Art / History / Biography / Stories of Man/Boy Love
Youth with Flowers




 
 Wilhelm von
 Gloeden


  First great photographer
  of the male nude

 by Peter Young
THIS IS A STORY of courage in the face of oppression, about a man who had faith in his desires and the fortitude to live the truth.  This is also a story of the evolution of a modern art form, and of a particular ideal of homoeroticism that unleashed a torrent of creativity in a man who might otherwise have dissipated his life.

Wilhelm von Gloeden lived heroically.  He knew what he was and was proud.  Like Oscar Wilde before him, von Gloeden lived in dangerous defiance of an age and a Christian society that hounded and tortured men of his kind.  As Charles Leslie writes:
He was one of those rare nineteenth century men who would not accept the destruction of his true being as the price for being allowed to survive in an allegedly civilized Western world that officially despised what he was.  In his own way he triumphed, and therefore became one of those figures who, to this day, stand as models for people who dare to live the truth of what and who they are. 1
Von Gloeden was born near Wismar, Germany, on September 16, 1856.  His father, a wealthy Baron, died when Wilhelm was just a boy.  His stepfather, also a Baron, was a counselor and friend to Kaiser Wilhelm.  Von Gloeden was 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.  But his ability to sketch and paint was impaired by tuberculosis, at the time one of Europe's great scourges.  Still in his early twenties, Wilhelm was advised by doctors to seek a warmer, drier climate.  A chance meeting in a beer garden gave Wilhelm the idea of going to Sicily.

The advent of modern transportation was giving birth to tourism.  Though at this point it was still the province of the relatively wealthy, never had so many people been able to experience the sights and sounds of foreign lands.  von Gloeden happened to meet a fellow Baron, some years his senior and a fellow painter, who had recently returned from Taormina, a sea town on Sicily's east coast.  The Baron was now a one-man chamber of commerce to bring visitors and their money into the poor town.  Such were his powers of persuasion, and such were Wilhelm's wealth and freedom, that within days, all arrangements had been made.  Shortly, Wilhelm was off to the land which (except for a short time during World War 1) he would never leave.

Youths atop ruins near TaorminaTHE ANCIENT TOWN of Taormina sits high above the sea.  Originally a Greek outpost, then a Roman possession, Taormina hangs 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 everywhere.  Above all, there are the people themselves, with their beautiful mixture of Greek, Roman, and Arabic features.

On the day Wilhelm arrived in Taormina, 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.

A villa was quickly purchased, and a staff hired to run it.  Thirteen- or fourteen-year-old Pancrazio Bucini was chosen to be the houseboy.  A darkskinned lad with large eyes, Wilhelm gave Pancrazio the nickname "Il Moro" -- the Moor.  Wilhelm's affection for Il Moro 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 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.

Wilhem Von Gloeden - Self Portrait - 1891THOUGH ILL, von Gloeden 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 to happily by the townspeople as "Gugliemo," the Italian equivalent of William.  He made no attempt to conceal from the citizens of Taormina what he was -- a practicing homosexual in a time of strong societal intolerance.  He believed that human sexuality was to be enjoyed, and made this belief manifest in the way he lived his life.  His life harmed no one.  People were never coerced into doing anything that they did not wish to do, and von Gloeden never prescribed sexual conduct for anyone.  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 Gloeden.

Boy with Flying FishVon Gloeden 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.  The word of Wilhelm's scandalous revels had by now reached as far as St.  Petersburg and New York.  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.

VON GLOEDEN'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.  He 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.  He considered journeying to Germany to plead his case, but decided -- wisely -- that this would be too risky of a venture.  He had no choice but to let go his staff of servants, even Il Moro.  But the youth refused to leave.  Saying that he had been with Wilhelm in riches, he would now stay with him in poverty.

Von Gloeden now had the revelatory experience of learning about the true nature of friendship.  The wealthy friends who had numerous times accepted and enjoyed Wilhelm's hospitality simply vanished.  But when things were at their worst, when there was no food for the "family" -- Wilhelm, Sofia, and Il Moro --there would appear a couple of freshly-caught fish, a loaf of home-made bread, a basketful of eggs or vegetables.  These were homages from the ordinary people of Taormina, who did not forget the generosity and kindness of "Il Barone.”  Il Moro did odd jobs provided by the townspeople, just as Wilhelm had done for them, in order to obtain a little spending money.

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.  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 Gloeden began photographing every example of antiquity and every scenic viewpoint, with Il Moro at his side to carry the heavy equipment and to help run the darkroom and laboratory.  Wilhelm had been introduced to photography by his cousin Wilhelm Pluchow in Naples.  Wilhelm soon added photography to his talents as an artist and painter.

Ancient Ruins Adorned by Posing Youth

WE TODAY must make a visual and spiritual adjustment when looking at the photographic past; we've been exposed to captured images all our lives, but to the public at that time, photography was entirely new.  Only with this in mind can we understand the achievement of Wilhelm's art.  von Gloeden's exquisite compositional formality -- perfectly conveyed even in postcard size -- led to the sale of prints by the thousands around the world.  Learned groups from all over Europe used von Gloeden's prints to illuminate the ambiance of the ancient world, and his pictures were turning up in albums on parlor tables in London and New York.  Photography sales provided Wilhelm with the money to resume his former lifestyle, which naturally included the resumption of the legendary orgies.  And so, the stream of house guests began once again.

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 Gloeden abandoned scenic postcard photography to become the foremost proponent of a kind of purely pictorial photography which, for its day, was revolutionary.

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.  CainoBy 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 Gloeden 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.

Von Gloeden's photo laboratory became busier and busier.  Many of the world's famous photographers were attracted to him -- requesting to learn new techniques.  Around this time, von Gloeden 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 brushed directly onto 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, Wilhelm's co-worker and companion.  The careers of four successful photographers were begun in the studio, and scores of other artists attempted to imitate von Gloeden's style.  By the turn of the century, his prints were seen in all the major capitals of the world and had won numerous medals for artistic merit.  von Gloeden even won an award for promoting the infant tourism industry!  It became chic for famous and wealthy travelers to have a photo taken by von Gloeden.  He didn't care for this work, but did it as a courtesy for his guests.

Youth in Classic Pose

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 Edward VII of England (who carried von Gloeden's nude photos back to the U.K.  in his diplomatic pouch), King Alphonse of Spain, composer Richard Strauss, Anatole France, Marconi, and Oscar Wilde.  Alexander Graham Bell, who came to Taormina with his wife, brought home examples of von Gloeden's work for the newly formed National Geographic Society.  Some of these photos were subsequently published in the National Geographic magazine (October 1916 ) in an article entitled "Italy -- The Gifted Mother of Civilization."

Hundreds of other visitors dared not sign the guest book, but partook in the midnight mountain orgies that now reached new heights of extravagance.  But as before, local people were not scandalized, which was remarkable given the era.  German industrialist and munitions manufacturer Frederich Alfred Krupp, for example, was a frequent visitor and he purchased large quantities of von Gloeden's prints.  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.  von Gloeden, on the other hand, was fortunate to remain socially accepted, artistically respected, and sexually active for the remaining years of his life.

Youths in Ancient Setting


1914 SAW THE BEGINNING of World War I.  Italy joined the allies in the war against Prussia, and so von Gloeden and his sister Sofia were listed 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.  No one could guess how long the war would last when the final tearful farewells were exchanged by Wilhelm, Il Moro, and his many friends.  It was by sheer good fortune that Il Moro, who was at the oldest end of the conscription range, was sent not to fight but was posted near 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.  All of the models and pets were referred to only by first names, and the strange wording aroused the darkest suspicions of espionage.  They arrested Il Moro on charges of treason, with the firing squad a real possibility.  The young man was imprisoned for three months and was subjected to brutal interrogations.  Wilhelm was uncertain of his fate the whole time.  Il Moro steadfastly maintained his innocence, and eventually proved it to the satisfaction of the military officials.  Youth with Wreath Symbolizing VictoryHe was eventually formally exonerated of all charges, returned to duty with his artillery company and, amazingly, was allowed to resume his correspondence with Wilhelm.

 At the war's end, Wilhelm and Sofia returned to Taormina without delay.  Il Moro had 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.  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, surrounded by the land they loved.

Il Moro was named as Wilhelm's inheritor.  He received 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 remembrance, 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.

AchmedBut in 1936, Mussolini's fascist government, with the aid of the Catholic church, began a vice campaign.  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 1,000 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 once again taken off to jail because of his association with von Gloeden.  This time he was charged with the possession of pornography.

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 Gloeden and his friends.  He was capable of turning his defense against the charges of pornography into an astonishing defense of the memory of Wilhelm von Gloeden, 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.  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, kings, 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 occurred 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 world would have been deprived of most of von Gloeden'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 the 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, less than a third survived.

NarcissusFrom the time of his trial until his death in the 1950s, Pancrazio Bucini -- Il Moro -- lived quietly in Taormina.  The glass plates remained in private hands, and were largely forgotten.  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 church 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 Gloeden's vision.  But it did not suppress the desire of informed collectors.  Von Gloeden 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 Gloeden's work has been slowly reprinted, and is now readily available throughout the West (including the U.S.).  von Gloeden's art is once again accepted and admired as it was during his own lifetime.  These timeless examples of male beauty inform our lives and imaginations.  The story of their creation reveals a courage and a confidence of vision that can inspire us towards our own goals.

 1.  Charles Leslie, Wilhelm von Gloeden: Photographer.  New York: Soho Photographic Publishers, 1977.


Von Gloeden in print

A NUMBER OF FINE editions of von Gloeden's work are available.  Here is a short list of some titles that have been widely sold in North America:

Wilhelm von Gloeden Postcard Book. Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1995. ISBN 3822894397

Wilhelm von Gloeden Poster Book. Köln: Taschen GmbH, 1994.  ISBN 3822894311

Roland Barthes. Taormina: Wilhelm von Gloeden (3rd edition).  Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 1998.  ISBN: 0942642430

Volker Janssen (ed.). Wilhelm von Gloeden, Wilhelm von Plüschow, Vincenzo Galdi: Italienische Jünglings-Photographien um 1900.  Berlin: Janssen Verlag, 1991.

Charles Leslie. Wilhelm Von Gloeden Photograper. A Brief Introduction to His Life and Work. New York: SoHo Photographic Publishers, 1977.   Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 77-83146.

Ulrich Pohlmann. Wilhelm von Gloeden: Taormina. New York: te Neues Publishing,  1998.  ISBN 3-8238-0365-4

Peter Weiermair. Wilhelm Von Gloeden: Erotic Photographs.  Köln: Taschen Verlag, 1994.  ISBN 3-8228-9315-3

Check used and antiquarian booksellers and on-line vendors for other, out of print titles and editions in other languages.

From GAYME, Vol. 2, No. 1, Pg. 30-37, Sept. 1994.
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2008

Home    Art