The Death in Venice novella is rife with allusions from antiquity forward, particularly to Greek antiquity and to German works from the eighteenth century on.

By Balthazar Malevolent


Thomas Mann's novella is intertextual, with the main sources being first the relation between sexual love and philosophical wisdom traced in Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus, and second the Nietzschean contrast between the God of restraint and forming form, Apollo, and the God of excess and lust, Dionysus. Around the time that Mann was writing Death in Venice, the practice of putting classical deities in contemporary settings was popular.

Death in Venice film adaptation.

The name and the character of Aschenbach may be influenced by the German homosexual poet August von Platen-Hallermünde. His poems about Venice are alluded to in the novella and he, like Aschenbach, died of cholera on an Italian island. The first name of Aschenbach is almost an anagram of August, and the last name of the character may be derived from Platen's birthplace, Ansbach. The name has therefore another simple meaning: Aschenbach literally means "ash brook." Aschenbach's physical description in the novel was based on a photograph of the composer Gustav Mahler. When Mann met Mahler in Munich, the latter had made a strong personal impression on Mann, and the writer was shocked by the news of Mahler's death in Wien. Mann gave Aschenbach Mahler's first name and facial appearance but did not speak about it in public. Alternatively, the name of Aschenbach could be a reference to Wolfram von Eschenbach, who was Middle High German medieval romance Parzival's author, whose reimagination and continuation of "Chrétien de Troyes" Grail Quest's romance contained similar themes to those found in Thomas Mann's novella, for instance, the author's fascination with and idealization of the youthful innocence and beauty. Given Mann's own obsession with Richard Wagner's work, who famously transformed von Eschenbach's epic into his opera Parsifal, it is possible that Mann credited Wagner's opera by referring to the author of the work that inspired the composer.

Modris Eksteins, a Latvian Canadian historian with a special interest in German history, notes the parallels between Aschenbach and Sergei Diaghilev, stating that while the two never met, "Diaghilev knew the story of Mann very well. He gave copies of it to his close friends and family." Diaghilev would always stay at the same hotel as Aschenbach, the Grand Hotel des Bains, and would take his young male lovers there. Eventually, Diaghilev died in Venice, like Aschenbach.

*Death in Venice is one of Rick Owens' favorite novels, also the designer owns a house in Venice.

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