Death in Trieste. From murder to cultural myth

Murder! In hotel room ten, with a rope and a knife. Dr Seán Williams follows in the footsteps of the most famous art historian of all time. Listen to his detective work this week on BBC Radio 3.

A portrait of Johann Winckelmann dressed in a red velvet robe

Murder! In hotel room ten, with a rope and a knife. By a fellow guest. If this were Cluedo, we’d have almost given the game away. But it’s true crime, turned cultural history. And travelogue: Dr Seán Williams follows in the footsteps of the most famous art historian of all time. The German Johann Winckelmann – killed in Italy, in June 1768.

In a series that takes us to Trieste, Venice, and Rome, Seán uncovers skeletons in the closet. One crime becomes a way of conceiving a certain sort of life, death, art. Winckelmann’s end has written the script for a classic gay tragedy that has been adapted over the centuries. It’s a dramatic story told by Goethe, Oscar Wilde, and Thomas Mann, to name but a few.

But what are the facts of this fiction? Ranging from supposedly tolerant and intellectual Enlightenment Europe to nineties pop, and to Italy today – where the government are ramping up anti-LGBT rhetoric – Seán asks what it means that a historic murder has become cultural myth. To us. To him. Because it was also Winckelmann the historian who taught us a haunting truth. We always read art of the past personally and intimately, in the present. More about the series on the BBC website

The first episode of Death in Trieste was aired on 22 May at BBC Radio 3. You can listen to all five episodes as a podcast The Essay across all platforms.

Canal in Venice with Sean Williams leaning on elbows out of a window looking at the camera
Seán Williams in Venice

The essay 'Death in Trieste' is a compelling true-crime thriller, cultural commentary and occasional city guide

Financial Times, Life & Arts

19 May 2024

 Williams’s journey through 18th-century coffee shops, Venetian canals and the antiquities of Rome makes this Essay more than a salacious whydunnit. True-crime fans may enjoy the descriptions of unpredictable acts of torture – the assassin had his body broken by a wheel – but for everyone else there’s plenty on the art and social mores of the period. 

Daisy Dunn, The Spectator

10 June 2023

At Sheffield, Seán teaches German literature and European Cultural History. He made this podcast series on his research leave in Venice. Students in SLC make podcasts during their years abroad about their experiences on location - and when they return, they can study Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig) too, if they wish.

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