Travelogue LXV: Venice II: I am Venice


“If one wanted to travel to somewhere incomparable, to a fantastic mutation of normal reality, where did one go? The answer was obvious. What was he doing here? He had gone completely astray. That was where he wanted to travel.”

San Marco.

San Marco.

October 20, 2015 It’s been over a week since I have been back from Venice, and I still don’t know quite how to write about it. The weirdest, loveliest, most contradictory place I have ever been in, yes–but what does that even mean? Venice is the most improbable (unwahrscheinlichste) of all cities, Thomas Mann says.

The trip was the third in my series of Mann pilgrimages (Munich and Lübeck down, Davos still to go!), another working-out of this strange drive to live art that seems to dominate a good deal of my existence. In this case, the work behind it all was Death in Venice, the novella from 1911 that was my introduction to the author. Aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice, falls in love with a beautiful child, and destroys himself: Thomas Mann’s perfect irony played out against a heady backdrop of Nietzsche and Wagner and Plato and, of course, the city itself.

The flag of Venice.

The flag of Venice.


“Can there be anyone who has not had to overcome a fleeting sense of dread, a secret shudder of uneasiness, on stepping for the first time or after a long interval of years into a Venetian gondola? How strange a vehicle it is, coming down unchanged from times of old romance, and so characteristically black, the way no other thing is black except a coffin….”


“‘The signore wants to go to the Lido.’ ‘But not with you!’ ‘I row you well.’ True enough, thought Aschenbach, true enough, you will row me well. Even if you are after my cash and dispatch me to the house of Hades with a blow of your oar from behind, you will have rowed me well.”

Sam Marco Doge Venice

Winged lions at the Doge’s palace.

My first impression of Venice was one of beauty, pure and simple. I had the uncanny feeling of walking through a painting, all day, every day, through some stirring landscape of teal-blue water and delicate bridges and white marble facades fading into the morning haze. But it wasn’t unproblematic: in Venice, there is no escape from the aesthetically lovely, and it all therefore becomes incredibly exhausting. In Germany, there is always an escape–you can leave the Old City behind after a few blocks and find yourself surrounded by Aldis and 1950s apartment complexes. You can’t do that in Venice, however, and the constant in-your-face presence of so much gorgeousness is somehow wearing. Human beings aren’t meant for paradise.

And at the same time, too, Venice’s beauty is always backed by the Absurd. The gondolas are packed with baseball-cap-wearing Americans and selfie-stick-wielding Japanese. You can buy knock-off plastic carnival masks and knock-off Gucci bags and knock-off everything else on every street corner for five euros. Loveliness is exploited for money, illegally, and when the police walk by all the hawkers leap up at once from whatever square you are on and run, scattering fake Gucci bags behind them.

Even the aesthetic of the city itself, in the end, is flawed on closer examination: the lagoon stinks, even in October, and the marble facades are streaked with pigeon shit and crumbling into the water. The whole place is sinking.


“Well, I shall stay, thought Aschenbach. What better place could I find? And with his hands folded in his lap, he let his eyes wander in the wide expanse of the sea, let his gaze glide away, dissolve and die in the monotonous haze of this desolate emptiness.”


The Grand Canal.


“Never had he known the joy of language more sweetly, never had he known so clearly that Eros dwells in the Word…”

But I fell in love anyway. Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, dass der Knabe vollkommen schön war. With astonishment, Aschenbach saw that the boy was perfectly beautiful: Where else in the world could that astounding sentence, which I am convinced is one of the most important in all of art, have been written? The breaking-in of beauty and Eros in Aschenbach’s life had to happen in Venice; it’s the only city unwahrscheinlich enough to sustain that level of passion.

And at the same time, Venice IS Mann’s definition of artistic creation, of art itself: beauty and transcendence backed by the suspect, by something just slightly nauseating and improper. Being in the city was like seeing Death in Venice, and maybe the entirety of Thomas Mann’s opus, from the inside out.


“He fled from the crowded commercial thoroughfares, over bridges, into poor quarters. There he was besieged by beggars, and the sickening stench from the canals made it difficult to breath. In a silent square, one of those places in the depths of Venice that seem to have been forgotten and put under a spell, he rested on the edge of a fountain, wiped the sweat from his forehead and realized that he would have to leave.”


Goldmund and I couldn’t decide if the water was blue or green, or both, or neither.


“It is well that the world knows only the beautiful work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them…When Aschenbach put away his work and left the beach, he felt worn out, even broken, and his conscience seemed to be reproaching him as if after some kind of debauchery.”


And so I walked the city for hours at a time, without a map, entirely lost, in some sort of Mann- and Venice-induced half-stupor. The place was full of tourists even at the very end of the season,  but it was shockingly easy to get away from it all: to take two turns off the beaten path and find oneself entirely alone next to some shady canal, with some black gondola gliding by. They really are silent, as Thomas Mann writes.

On the third day we went to the Lido, the island next to Venice where Death in Venice takes place, and lay on the beach in the sun and looked at the waves and were extraordinarily happy. Even there, though, the atmosphere around us was strange, melancholy somehow: long empty stretches of sand, bathing houses already battened down for the winter, only a few stragglers in the water. We were nearly the only guests at the sea-side café, where we split a pizza and put on our coats and scarves after the sun went down.


Above, live music in the cafes at San Marco. Below, the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, fell in love with with the 11-year-old Polish Baron Adzio Moes, and began writing Death in Venice on hotel stationary.


“The lulling rhythm of this existence had already cast its spell on him; he had been quickly enchanted by the indulgent softness and splendor of this way of life. What a place this was indeed, combining the charms of a cultivated sea-side resort in the south with the familiar ever-ready proximity of the strange and wonderful city.”

On the last afternoon in Venice, which I spent alone, I ducked into a store off of some tiny side-street and found myself surrounded by lace and paper mache and hanging dark brocade: a carnival shop, a real one this time, no plastic here. A young man around my age sat at a work table painting filigree onto a row of masks. Diamond stud in one ear, dark hair, paint-stained apron. I saw the piece I wanted to buy as soon as I walked in: the half-mask of Commedia dell’artes Columbine with the Phantom’s hand over one eye, two figures in one, the coming-together of male and female and dark and light. “Did you make this one, too?” I asked the young man at the table after I had made my purchase. “No,” he said, “that was my father. Do you want to know the story behind it?” And so he spent the next thirty minutes talking to me about making art and living in Venice, pulling down masks from the wall to show me the different techniques, talking about the Commedia and carnival revelries and showing me his tiny boat parked in the canal outside.

“There is nothing for a young man in Venice–nothing for me here,” he said as I was collecting my things to go. “The entire city is for the tourists. If I want to go out or dance I have to go to the mainland and take a taxi. It is very hard to live here; in the past 25 years three-quarters of the population have left.” “Why don’t you leave, then, too?” I asked. “Because I am Venice,” he said, and then a gondola-load of tourists came into the shop, and I took my purchase and got on the vaporetto back to the apartment and Goldmund, and was very much content.


“A sacred, deranged world, full of Panic life, enclosed the enchanted watcher, and his heart dreamed tender tales. Sometimes, as the sun was sinking behind Venice, he would sit on a bench in the hotel park to watch Tadzio, dressed in white with a colorful sash, at play on the rolled gravel tennis court; and in his mind’s eye he was watching Hyacinthus, doomed to perish because two gods loved him.”


“For Beauty, dear Phaedrus, only Beauty is at one and the same time divinely desirable and visible: it is, mark well, the only form of the spiritual that we can receive with our senses and endure with our senses. For what would become of us if other divine things, if Reason and Virtue and Truth were to appear to us sensuously? Should we not perish in a conflagration of love, as once upon a time Semele did before Zeus?”


“He sank down on one of the seats, deliriously breathing the nocturnal fragrance of the flowers and trees. And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart’s desire–impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worth of honor even here: ‘I love you!'”

All quotations from Death in Venice, translated by David Luke.

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Berlin: Kunst

Of course it would be unforgivable, to go to Berlin and not hear any music! Herr G. went to a concert every night, and was kind enough to let me trail along. We missed the Komische Oper (alas!), as the tickets were sold out. We consoled ourselves, however, and made do with two of the other 10,000 cultural events currently taking place in the city…

The first evening we went to a lovely Baroque concert in the Schloss Charlottenburg and then to dinner at midnight at the Ständige Vertretung, overlooking the river. And then the next night we heard an opera concert with two amazing young singers in the building below, and then went out to an Italian restaurant for desert. We were living it up, I tell you.

One can hardly imagine how surreal it is, to be walking around at midnight in Berlin, in a fancy dress and shawl, with three professors in evening wear arguing about wine in French, all while partially drunk on the best live singing one has heard all year. It defies reason.

And I couldn’t resist the gigantic poster of a morose Barenboim outside the Berlin Philharmonic.

And the museums! A definite highlight for me was the Pergamon, which utterly satisfied the geeky Classics side of things. The museum had full-size recreations of various ancient buildings–awe-inspiring, to say the least.


A gate from Babylon, below. As with the churches, I find such things puzzling and astounding. What drove those creators, in this instance thousands of years ago, to devote a life time to make something so beautiful?

The last place I visited was another modern art museum, this one an old restored railway station….

The main exhibition was the work of Joseph Beuys, a new one for me. He was one of the most important German artists of the previous century. I would have to spend a good deal more time with his work to make any commentary on it, other than to say that I found it exceedingly enigmatic. But I really liked the work below, dozens of blackboards filled with faint writings (in English!) on philosophy and society and geometry.


I was mostly interested in Anselm Kiefer, the second artist I had fallen for in the San Francisco MOMA. There was only one small room of his works here, and he was as difficult and as beautiful and as tied to Germany’s history as before. If Cy Twombly is Shakespeare (“What do you read, my lord? Words, words, words…”), Kiefer is Mann’s Doktor Faustus.






If you are ever in San Francisco and the exhibition is still there, go and see this one below, with the lead angel wing.


In those days Germany, a hectic flush on its cheeks, was reeling at the height of its savage triumphs, about to win the world on the strength of the one pact that it intended to keep and had signed with its blood. Today, in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror, it plummets from despair to despair….When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope? A lonely man folds his hands and says, “May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland.”

Closing paragraph, Doktor Faustus

München: Thomas Mann

As most of you probably know, after hearing innumerable impassioned expositions and rants on the topic, I am a fan of German author Thomas Mann–born 1875, died 1955, author of 1,000-page novels about syphilis-ridden composers and crazy sanatoriums in the Alps.

And guess where he lived for some 30 years of his life? Munich, of course! As I found out, Dr. C. is also rather a Thomas Mann geek (For instance, as we were eating our enormous breakfast in the hotel lobby–smoked salmon, eggs, cream cheese, meats, fresh fruit, hot bread, coffee–he leaned over and whispered, gesturing at the loud group on the other side of the room, “Isn’t this exactly like the Magic Mountain?? And check it out, there’s the bad Russian table…..”–a give-away, for sure). Anyway, he was kind enough to take me on a Thomas Mann tour of sorts. Check it out:

Mann lived with his family on the above street from 1914 until he was forced to flee to America in 1933. The surrounding area was beautiful and quiet, all tall shady trees and paths overlooking the Isar river:

Alas, his house, now a private residence, was being restored and we weren’t able to get a view of the whole thing. Here’s one shot, however:

Here are a few of the surrounding homes, to give some idea of the neighborhood. It was all completely classy and up-scale–I had forgotten how well-off Mann was at this time, after his first novel Buddenbrooks achieved best-seller status.

And one more time…..the house is in the background, on the right.

It is easy enough to guess where we went next–Nordfriedhof (North Cemetery), the place where Mann’s most famous (and most amazing) novella Death in Venice begins. Imagine!

First here are the opening paragraphs of Death in Venice, for those unfamiliar with it…..

GUSTAVE ASCHENBACH–or von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday–had set out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk. It was a spring afternoon in that year of grace 19–, when Europe sat upon the anxious seat beneath a menace that hung over its head for months. Aschenbach had sought the open soon after tea. He was overwrought by a morning of hard, nerve-taxing work, work which had not ceased to exact his uttermost in the way of sustained concentration, conscientiousness, and tact; and after the noon meal found himself powerless to check the onward sweep of the productive mechanism within him, that motus animi continuus in which, according to Cicero, eloquence resides. He had sought but not found relaxation in sleep–though the wear and tear upon his system had come to make a daily nap more and more imperative–and now undertook a walk, in the hope that air and exercise might send him back refreshed to a good evening’s work.

May had begun, and after weeks of cold and wet a mock summer had set in. The English Gardens, though in tenderest leaf, felt as sultry as in August and were full of vehicles and pedestrians near the city. But towards Aumeister the paths were solitary and still, and Aschenbach strolled thither, stopping awhile to watch the lively crowds in the restaurant garden with its fringe of carriages and cabs. Thence he took his homeward way outside the park and across the sunset fields. By the time he reached the North Cemetery, Nordfriedhof, however, he felt tired, and a storm was brewing above Föhring; so he waited at the stopping-place for a tram to carry him back to the city.

He found the neighbourhood quite empty. Not a wagon in sight, either on the paved Ungererstrasse, with its gleaming tramlines stretching off towards Schwabing, nor on the Föhring highway. Nothing stirred behind the hedge in the stone-mason’s yard, where crosses, monuments, and commemorative tablets made a supernumerary and untenanted graveyard opposite the real one. The mortuary chapel, a structure in Byzantine style, stood facing it, silent in the gleam of the ebbing day. Its façade was adorned with Greek crosses and tinted hieratic designs, and displayed a symmetrically arranged selection of scriptural texts in gilded letters, all of them with a bearing upon the future life,such as: “They are entering into the House of the Lord” and “May the Light Everlasting shine upon them.” Aschenbach beguiled some minutes of his waiting with reading these formulas and letting his mind’s eye lose itself in their mystical meaning. He was brought back to reality by the sight of a man standing in the portico, above the two apocalyptic beasts that guarded the staircase, and something not quite usual in this man’s appearance gave his thoughts a fresh turn.

We were in the English Gardens the previous evening, which are absolutely gorgeous. But check out the pictures below. The stone carver across the street:

The Byzantine Mortuary Chapel:

The door of the chapel facing the street:

The carved quotations Aschenbach reads:

…And the mysterious stranger Aschenbach sees leaning against it, who prompts his whole infamous journey to Venice!

Alas, I do not have red hair, and had forgotten my sun hat. Dr. C. and I both decided, however, that if we did see a shifty red-haired man with bad teeth, we were going to run.

And finally, a few pictures of the surrounding area and graveyard itself, which is just the sort of place I would want to walk if I was a disenchanted and over-worked genius author.

So yes, it was quite an afternoon. And the great, beautiful Mythos that is German art and literature became that much more real.