Wilhelm von Glœden, Baron of the Court of the Hohenzollerns, was born in Schloss Volkshagen, near Wiemar, in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg, a city on the Baltic sea in what is now Germany. His father, Baron Erminio von Glœden, had married the widow of Herr von Raab and had died shortly after his birth. His mother re-married with Wilhelm Joachim von Hammerstein who was a well-known, and well-to-do, journalist. His stepfather, also a Baron, was also a counselor and friend to Kaiser Wilhelm. Wilhelm von Glœden was thus raised a nobleman, affluent and classically educated in the highest circles of the Prussian elite. But Wilhelm had no interest in politics. Instead, he gave himself over to art and aesthetics. The study of ancient civilizations was then more popular than at any time since the Renaissance, and Wilhelm became a student of antiquity. After briefly studying art history, he turned to the study of painterly composition under Professor C. Gehrts in Weimar, an education he was forced to break off prematurely once diagnosed as suffering from tubercolosis.
Wilhelm claimed to have been an illegitimate child in the family line of the Kaiser, because of which he was persuaded to become an exile from his native land, and for which exile he received a regular stipend from Berlin – on condition that he never return; actually, suffering from tuberculosis, at the time one of Europe’s great scourges, von Glœden was advised to seek a warmer, drier climate to regain his physical and mental health (the psychological distress he experienced as a gay man unable to indulge his erotic fantasies). While recuperating at a Baltic sanatorium, von Glœden became acquainted with Otto Geleng, a man involved in developing the tourist trade of Taormina, Sicily. Geleng persuaded von Glœden to take up residence there in order to fully convalesce from his illness. Wilhelm von Glœden’s step-father provided him the means to live in some splendour in Sicily. In 1876 he settled in Taormina, which at the close of the nineteenth century was a small, impoverished hillside town on the northeast coast of Sicily, unknown to tourists. On the day Wilhelm arrived there, the son of a burro driver – a handsome youth of sixteen or seventeen – was assigned to him to act as a guide. Wilhelm kept the boy with him the whole day, and, as fate would have it, for most of the night.
Stretched out together on the uppermost tier of the ancient Greek theater, they talked and laughed and watched the brilliant Mediterranean stars above. Later, they lay together in the warm meadows of Monte Ziretto with the sound of summer cicadas singing in the cool of pre-dawn. This was the start of what Wilhelm called his long starry-nighted ecstasy, a delirium of carnal and spiritual rapture. Originally a Greek outpost, then a Roman possession, Taormina sits high above the sea, hanging between the sky and the transparent blue Mediterranean with breathtaking panoramas of the rugged coastline. Snow-capped Mount Etna hovers in the distance.
The remains and influences of the previous civilizations — the Greek amphitheater and columned temples, the Roman aqueducts still providing water — are everywher. Above all, there are the people themselves, with their beautiful mixture of Greek, Roman, and Arabic features. During 1877-1878, von Glœden undertook his first photographic attempts, receiving instruction from local photographers. While on an excursion he visited Naples, where he established contact with photographer Wilhelm von Plüschow, a distant relative, who encouraged von Glœden in his ambition to become a serious photographer.
Both men shared an interest in nude studies: both envisioned an antique revival via photographic composition. Being a Bohemian at heart, Wilhelm took up quarters in a modest villa with a lovely secluded garden-terrace where he would feed his birds and photograph his models. This terrace often appears in his photos, sometimes with a spring of a fennel tree propped in one corner (or in a Greek urn) for its picturesque effect, often with an animal skin draped over the bench upon which would be seated an artistic nude.
Though ill, von Glœden retained his immense charm, which attracted to him ordinary people, as well as those closer to his rank and background. Everyone agreed that his company was a pleasure, and he soon was called by the townspeople as Guglielmo, the Italian equivalent of Wilhelm. He made no attempt to conceal from the citizens of Taormina what he was – a practicing homosexual in a time of strong social intolerance. He believed that human sexuality was to be enjoyed, and made this belief manifest in the way he lived his life.
Nevertheless, his life harmed no one: people were never coerced into doing anything that they did not wish to do, and Von Glœden never prescribed sexual conduct for anyone. Although rumors circulated that some boys in Taormina of whom he took nude photographs became von Glœden’s bedfellows, he remained a respectable resident of the small town. The townspeople chose to ignore Wilhelm’s midnight orgies, even though they involved their own sons. They loved him as a kind, reliable friend – a giver of employment when money was sorely needed, and one who touched their ordinary lives with the class of rank and intimate graciousness.
When a local family had a setback, Wilhelm would often invent some work to be done in order to justify a gift of aid, which would not be otherwise accepted by the proud people. He secretly provided dowries for daughters of poor families whose potential husbands were young men of whom Wilhelm was fond. He would later establish a system of accounts which provided funds, “royalties,” to the boys who posed for his camera. The money allowed many young men to start businesses or purchase boats with which to earn a living, or seek an education in the city.
Many Taorminese families owe their present level of prosperity to a grandfather or great uncle who modeled for von Glœden. In 1878 Von Glœden engaged the services of a fourteen-year-old boy, the handsome Pancrazio Bucini(1864-1951). A darkskinned lad with large eyes, Wilhelm gave Pancrazio the nickname “Il Moro” (The Moor) because of the Arabic strains in his blood. Il Moro, after being one of his first models, became his assistant. Wilhelm’s affection for him grew rapidly and was returned.
The youth tended to Wilhelm’s illness: administering medications, bargaining with the townspeople for special restorative foods, preparing the warm salt water baths prescribed by the doctors, and arranging for many local youths to participate in the midnight revels that Wilhelm offered his house guests. Il Moro was not just a servant but a much-loved friend, lover, and ally. He would stay on as Wilhelm’s personal assistant for the rest of Wilhelm’s life, and became the heir of his photographic legacy. Von Glœden and Bucini were, in a sense, monogamous lovers, for il Moro was still with the Baron when the latter died in 1931.
As of 1883 von Glœden’s images began to appear in such important exhibitions as the annual exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society, and that of the London association for artistic photography, “The Linked Ring”. But all this was really nothing more than the expressions of a dilettante who, though art was his hobby, turned his social life into an art. Many of Glœden’s pictures focuses on typical Sicilian peasant scenes – young girls and old men, fishermen, water-carriers and priests, country roads and town squares.
Von Glœden was in love with the youths of Taormina, and by extension with the Sicilian people as a whole. His love of boys was shared not only by his high ranking friends who visited with great frequency, but also by the two powerful Catholic priests who served the region. He and his youths had constant access to the great homes of the priests, as settings for photos by day and for marathon sexual revels, with the priests as participants, by night. As Wilhelm’s health improved, he sent for his sister, Sofia Raab, who assumed the role of hostess for the constant stream of visitors. Sofia was beautiful and intelligent, but chose to remain unmarried — possibly due to an earlier love lost.
Sofia did not object to Wilhelm’s choice of affections, so long as Wilhelm was happy. And happy he was indeed. But it was not to last. In 1889, von Glœden’s stepfather, the Baron, had angered the Kaiser by printing an account of a secret meeting with foreign officials. The state confiscated the Baron’s estate and all his possessions, and would have locked him in prison for life had he not been able narrowly to escape capture. Von Glœden considered jouneying to Germany to plead his case, but decided – wisely – that this would be too risky of a venture.
The Baron fled to Greece, unable to join Wilhelm in Sicily, since the Kaiser had agents who would seek him out and have him killed. Wilhelm now found himself with no source of income, his regular remittance cut off by the Kaiser. With the cut-off of his stipend, the servants were laid off and a lavish lifestyle came crashing to an end. But il Moro, who had first joined the household as a houseboy, refused to leave, and did odd jobs provided by the townspeople, off the estate, to pay for the needs of his mentor and lover just as Wilhelm had done for them.
Around this time, a boyhood friend of Wilhelm’s, Duke Friedrich Franz, heard of the plight of his old friend and began sending money secretly (for to do so openly would be dangerous). Wilhelm was not used to accepting aid, so the Duke requested that as payment, Wilhelm was to send sketches, paintings, and photographs of the beautiful island. He then sent the most inspired gift of all — an immense view camera from Berlin. Von Glœden began photographing every example of antiquity and every scenic viewpoint, with Bucini at his side to carry the heavy equipment and to help run the darkroom and laboratory, taking pictures of the landscapes and monuments of Sicily as well as portraits of its people.
These were turned into postcards and achieved widespread popularity for their engagingly sentimental and charmingly “typical” views of Mediterranean life. But Wilhelm was not content to photograph the natural scenery. He wanted to capture and share his own private view of heaven with his cultured friends (and fellow homosexuals) around the world. With a clearly defined aesthetic and a sure sense of his own artistry, von Glœden abandoned scenic postcard photography to become the foremost proponent of a kind of purely pictoral photography which, for its day, was revolutionary. Glœden also took hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of Sicilian boys, often in states of partial or complete undress.
He posed his ephebes against Arcadian backgrounds or antique ruins, sometimes clothing them in mock togas or laurel crowns or using such props as small classical staues. His models were robust though poor boys whom von Glœden envisioned as the inheritors of classical beauty. None of the photographs portray sexual activities, yet the homoerotic message is strong. Their suggestion of ancient places, use of artifacts and classic compositions helped to divert or at least excuse their sexual impact.
Using photography for personal artistic expression now seems a natural extension of the medium. But at that time, “real” artists derided or ignored this form of photography. By 1887, critics and public alike began to understand true pictorial photography — photos with which the photographer was trying to relate a feeling or a story. People began buying large prints to hang in their homes. Von Glœden used as settings for these photographs the town square, the large terraces overhanging the Ionian Sea, gardens of magnificent villas, convent and monastery courtyards, and every manner of prop and location that would create a mood of Greek antiquity.
Beautifully composed, von Gloeden’s photographs transformed working-class boys into images of antique legend. Many photographs held the image of two or more boys, or a young man with a younger boy, and had the ability to suggest mysterious and unknown relationships. Some photos show girls who are, in fact, boys dressed as girls. The positioning of the models and their facial expressions hinted at subtly suggestive relationships, and many related a strange processional or ritual quality.
The explicit nudity was intended to be seen only by Wilhelm’s close friends, while the chaste “classical Greek” postcards were intended for sale in local shops (These were to become enormously popular with tourists and became famous worldwide. American painter Maxfield Parrish, for example, owned many von Gloedeh studies, and his paintings strongly suggest von Gloeden’s influence). Even the explicit nude photos were accepted and often cherished by the ordinary townspeople of Taormina whose sons and brothers were their subjects.
Likewise von Gloeden’s wealthy and educated friends could not keep secret the beauty of his Greek vision. They spread the word and von Gloeden found himself becoming famous and wealthy once again from his work, for which he initially had no desire nor hope of profit. It’s remarkable that in the Victorian Age von Gloeden’s fame spread so rapidly. His images first appeared in magazines and soon galleries throughout Europe began to feature his works. At the close of the nineteenth century, von Glœden’s work found swift recognition within the world of photography, his images appearing at important international exhibitions. During 1893 his photographs were published in such trend-setting periodicals as “The Studio” and Velhagen & Klasing’s “Kunst für Alle” (Art for everyone).
Von Glœden’s nudes were avidly collected and in 1898 he became a corresponding member of Berlin’s “Freie Photographische Vereinigung” (Free Fotographic Society). The parties, and the generosity Wilhelm was able to spread to the locals, not least of which included the lithe, adolescent peasant boys, quite literally spread the name “Taormina” far and wide. Single-handedly, von Gloeden turned a sleepy paradise into a thriving tourist destination, in particular for homosexuals. It wasn’t long before Wilhelm was again thriving and living a lavish existence, surrounded by the proteges whom he photographied.
He established bank accounts for a number of his models, and set other up in business. The “Baron of Taormina” cultivated friendships with prominent and popular personalities of the fin de siècle. Mr and Mrs Alexander Graham Bell visited von Glœden in 1898, and came away the proud possessors of several of his photos of native Sicilians, which they graciously presented to the National Geographic Society for its magazine (which thence contained two or three shots of semi-clad boys, up through recent times), and were published in the October 1916 edition, in an article entitled Italy – The Gifted Mother of Civilization.
By 1900, Wilhelm’s Taormina estate had been visited by a number of world celebrities, not least of which were Oscar Wilde, who dropped by for a chat (and a look) upon his release from prison, and humbly presented the master with a signed copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. By now the stream of house guests had become almost overwhelming. Hundreds of famous people signed Wilhelm’s guest book, including Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia, King Alphonse of Spain, the stern Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II (the same monarch who had persecuted the unfortunate Baron von Hammertein) and the gentle King of Siam Paramandra Maha Chulalongkorn.
King Edward VII of England (who carried Von Glœden’s nude photos back to the U.K. in his diplomatic pouch) stayed at the von Gloeden estate. André Gide came to stay for a while penning his famous The Immoralist inspired by his stay at resort town. Also the well-known bankers and industrialists as Rothschild, Stönnes, Morgan, and Vanderbilt were amongst his guests, as were composer Richard Strauss and celebrated French author Anatole France. Other of the Baron’s renowned guests are said to include Rudyard Kipling, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Eleanora Duse, and Guglielmo Marconi.
German industrialist and munitions manufacturer Frederich Alfred Krupp was a frequent visitor and purchased large quantities of Von Glœden’s works. He attempted to recreate von Gloeden’s paradise on Capri, but was soon the subject of a vicious scandal back in Germany. The scandal threatened to topple the House of Krupp, taking his entire industrial empire with it. Krupp did what was the required thing for his time and situation: he put a bullet through his brain. Fortunately, while a homosexual scandal hit his cousin Plüschow, forcing him to return to Germany, von Glœden was adored by, and ultimately protected by, the locals, thus allowing him to remain socially accepted, artistically respected, and sexually active for the remaining years of his life.
And nothing stopped the prolific photographer from creating, and distributing, image after image of male models, scantily clad and, more often, unclad – except for props such as sashes, flowers, leaves weaved into the hair, ancient columns, urns, and other paraphernalia evoking antiquity. Von Glœden’s photographs (about 80 percent of which were of lightly-clad or unclad boylimbs) were circulated not merely among the extensive coterie of the “Uranian School” of homosexual poets, but in many of the “physique and health” magazines spawned by the German Korperkulture (physical health/naturalism/nudism) and Wandervogel (boy scouts/hiking) movements.
His more carefully draped studies were regularly reprinted in hundreds of travel magazines and brochures advertising the joys of a Mediterranean holiday, and was even noted in Baedeker. The British concept of what constitutes “the romantic Mediterranean” was invented by von Glœden. By the turn of the century, poets and actors, painters and famous society figures flocked to Taormina, making it a must on their grand Italian tours. After touring the city’s charming Ancient Greek theatre, the travellers would pay a visit to von Glœden at his studio, purchasing his pagan Illustrations of Theocritus and Homer – as von Glœden called his photographs – images which were mounted in travel albums alongside the architectural studies of Fratelli Alinari of Florence, and the Neapolitan folk portraits of Giorgio Sommer, a Frankfurt-born photographer living and working in Naples.
Even the explicit nude photos were accepted and often cherished by the ordinary townspeople of Taormina whose sons and brothers were their subjects. Von Glœden’s photo labroratory became busier and busier. Many of the world’s famous photographers were attracted to him – requesting to learn new techniques. Around this time, Von Glœden developed an emulsion of milk, olive oil, glycerin, and scent which he used on the models to give their skin a soft, even glow. He pioneered the field of filters and of transparent colors burshed directly onto the photographs which subtly altered the tonalities and intensities of the finished print.
Many more assistants (who doubled as models) were hired and were supervised by Il Moro. In 1911 von Glœden was awarded a medal in recognition of his valuable assistance in helping Taormina become a favourite tourist destination. 1914 saw the outburst of World War I, and in 1915 Italy joined the Allies in the war against Prussia, and so von Glœden and his sister Sofia were classified as enemy aliens. Their options were to remain in Italy in a detention camp or return to Germany for the duration of the war. Wilhelm, already in his late fifties, would have preferred to stay in Italy but could not bear the thought of his sister in the harsh environment of a camp. As German citizens, they were thus forced to leave Taormina – their place of residence in Germany during the war is unknown – while Pancrazio Bucini was conscripted into the Italian Army.
It was by sheer good fortune that he, who was at the oldest end of the conscription range, was sent not to fight but was posted on the slopes of his home town, Taormina, with a coastal artillery unit. He was able to keep an eye on the villa, maintain the photo studio, and even see to it that the many pets were fed by the local boys too young to be sent off to war. Wilhelm and Il Moro were able to communicate, although dangerously, with the aid of a Swiss friend who was forced to return home. Since letters to an enemy state were not allowed, Wilhelm mailed letters to Switzerland, a neutral country. These letters were then re-addressed and mailed to Il Moro. The system worked well for most of the war, and news of mutual friends, expressions of affection, and Wilhelm’s longing and homesickness passed back and forth.
The letters were devoid of any political or military information, but when some were opened in a routine postal check, officials were alarmed. Il Moro wrote about his house and the animals and the letters were full of strange details about the conduct of “the crow”, of “the dove” and of “the may-bug”, all the models were referred to only by first names… thus, as one can well imagine, embroidered on it: naturally it was a case of an espionage network. They arrested Il Moro on charges of treason, with the firing squad a real possibility. The young man was imprisioned for three months and was subjected to brutal interrogations, during which time the wretched fellow was continually threatened with shooting if he did not reveal the true identity of these “cover names”, faced court-martial as a spy, charged with consorting with the enemy. But a silver-tongue – which would come in handy years later – convinced his superiors that Bucini was a loyal Sicilian. Wilhelm was uncertain of his fate the whole time. Il Moro steadfastly maintained his innocence, and eventually proved it to the satisfaction of the miltary officials.
He was eventually formally exonerated of all charges, returned to duty with his artillery company and, amazingly, was allowed to resume his correspondence with Wilhelm. After a three-month gap, the correspondence between the lifelong partners resumed till the end of the war. Von Glœden and Sofia returned to Taormina after the Peace Treaty of 1919 without delay. Il Moro and everything ready – flowers, fruit and wine on the tables, and the studio ready for work. Through tears of joy, Wilhelm saw the faces of the boys he loved. But he also saw that some were missing. Later that first day, Wilhelm retired alone to the locked studio to pore over his many photographs of the youths he would never see again. Throughout the night, some residents of the village reported hearing erratic sobs coming from the locked studio. Wilhelm later told an English friend that the joy and pain he experienced on that first day of his return had been almost beyond bearing.
The years after the war were prosperous and comfortable. The fame of this Baron from Taormina continued to attract admirers from all over the world. The villa and the studio were constantly active – Sofia was at Wilhelm’s one side, and Il Moro was at his other. The secret nighttime revels were revived. Although political upheaval was in the air again, the news reports seldom affected Taormina. Mussolini rose to power in 1926, but fortunately the changing political situation never interfered with Wilhelm’s final years. During 1929 a fateful alliance between the Vatican and Italy’s fascist government was formed. Von Glœden never realized this “alliance” would later be responsible for the destruction and suppression of what remained of his life’s work. Then in his seventies, Wilhelm was beginning to slow down. He continued to photograph until 1930, the year before his death. Sofia died just three months before Wilhelm. They were buried side by side in the local protestant cemetery, surrounded by the land they loved. Pancrazio Bucini, who had married and had children, was named as Wilhelm’s inheritor.
He received the estate, all the personal possessions and some 3,000 negative glass plates, representing more than a quarter century of work. Il Moro had no thought of exploiting the potential financial treasure. People still sought out photos, but for Il Moro, they were a personal rememberance, and he guarded their safety fiercely. They remained in trunks, chests, and cabinets of his humble lodgings – unreproduced. They were a tangible link between Wilhelm and his own life. In 1936, Mussolini’s fascist government, with the aid of the Catholic church, began a vice campaign. When the Fascists entered Taormina in 1936, the police raided Il Moro’s home, pounding at the door in the night with no warrant or warning. He pleaded with the fascists not to damage the fragile glass plates, but over 1000 of the irreplaceable negatives were smashed before him as he wept. Those not destroyed outright were roughly thrown into crates and carried away as evidence. Many more were destroyed in the process.
Il Moro was accused of “keeping pornography” and once again taken off to jail because of his association with Von Gloden. Il Moro was now in his fifties, a simple man with no formal education. Yet he was intelligent and possessed considerable knowledge of the world owing to his lifelong relationship with Von Glœden and his friends. He was capable of turning his defense against the chargest of pornography into an astonishing defense of the memory of Wilhelm Von Glœden, and of his life and his art. This simple man risked contempt of court in a potentially hostile tribunal in the midst of fascist insanity. In a passionate plea before the judges, he told the court that it was not within its competence to judge works of art of any kind. As evidence of the error of the charge of pornography, he listed countless names of collectors: museums, critics, kinds, industrialists and institutions – including the Italian Ministry of Education! Il Moro finished his impassioned statement, and then rested his otherwise undefended case. Miraculously, the judges concurred! Had the trial occured just one year later, after a purge of liberal judges, Il Moro would likely have spent the remaining years of his life in prison, and the word would have been deprived of most of Von Glœden’s photographs.
The verdict could not, unfortunately, save the plates which had already been destroyed. The remaining plates – less than half of the original number – were distributed among and safely hidden by local families, priests, and scholarly institutions until the end of World War II. In the course of these moves, many plates were lost. When the collection was finally reassembled, it was found that of the more than 3,000 plates inheredited by Bucini, less than a third survived. Several hundred are still preserved by Bucini’s own heirs in Taormina today. The remnants of von Glœden work, some 800 glass negatives and 200 albumen prints, were transferred to the photographic archives of Lucio Amelio in Naples. Other substantial collections reside in the hands of the Florence firm Alinari; the Kinsey Institute claims 250; and smaller collections are prized by institutions and independent collectors. Even after the war, laws in Italy and Germany, remnants of the former fascist governments, forbade nudity in photography. Under the pressure of the Catholic Chruch and the right wing, these laws were allowed to remain on the books. The ban on buying and selling such photographic work assured an ongoing suppression of Von Glœden’s vision. But it did not suppress the desire of informed collectors. Von Glœden prints were sold out of the back rooms of art galleries and book shops, much as liquor was sold in the U.S. during the years of Prohibition. But finally, legal challenges in the late 1960s and early 1970s allowed the purchase of pictorial nudity and other so-called pornographic materials. Von Glœden’s work has been slowly reprinted, and is now readily available. Von Glœden’s art is once against accepted and admired as it was during his own lifetime. ( Texts are made and arranged by Ugo Tranquillini using as sources Giovanni Dall’Orto; Matt & Andrej Koymasky and Wikimedia. A coplete catalog of Wilhelm von Glœden is available on Wikimedia at the link below )