Death in Venice, Don't Look Now and many other tales of passion and intrigue have been inspired by this extraordinary city.
The struggle between reason and passion is played out in the character of the disciplined and ascetic Gustav von Aschenbach on vacation at the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1912).
According to Thomas Mann’s wife Katia, in her book Unwritten Memories (1974), the story is closely based on their holiday on the Lido the previous year:
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 13 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 …
Death in Venice was made into a successful movie by Luchino Visconti, released in 1971 and starring Dirk Bogarde. Above, a still from the movie, featuring Bjorn Andresen as the boy (centre, facing the camera).
Nicolas Roeg made brilliant and terrifying use of Venice in Don’t Look Now (1973), the adaption of the novella by Daphne du Maurier starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. If you haven’t seen this movie, See it! And make sure it is the uncut version, for this extraordinary film also includes (IMHO – but I’m not alone!) the most moving and erotic sex scene in cinema.
The film beautifully captures the grays, blues and blacks of a wintery Venice, with locations including the Europa Hotel—although the Bauer Grunwald was used for the Baxters’ suite as it better accommodated the cameras—and the Santo Nicolo dei Mendici (the Church of St. Nicholas); this is located on the outskirts of Venice, in the Dorsoduro district, near the banks of the Canale di Fusina.
Other films with scenes in Venice include The Talented Mr Ripley (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lara Croft and James Bond movies.
The British writer Michael Dibdin wrote a celebrated series of thrillers which explore the darker side of Italian public life in the 1990s/2000s and feature as the central character the Venetian detective Aurelio Zen.
Somewhat melancholy by disposition, wearied, and forever harassed by bureaucracy, but nevertheless dedicated and dogged in pursuit of the truth, Zen is a fine creation. In Dead Lagoon, Zen returns to his native city, where he quickly slips back into the local dialect and an affair with an acquaintance from his youth.
Dibdin successfully evokes the otherness of the city, making excellent use of the ebb and flow and hazy light of the lagoon to create an atmosphere of ambiguity and menace as Zen investigates the disappearance of a rich American resident.
Thomas Mann, Nicholas Roeg, Aurelio Zen: Where else but Venice?