, Aschenbach comes across as the
kind of man who would happily spend week after week eating at the same
restaurants and shopping at the same shops.
He would probably get something different out of each meal or shopping
trip but he seems to be a man very much of routine and on each of my three
days on the Lido I made sure to take a walk down the imposing Hotel des
Bains were Aschenbach came, in essence, to die.
Aschenbachs journey to the hotel takes him down white blossoming
avenue bordered by taverns, bazaars and guest houses.
Waking up on the Lido on my first morning I was greeted by a unique smell
and it wasnt the smell of blossom. Nor was it the smell of chlorine,
which was in the air of 1912, to counter-act the Asiatic cholera that
eventually provides the death in Venice. I woke with my mouth watering
and the strongest smell of vanilla wafting through the shutters as there
is a superb bakery just off the Gran Viale St Elisabetta.
This is the main road running across the Lido from where the vaporetti
dock on one side to the beach outside the Hotel des Bains.
There arent many taverns and guest houses now, but I imagine Aschenbach
would have found plenty of inspiration here with the delicatessens, boutiques,
toy shops and restaurants.
Hotel des Bains is now an eerie large building with an imposing air of
infamy that one might find at The Bates Motel in Psycho. It looks like
the type of haunted mansion in a Scooby Doo cartoon grand, grey
and square everything Aschenbach tries not to be, but ultimately
The grand views of people playing on the beach in the film and retiring
from the sun in 19th century beach huts are but a distant memory. Beach
huts are still stuck in front of the Hotel des Bains, although orange
netting surrounds building work here.
Looking out at the misty-grey view of the beach huts one could quite imagine
him taking a stress-relieving stroll along the beach. The hotel is a shadow
of its former self and with Des Bains closed I think Aschenbach,
were he to head to the Lido in 200, would feel at home at the nearby Hotel
Hungaria on Gran Viale St Elisabetta.
Built at the turn of the 19th and 20th century it would probably have
been derided as a cheap modern building if it were to merit a mention
in Death In Venice.
Hungaria is one of many hotels on the island built in an art noveau style.
It has an undulating façade covered with multi-coloured ceramics
and decorated with figures.
But it is the Hotel des Bains, or rather the beach in front of it is where
death catches up with Aschenbach.
Standing on the beach outside with my back to the sea and facing the massive
hotel there is definitely an aura attached to the place. Read the book,
watch the film and then head off to the Lido and find the hotel. Then
youll see what I mean.
DEATH IN VENICE summarised:
Writer and composer Gustav von Aschenbach takes time out from Munich to
holiday in the Lido, Venice. While at the imposing Hotel des Bains he
becomes obsessed with a teenage boy Tadziu, with whom he exchanges nothing
more than intense glances. While in Venice an outbreak of Asiatic cholera
which has been sweeping across Europe reaches the Italian city.
Aschenbach is advised to leave Venice but his obsession with Tadziu is
so great that he cannot bring himself to do so. He catches cholera and
dies on the beach outside the Hotel des Bains.
© Nick Richards April 2003
If you are travelling to Vancovuer in May there is an photographic exhition
of Venice showing at the IronWorlks Gallery 235 Alexander Street- May1st
- 31st 2003.
Sam North's 'Out of Season'
all rights reserved