Thomas Mann’s initial inspiration for his novella, Death in Venice (1912), came from German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who fell in love with a teenage girl when he was seventy-four years old and vacationing in Marienbad. However, Mann’s own trip to Venice supplied many of the details for the story. The story concerns Gustav von Aschenbach, an accomplished middle-aged writer who has dedicated his life to his art and the pursuit of beauty, and his love for Tadzio, a fourteen-year-old Polish boy vacationing with his family in Venice. Although Tadzio escapes the cholera epidemic engulfing the city, von Aschenbach does not, and he dies on the beach the day Tadzio leaves. Mann uses the story to explore the relationships between death and beauty, life and art, chaos and order—all recurring themes in his writing. Mann gives von Aschenbach German composer Gustav Mahler’s first name and physical appearance, and Tadzio evokes the Greek gods Eros and Hermes, the latter of which is Mann’s favorite Greek god. The “actual” Tadzio, the boy Mann saw in Venice and on whom he based his character, was identified years later as Baron Wladyslaw Moes.
Von Aschenbach also bears a remarkable similarity to Mann himself. Both live in the same Munich neighborhood, both summer in the Bavarian Alps, and both share the same work habits. Both are also heavily influenced by the classics. The novella itself, full of allusions to Greek mythology, is indebted to the Odyssey and Erwin Rohde’s Psyche, an influential book on Greek religion. Death in Venice remains one of Mann’s most popular works, appearing in numerous anthologies and in Mann’s Collected Works (1960). It has also become a classic of gay literature, even though the story does not explicitly address homosexuality.