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Nick Richards retraces Aschenbach's steps at The Lido

Hotel Des Bains
Thomas Mann’s 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 years on.

I’d 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 Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach glided into the Lido, an island across the main lagoon from central Venice.
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 could find.
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 wasn’t 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 doesn’t 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 I’m 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 Mann’s 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 of cities.’
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 city.

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 lungs.
Travelling by gondola across the stretch of water from the Veneto to the Lido is not something you’d want to do in 2003. In Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film version, Dirk Bogarde looks like he’s riding across a millpond on his gondola, but this wouldn’t 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 – I’m 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 swanky restaurants.

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.
Aschenbach’s 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 wasn’t 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 aren’t 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 cannot avoid.
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 it’s 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 you’ll 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

Editor's Note:
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'

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