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Von Gloeden

Pioneer of Homosexual Photography

by Andrew Calimach

boy wearing wreath
For half a century, from the 1880s to 1931 the Mecca for well heeled European gentlemen vulnerable to the beauty of boys or men was a run-down small Sicilian town. These pilgrims came in droves, from heads of state to ordinary folk. Their religion was the nude male body, and their icons the idyllic pictures of a German photographer who, from earliest youth and with only a brief interlude away during the first World War, had made the town his home and the handsome local boys the subjects of his always romantic, sometimes erotic, and occasionally sexually suggestive montages and portraits. To his clients, suffocated by the virulent homophobia of the time, the little villa and studio must have seemed like an oasis in a parched desert of the senses.

Taormina, named after Mount Taurus upon which it is situated, had originally been described by Goethe, said to have been its first tourist, in 1787, in his Journey to Italy. That may be more than a mere coincidence, as the great poet himself found the male body more beautiful and more perfect than the female, and the love of youths perfectly natural. Almost a century later, in 1863, a young German  painter, by the name of Otto von Geleng, a lover of women, rediscovered it and made a specialty of painting landscapes that left viewers stunned by the unearthly beauty of the settings.

Von Geleng had married a local girl, had been elected mayor of Taormina, and was eager to let others know about the charm of the locality. On a trip back to Berlin, at a beer garden, he ran by chance into a friend of the family. He was 20 year old, had studied art history in Rostock and trained as a painter at the art academy in Weimar, but had to leave for a sanatorium on the Baltic as he had come down with tuberculosis. His name was Wilhelm von Gloeden. Geleng invited his friend to convalesce and pursue his artistic interests in Taormina. He may even have suggested that many marriageable girls were still to be had.

Von Gloeden, however, was gay. He doubtlessly was only too eager to flee the cold weather and the cold sexuality of his native Prussia, the most hostile to gays of all the German states, for the famously permissive south. With the approval of his doctor and the help of his stepfather who was to fund his travels until his own downfall several years later, von Gloeden embarked on a Grand Tour that took him through much of Italy, ending up in 1878 in Taormina where he took a house with a garden that was to serve him as home and studio for the rest of his life. He called it his "paradise on Earth."

As soon as he came he fell in love with a boy. The youth, a fourteen year old nicknamed Il Moro (The Moor) for his dark skin and curly hair, became his devoted assistant, friend, and lover. His name was Pancrazio Buciuni (mis-spelled in some biographies as "Bucini"). Their friendship was life long, though Pancrazio eventually married and raised a family. The Baron's villa became a social as well as artistic center. His models would double as performers, and he would put on shows featuring all male dances, such as the one witnessed by the Russian poet Zinaida Gippius in the summer of 1899.

Alexander Ivanov - Apollo, Hyakinthos and Cyparissus singing and playing. (1831—1834) - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
il Moro

Eager to pursue art, he studied photography with a number of experienced local practitioners. One was his cousin, Wilhelm Plüschow (1852-1930), who had a studio in Naples where he photographed erotic nudes of both sexes. Von Gloeden also learned from a pair of local photographers, Giuseppe Bruno and Giovanni Crupi. He then embarked on a career that spanned several decades, photographing the handsome adolescent boys of Taormina, and occasionally the men. 

In 1895 his income suddenly stopped. His stepfather, Wilhelm Joachim von Hammerstein, editor-in-chief at Kreuzzeitung, had been discovered with his hand in the till, colluding with a paper vendor to inflate the invoices and pocket the difference. He fled to Greece with his family and 200,000 gold marks but was soon deported and served three years in jail. Initially the penniless von Gloeden and his step-sister, Sophie Raabe who had joined him that year, survived on the generosity of his neighbors, who made sure to leave food on their doorstep during the night. He, an aristocrat who until then had lived a life of leisure, found himself in the plebeian predicament of having to earn a living. His art became his trade. 

By means of a new full-plate (30cm x 40cm) camera, a gift from Grand Duke Friedrich III of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, his father's old employer who admired and collected his pictures, he began photographing the picturesque landscapes of Sicily. It was not long before he began to people those landscapes with naked boys. The Taorminians, and above all, their sons, stripped naked and posed unashamed for the young photographer. In return, the Baron, as he was known in town, treated his young models with respect and professionalism. 

His works sold well. One of his outlets was the picture post card business, with which he became involved around 1900, through the Berlin firm of Adolph Engel. The Baron paid his models royalties for their photographs, and opened savings accounts for them with the local back, so that they might have funds to start a business once they reached maturity. A number of them are also thought to have become his lovers.

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His floruit lasted from 1890 to 1915, when he had to leave his adoptive hometown due to the outbreak of WW I. His only contact with Taormina during this time was by means of a correspondence that he kept up with his old lover, Pancrazio. Their mails were intercepted, and despite their innocent nature, replete as they were with references to matters having too do with the garden of the villa, they were suspected of being coded communications and part of an espionage ring, and almost led to Pancrazio's execution. The Baron returned four years later and remained until his death in February 1931, though his artistic output was much diminished and he mourned the friends and lovers who lost their lives in the war.

His art

Von Gloeden's homoerotic photographs were one of the pillars of the Victorian revival of homoerotic culture. They appealed to a range of tastes, from those of the Anglo-American Uranians who desired adolescent boys in the bloom of youth to the ones of the German third-sex movement who pined for muscular, well-hung types. His pictures are imbued with feeling – tenderness, longing, desire, passion, sadness, contemplation, humor and satire, and an appreciation of the natural innocence, and innocent sexuality, of a naked boy. He often places his boys and men among the ruins of old Tauromenium, a crown jewel of Sicilian architecture and culture in antiquity. His models wrap around the ruins like vines or flowers, flaunting unashamed their petals and stamens. They are often posed drowsy, languid, as if melting from the heat of the southern sun, or the fire of passion, or both. A number of them turn up their face, eyes closed, as if waiting to be kissed.

His works are original in their use of open air settings for his nude models. His tableaus are often erotic, even provocative but never crass, and reveal a rich vein of homosexual fantasy and experience. Von Gloeden was well versed in the complicated systems of silver salt, and also albumen, processing and printing. His pictures consistently show a high degree of technical mastery and stand out for his subtle handling of form and lighting.

The photographs were well received in his time. In 1893 he won the gold medal at the International Exhibition of the Photographic Society of Great Britain. He also enjoyed commercial success, and was thus able to maintain an elegant lifestyle even after losing his allowance. From a more modern perspective, his poses and themes can come across as a bit formulaic, and occasionally sentimental. Roland Barthes asks whether von Gloeden's work is camp, but settles for kitsch. Aside from the corpus of works intended for the use of a primarily gay audience, von Gloeden is also known for his landscapes and ethnographic photographs, works that were held in high regard.

Von Gloeden was one of several photographers specializing in what has come to be known as Arcadian photography, a style of homoerotic photography characterized by Classical Greek imagery and nude men and boys in artistic poses. In Italy at the time the other two principal artists producing such pictures were his cousin Plüschow, and the latter's pupil and lover, Vincenzo Galdi (1871-1961). Their works were marked by harsher lighting, stiffer models, and a greater number of female models. Galdi's in particular features some tasteless and quasi-pornographic poses. Unlike von Gloeden, Plüschow drew the attention of the authorities and served time in jail for relations with minors. The art of this group can be positioned within the school of Uranian art (named after Heavenly Aphrodite who was said to rule only male love, as opposed to Vulgar Aphrodite who was indiscriminate) being produced at the time, such as the photographs of Thomas Eakins and Holland Day in America and the works of Tuke, Frederick Rolfe and John Gambril Nicholson in Europe.

There was a large market for von Gloeden's oeuvre, which is estimated to have numbered between 3000 and 7000 images, and many famous individuals made the pilgrimage to the photographic studio in Taormina. Though the guest book recording their names disappeared (presumably destroyed to cover up the full extent of his audience) in the sixties, we know that among them were such famous gays as Oscar Wilde and Friederich Krupp, both of whom were later to come to grief over their sexual preferences. Among the others who enjoyed von Gloeden's nude boys and men, photographs that he did not trade as openly as his works depicting dressed models, were monarchs such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Edward VII, Alfonso XIII, and the King of Siam, Paramandra Maha Chulalongkorn, as well as other luminaries of the time such as Anatole France, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Richard Strauss, Guglielmo Marconi, Rudyard Kipling, Will Percy, Nietzsche (who held that "in the best of times erotic attraction was always pederastic"), and countless others. His works circulated freely among the Uranian circles in Britain and the US, as well as among the German Korperkulture and Wandervogel movements.

His legacy

gay greek myths Pan and Daphnis; 2nd c. CE. Marble, Roman copy of 2nd century BCE Greek original; Archeological Museum, Naples
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Von Gloeden's work has been influential in his time and since. His pictures were found in the collections of such homosexual artists as Herbert List and Carl Van Vechten, and reflected in the works of others, such as George Platt Lynes and eventually Robert Mapplethorpe, who stripped away the cultural props to frankly gaze at the body.

Upon von Gloeden's death Buciuni, by then a family man, inherited the estate and with it the trove of photographic glass plates, close to 3000 in total. In 1933 and again in 1936 Buciuni was denounced to the Fascist authorities for keeping "pornography." The house was raided and most of the glass plates were confiscated and destroyed, 1000 plates and 2000 prints in the first raid, and much of the rest in the second raid. Buciuni, and the Baron's work, were exonerated during the course of a subsequent trial in Messina, where the judge found that the collection was artistic rather than pornographic. His pictures, though, remained forbidden in Italy until the end of the sixties. Now they are once again widely available, and sold by the best international auction houses. Photographs that as recently as the nineteen eighties were being peddled under the table for 25 dollars now command 1500 to 3000 dollars a copy. Nontheless, they are often the object of a subtle twist, best described as pederastic erasure or perhaps a gay mainstreaming, in which his fresh-faced pubescent models instead of being correctly identified as boys are often refactored as  "men."

Pan and Daphnis; 2nd c. CE. Marble, Roman copy of 2nd century BCE Greek original; Archeological Museum, Naples
During his life von Gloeden was attacked for his loves and for his art. Von Geleng assailed him as "immoral" and quarreled with him. Some of the Taorminians, a minority, disapproved of his actions. The attacks continued after his death, until his vindication in a court of law. Invidious attacks upon the man and his art are resurgent today, this time by critics answerable to no one. In these more "egalitarian" times, von Gloeden is being disparaged for the effects of his wealth in an impoverished culture, and for his love of adolescents. His works are condemned as "obsessive" and an example of "homosexual decadence." A recent hatchet job on, for example, paints him in the lurid colors of "colonial dynamics" and blames him for attempting to "smooth over" the proletarian bodies of the boys he photographed with "home made emulsion." His equitable and ethical remuneration of his models is transmogrified into "economic clout" and he, a man who spent practically his entire adult life in his adopted town, found a life partner among its inhabitants, and was buried there, is dismissed as a "sex tourist." 

Those who bemoan such alleged abuse of power should instead consider whether they are retroactively disempowering and objectifying the youths who, by all accounts, became lovers and life-long friends to von Gloeden. "Protecting" youths who, to the best of our knowledge, were neither in need nor want of protection is itself abusive, a condescending intrusion and virtual "schoolmarm tourism" that infantilizes and deprives of agency the people, real, thoughtful and feeling, upon whom the "protection" is being imposed. 


Charles Leslie, Wilhelm von Gloeden, photographer: a brief introduction to his life and work
Robert Aldrich, The seduction of the Mediterranean: writing, art, and homosexual fantasy
Robert F. Aldrich, Colonialism and homosexuality
Michael Matthew Kaylor, Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde
Alastair J. L. Blanshard, Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity

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