The Sea, the Sea

February 2016

On a dull but dry December afternoon in Venice a group of us were thwarted in our desire to visit just one part of the Ducal Palace, and so we jumped onto Vaporetto 1 direzione Lido, quite away from our usual beaten track, with the vague intention of seeing the sea. It was surprising to come across cars and motorcycles after a week without them. A brisk walk of half a mile brought us to a seedy complex of shuttered buildings with odd walkways soaring overhead with no visible purpose, some­thing probably to do with the public bagno in the summer. Beyond these we found ourselves on a concrete plinth looking out at the beach and the grey Adriatic. A few figures were dotted about; one person in the water, trawling for clams perhaps: a pair of young women doing callisthenics with ski-poles: others just walking on the sand. Our attention was caught by a far-off individual to our left, who seemed suddenly animated by the sight of a dozen or so people standing doing nothing. He was clearly now trotting towards us, and as he did so he flapped his coat, like a bulky cormorant airing its wings. As he approached the reason for his hurry became clear. The inside of his coat was stuffed with layers of scarves of every hue and texture, more than any of us might have imagined possible for one human being to carry. He was a pedlar and we were his target. We froze, in the manner of the British confronted with immigrant entrepreneurs likely to offer harassment. I explained to him that it was extremely unlikely that anyone would buy anything from him, but he was welcome to show us what he had.

   Why had we come here? I was nursing a lurking intention to see the Grand Hôtel des Bains, which I imagined was a few hundred yards from where we were standing, no doubt with a more dignified stretch of beach than ours, but it too would be closed up for the winter. I can’t think of the Venice Lido without remembering this hotel as depicted in Visconti’s 1971 film of Death in Venice. I wonder why it made such an impression on me: the Mahler soundtrack certainly played a part. A knotty tangle of facts, associations, stories and ideas has gathered around this Lido hotel.

    In 1911 Thomas Mann, holidaying in the hotel with his wife, became entranced with the extreme beauty of a young Polish boy seen on the beach. Out of this incident grew Death in Venice (1912). Aschenbach, the protagonist, also holidaying on the Lido, is struck with wonder at the beauty of a boy staying at the same hotel. In his carefree physicality the youth seems like a Greek god. The novella traces the progress of Aschenbach’s fascination into guilt-ridden and destructive obsession.

    In Visconti’s film, Dirk Bogarde is Aschenbach, and a young Swede called Björn Andrésen plays the boy, Tadzio. Venice and the Grand Hôtel des Bains (real or imagined?), in all its stately old-fashioned elegance, provide the film’s gorgeous backdrop. Aschenbach’s hopeless attempts at rejuvenation, black hair-dye running down his face in the summer heat, were especially memorable.

    In 2003 Germaine Greer published her study The Beautiful Boy. On the cover was Tadzio from Visconti’s film, wind-blown and smiling, the very type of Greer’s boyish beauty. The book has two hundred and six illustrations of youths, from paintings, sculptures and photographs. Most of them are nudes (Apollo, Cupid, Narcissus, putti, and so on.) At a cursory glance the work might look like a pornographic book, but the text deals with the social, artistic and aesthetic history of the male nude. Greer wants to reclaim for women the appreciation of male beauty, which for her is essentially youthful: ‘If we but lift our eyes to the beautiful images of young men that stand all about us, there is a world of complex and civilized pleasure to be had.’

    As a rather minor footnote to this potentially controversial work, the mature Björn Andrésen protested in the newspapers at the appropriation of his image, sick of being forever represented by his youthful self.

   Our Bangladeshi scarf salesman turned out to be not at all annoying, and had a charming smile. Two scarves were bought, one a delicate pink, the other a striking mid-blue, almost purple. They were only seven euros, and later I deeply regretted that we didn’t all buy one, as he seemed such a pleasant and worthy person. We did not try to find the hotel, which was perhaps fortunate, because I now read that it is closed for refurbish­ment, and was only ranked by TripAdvisor twenty-eighth out of thirty-four hotels on the Lido. Instead we had warming drinks (mostly hot chocolate) on the way back to the vaporetto.