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three pairs of lovers with space



This is the third part of J. M. Thian's translation of Roger Peyrefitte's fictionalised but authoritative biography of the German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), published in 1949 and introduced here.

Both the photographs of boys are by von Gloeden and drawn from the superb collection of them on Wikimedia.



Of all the foreigners in Taormina, it was Baron S.[1] with whom I was most closely acquainted. This charming man, great-grandson of Kotzebue, was born like me on the shores of the Baltic, but in Courland like Mme de Krüdener. He arrived here a few years after me and is still here.

At first he gave me the cold shoulder, because I was a baron in the manner of a grand duke and not of the Empire (I confess a little late that my baronage was a courtesy). But he was pleased to see that my mother was listed, by the name of Hammerstein which occupies thirteen pages, in the same register as him: the brown Gotha of the German arch-teutonic barons.

Krafft Ebing Baron Richard von 1840 1902 02
Baron Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902)

He had a villa built in the most beautiful spot on the peninsula, where he forgot all about his misty castles. He even forgot his wife, which didn’t leave him unconcerned, because he was, in spite of everything, a family man. Krafft-Ebing, the psychiatrist, was said to cure this kind of forgetfulness. But he was about to retire, so it was necessary to hurry. Our Baron ran to Gratz to consult him. He was treated with hypnotism; twice a day, while staring at him, he was told: “It is very wrong to defy the laws of nature,” and similar phrases. After a week, the formula changed: “Soon you will meet a delicious woman; she will introduce you to pleasures that you have not experienced in marriage.” The meeting took place, but the laws of Taormina prevailed.

The funny thing is that S. and his partner told Krafft-Ebing the truth, but the old scientist declared him no less cured and recorded his recovery in his statistics. It was his last cure. It is to be hoped, for the repose of his soul, that the other ones were more serious. “I’m surprised,” S. told me, “that I was able to ask to be cured of this illness and not have it given to me.”

Divorced, he lived boldly according to his tastes. Courland newspapers having alluded to this, he wrote to them saying that they were not mistaken. He was a member of the “Humanitarian Scientific Committee” founded in Berlin, which sought to have the moral code revised. He was present at the famous trial where the Prince of Eulenburg, refusing to support a cause that was his, swore, as pale as a corpse, that he had nothing to do with it.

S. rarely went to Courland, but he managed to be there on two occasions: during the 1905 revolution and during the Bolshevik revolution. In both cases, castles were burnt down and their owners treated very badly: as in the case of the beautiful Menon and the temple of Segesta, his property and he himself were the only things that were spared. He owed this precisely to the failure of Krafft-Ebing’s cures: cured, he would have been nothing more than a Baltic baron. Instead, admiring youth everywhere, he showed himself liberal towards his peasants, out of sympathy for their sons.

In 1905, he was the first to advocate reforms and to institute them on his lands, which stirred up his equals against him. Accused of being a socialist, he was imprisoned and then deported. It is true that he was deported to the vicinity of a cadet college, but he was nonetheless eager to return to Sicily once he had been released.

The memory of these tribulations served him as guarantees during the more serious troubles of 1917. It was not concealed from him that he had had another guarantor, in the person of a former gamekeeper. He called him and thanked him.

“Do you know,” the man said, “why I saved you? When I was twelve years old, my father brought me to you and said in your presence: ‘Here is your master, kiss his hand.’ And instead of letting me make this gesture of servitude, you stroked my cheek as if I were your child. I have never forgotten that.”

That was the good side of life in Courland. There was a less appreciable one: the extraordinary power that the clergy retained in the area of morals. As politics was beginning to elude them, they defended morality all the more fiercely. This is the opposite of what happened in Sicily, where the clergy had the wisdom to sacrifice everything to defend their political power. And it’s also what shows that the strongest powers are those that leave people alone when it comes to moral issues. S. told me that one of his little peasants had been given a ten-day fast in confession for a pleasant sin. The pope more or less threatened him with a penalty of death by fire. Obviously, the revolution in Sicily will not be fought to obtain the right to make love from the clergy.

Courland Pr. Gustav Biron of 1859 1941
Gustav Biron (1859-1941), titular Prince of Courland

After mentioning Baron S.’s Courland, I would like to move on to Prince Biron of Courland. He was a good client of mine by mail; I had never seen him. He finally announced his arrival in Taormina: he hadn’t added that he was on his honeymoon. Conquered by my photographs, he wanted his wife to be conquered by them. He had thought it preferable not to put them in the wedding basket himself, and reserved that honour for me. Would I have imagined displaying my Sicilian nudes in front of a young bride led by her husband? I have to say that she coped marvellously well with this ordeal: she displayed neither bourgeois modesty nor tasteless interest and gave me a high idea of the elegance that a doubly serene highness can display in delicate circumstances.[2]

I will complete the chapter about princes with an account of my relations with the House of Hohenzollern. William II came to Taormina in the last years of the century. I went to court him and he took me as his guide. He greatly admired the theatre, perhaps because I told him that Goethe had admired it. I prepared phrases to show him, down below, near his yacht in the Bay of Giardini, the first Greek ship to have landed in Sicily, the Roman ship from which Octavian disembarked. But the future “lord of war” had a different idea: “It’s here,” he said to me, “that I should talk about Theodoric!” He was thinking about the speech he was going to give to the town council and he couldn’t think of anything more beautiful than Theodoric. I was sorry, because I thought it impossible to teach him a lesson in tact. Neither Sicily nor Italy cultivates the memory of the king of the Ostrogoths, to whom the Emperor of Germany unhappily commended himself. The speech was given - elsewhere than at the theatre - and some newspapers advised the speaker to choose his ancestors more carefully.

German imp. family visiting Gk. theatre Taormina Apl. 1905
The German imperial family visiting the ruins of the Greek theatre at Taormina, April 1905

He had promised to return, and he did, this time accompanied by his family. In the meantime, my step-father’s sad adventure had unfolded. I felt reluctant to pay homage to the suzerain authority, and I waited for him to ask me to do so. He didn’t ask me to do anything, not even to give a reception for the notables. But my revenge, though secret, was all the more dazzling.

I had abstained because of my step-father; I learned that he had abstained because of me: my renown as a photographer had grown, but not as a court photographer. This reputation, which kept me away from the emperor, attracted one of his sons.

The young visitor who entered my home that day perhaps naively believed himself that he was protected by being incognito. It is true that I had not been received by his imperial family, but I had no trouble recognising in him Prince Augustus William of Prussia. He was seventeen years old and I admired not only his good grace but also the courage he had had in walking through my door. I was tempted to walk him back, thinking that his father might try to get me into trouble. But I thought I would have failed the gods who had offered me such a sweet prey.

Usually, I would begin by showing the landscapes and the “Sicilian types”. This time, I did things in a hurry: I gave him the nude collections straight away, as if I had no others. And I felt avenged against the Hohenzollerns when he blushed to his ears. However, he didn’t flinch and he calmly leafed through the albums. I suspected that this was the purpose of his visit, but I had wanted to defy him as much as satisfy him. Besides, I knew that you must be bold with youth and that it always appreciates it. I had been more formal with the Princess of Courland; I had also been helped by her husband, and the veil of the hymen somehow put a veil over these nudities.

0965. ca. 1895

I was amused when young Augustus William tried to thicken the veil of the incognito between us by telling me that he was a painter and was looking for subjects for his paintings. Was he strengthened by this lie? He flipped through the pages more slowly; his admiration lingered: his mouth was certainly watering. It ran in the family: many of his ancestors could indeed have proclaimed themselves honorary citizens of Taormina. Finally, without looking up, he said to me:

“Are these models from around here?”

I bowed:

“They are at the orders of Your Imperial Highness.”

It was the first time I had taken on a role other than that of photographer, but I was making a brilliant debut. The Prince stopped blushing; turning his face towards me, he smiled: that was his reply. Until then he had remained standing by my table; now he felt at home and sat down in an armchair. Continuing to look at the albums, he paused for a long time on one of the images, examined the following ones, then returned to that one in particular. His eyes met mine: we understood each other.

His choice was honourable from an aesthetic point of view; it was stranger from a social point of view. My models ranged from shepherds to patricians - Taormina patricians - and the Kaiser’s son could have chosen one of the latter; unfortunately, he didn’t even choose a shepherd: he chose a young shoemaker. The prince was not at all displeased, and the next day he was able to compare, at my home, the original with the photograph.

Prussia HIH Pr. August Wilhelm 18 1905
HIH Prince Augustus William of Prussia the year of his visit to Taormina (aged 18, not 17)

It would have been equally futile to hide the identity of his admirer from the shoemaker. He bore the honour that had fallen to him with dignity. Never had I had a better opportunity to verify the natural nobility of a citizen of Taormina.

When Augustus William departed pompously for Germany, he had only expressed one regret: not having been able to give his friend a nice present. “Princes,” he told me, “never have any money”. However, he was sure to find some in Berlin to pay off his debts of love and the photographs he had taken: foremost among them were those of the young shoemaker.

A few weeks later, I received a carefully sealed package from our embassy in Rome. The letter merely told me that it had been sent to me by order of the imperial palace. It was the entire collection taken by the Prince.

The other side of this pleasant story was that of Krupp. Passing through on a cruise, the richest man in Germany complimented me on my work. At the time, he was looking for somewhere to set up his summer residence. He had thought of Morocco, which was just becoming fashionable, and he was kind enough to tell me that I had made him chose Italy instead. For a moment, he had intended to settle in Taormina: it was perhaps his misfortune not to have done so. There are secret virtues here that protect one against scandal, and Krupp would probably not have known the fate that was awaiting him in Capri.

Krupp Friedrich Alfred ca. 1900
Friedrich Alfred Krupp, ca. 1900

It was there, in fact, that he settled, attracted by memories of Tiberius. I stopped at his house during a trip to Naples, and was quite frightened by his way of life. He had turned the island into a manufacture of voluptuousness, just as he would have turned it into a cannon factory. Too many people were jealous of him, he could not be allowed to get away with resurrecting the “Roman orgies” which, even among the Romans - Tiberius notwithstanding – had always ended badly. He thought he had found a hiding place and this place became a target. The solitude of Mount Ziretto would have been safer; there are also virtues of moderation in Taormina that would have been beneficial to Baron Krupp.

What was bound to happen did happen: the new Caesar of Capri was violently attacked in Germany by the opposition press. Photographs were published of nude groups, said to have been taken in his own villa and which had actually been taken by me in Sicily. Krupp returned to Essen and killed himself: I’m surprised he didn’t think it more grandiose to kill himself in Capri. [3]

No doubt he wanted to leave to someone else - Fersen - the glory of dying there in almost imperial finery: on a bed of purple, surrounded by torches, his face painted, a light veil barely covering his naked body.

The Krupp affair was the first of the scandals of this kind that shook Germany and, striking ever higher, reached as far as the Emperor’s entourage. I confess that, in pitying these unfortunate people, victims of laws that encouraged blackmail, I felt obliged to call myself the Suave Mari Magno...

My country was not the only one to pay its tribute to evil stupidity: I saw here all the illustrious outcasts of European morality - Fersen, already mentioned, and Oscar Wilde and many others. Their misfortunes were a reminder that we are only apparently far removed from the Middle Ages: the stake has been replaced by a prison sentence, but it is still for a crime that does not exist.

Happy Italy, happy Sicily! There are, as elsewhere, fools who would like to be evil, but they rarely have the power to do harm. The way in which these problems are judged is a matter of intelligence, and the Italians are the most intelligent people in the world to solve such matters. Finally, they know that, throughout their history, the most glorious names have illustrated a tradition that they received from Greece and which some try in vain to make infamous: it may not be incompatible with infamy, but neither is it incompatible with glory.

Quite different from all these characters was the illustrious writer who honoured me with his visit in the spring of 1913.

France Anatole. 1893
Anatole France, 1893

I have always loved French literature and, among contemporary works, I put nothing above those of Anatole France. I had gone so far as to decorate my studio with one of his portraits, to match that of La Duse, another object of my admiration. A Frenchman was touched by this tribute and promised to tell the writer, whom he knew, about it. I collected a few photographs - landscapes and types - and asked the visitor to give them to him.

I was very surprised when, a year later, I was told, from the Hotel San Domenico, that Mr Anatole France would be coming to visit me the next day at such and such an hour.

His manners seduced me with their simplicity; his words had an elegance worthy of his writings. Our conversation is one of my most flattering memories, and the most beautiful page in my visitors’ book is the one containing his signature.

He had been told of my talents as a photographer of male beauty, and he was curious about them. I opened my albums for him, less boldly than for the son of the German emperor. I was afraid of exercising his irony at my expense; I was especially afraid that it would diminish what was my life’s work in my own eyes. He looked at it all calmly, as he was looking at a collection of Japanese prints. He would sometimes shake his head in a way I couldn’t interpret. When he had finished:

“I didn’t know,” he said, “that you were conducting an undertaking on such a scale. You’re restoring a real religion here: you’re putting the gods that were knocked down back on their pedestals, in the full light of day.”

I told him, laughing, that I was doing the opposite of Saint Pancras, the apostle of Sicily, who, when he landed in Taormina, toppled the statues of the pagan gods only by the sound of his voice.

“What I am saying is very serious,” continued Anatole France. “By giving us ancient Greece back, you risk giving us its customs back. They were inspired by the nudity of the palaistra; the nudity of your images can change ours - I don’t mean mine. I love the Greeks, but I’m past the age of palaistra.”


The visit of the greatest French writer to the German photographer in Taormina was the symbol of a world that placed the things of art and the spirit above borders.

As I couldn’t be drafted, I remained in Sicily during the first year of the war. I had almost forgotten that I was German. The Italians had almost forgotten that themselves: the prefect of Messina, whom I had gone to for advice on whether to stay or not, had given me every reassurance that I could stay, and I was only too inclined to believe him. However, other people pointed out to me that things would change if Italy entered the war in its turn.

Finally, my sister, who maintained family ties better than I did, decided that it was essential for us to join my other sister (my mother had died at the beginning of the century). So for the first time in forty years, I left my paradise without knowing if I would ever return there.

I won’t talk about my tedious occupations in Germany during this long exile. My only pleasure was to think of Taormina from afar, as the Greeks thought of Argos when they were dying. During my absence, a picturesque incident occurred there, because of me.

0165. Boy guess Pancrazio on a staircase. ca. 1890
Pancrazio Buciunì "il Moro", ca. 1895

The faithful Moro was guarding my house. Shortly before my departure, I had enriched my aviary with some very rare specimens, in particular a pair of Japanese nightingales, which I had christened with names of my own. I corresponded with Moro through the Red Cross and made sure to ask him to take care of the friendly creatures. He was mobilised and posted at the battery on the Taormina promontory. It was there that the carabinieri came one day to apprehend him in order to speedily transport him to Messina, where he was held incommunicado. Eventually he was informed that he was charged with espionage; everything in his house and mine was turned upside down, with a view to discovering our code. When these searches proved fruitless, they decided to question my accomplice. The presumptions were serious: he had to explain our encrypted correspondence and my presence on board a submarine in the waters off Taormina. The poor man hardly knew what they were talking about. It was not without difficulty that the misunderstanding was cleared up. My Japanese nightingales were able to prove their identity, but the case of the submarine remained more complicated: since the beginning of hostilities, the Taormina battery had never had the opportunity to fire, despite its vigilance. Recently, however, an enemy submarine had appeared and the officers had inspected the coast from the turret. The Taormina gunners were so surprised that they fired too late, but some of them claimed that they had had time to recognise me among the officers.

When I returned, everyone tried to make me forget these ridiculous stories. Unfortunately, I found many empty seats. These few years had also transformed many childish faces, but I could contemplate new young children.


 Continue to Chapter 12



[1] Baron Karl von Stempel (1862-1951), who was still alive at the time Peyrefitte wrote, which is presumably why he disguised his name. Another fine account of his life, including his sad last years can be read in Taormina in 1924 by Franz Schoenberner.

[2] Peyrefitte is surely confused here. The then titular Prince of Courland was Gustav Biron (1859-1941) whose first wife, Adele zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, married in 1885, was indeed a serene highness by both birth and marriage, but for chronological reasons the bride mentioned here must have been Gustav’s second wife, Françoise Lévisse de Montigny de Jaucourt, whom he married on 29 July 1902.

[3] Anyone seeking the truth about the Krupp affair is advised to read also the very different account of it by Norman Douglas in the section “Dottor Salvatore Lo Blanco”in his memoir Looking Back (1933). Douglas believed that the sexual allegations about Krupp were entirely malicious invention. He was a resident of Capri at the time, he actually knew Krupp, and as an active and unashamed boysexual, he had no motive to exculpate him after his death: “I should not care tuppence if these insinuations had been true; I should think it rather sporting of the old gentleman to have indulged in love-affairs of any kind, at his time of life.” Nevertheless, the allegations have generally been accepted uncritically ever since. A notable exception is Dieter Richter, who for his essay “Friedrich Alfred Krupp auf Capri. Ein Skandal und seine Geschichte (Frederick Alfred Krupp on Capri. A Scandal and its History)” in Friedrich Alfred Krupp. Ein Unternehmer im Kaiserreich (Frederick Alfred Krupp. An Entrepreneur during the Empire) edited by Michael Epkenhans & Ralf Stremmel (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2010), pp. 157-178, investigated the points raised by Douglas and agreed with him. It is a pity we don’t know Peyrefitte’s source for what he says of Krupp’s interest in von Gloeden’s photos. If, as is likely, it was Gloeden's  loved-boy and assistant, "il Moro", then what he says must be taken very seriously too and it is hard to know exactly what to believe. The opposing accounts could be reconciled if Krupp loved boys, but his antics in Capri were greatly exaggerated.