Venice and Munich
Old world charm, unique architecture, sunny beaches… Venice sounds pretty romantic, right? Well, romantic it may be, but in Death in Venice, the city appears more sinister than we might expect. In fact, more than just providing the setting, Venice directly reflects the emergence of Aschenbach's repressed desires. Like the odd figures Aschenbach meets along the way (check out our analysis of the trio of "Others" in the "Characters" section), Venice appears both familiar—the classic tourist destination—and different, in a definitely unsettling way.
Venice's unique beauty is a reminder of its illustrious past, when Venice was an important republic in the European Renaissance. It's a reminder of the way empires rise—and fall. This theme of decline and decay is what really comes across in the images we get of Venice. Check this passage out for an example:
Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and as concealing it out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton. (5.9)
Well, there you have it—this passage portrays Venice much like we might describe Aschenbach toward the novella's end: Someone whose days of artistic glory are over, but who longs for a vision of pure beauty even when it has become polluted by age, sickness, and depravity. Here, Aschenbach also seems to identify with the city of Venice, his pursuit of Tadzio growing "more wanton" the more he thinks about the secret disease afflicting the once luxurious republic.
And remember: Aschenbach is from Munich. Though it's only briefly, this is where our story begins, where our main man comes from. And this matter insofar as Venice is the dominant setting because it is always foreign, a place Aschenbach has gone to get away from his life—and so when so much strangeness ensues, it's always bolstered by the fact that Aschenbach is not at home.