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three pairs of lovers with space



This is the last 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.

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



1717 recto. Giacomo Lanfranchi disguised as a praying girl. ca. 1900
A boy disguised as a praying girl by von Gloeden

The war had also left gaps in my clientele and if, likewise, there were some transformations among it, I attribute it to pure chance that three clergymen could be counted therein. My good parish priests in Ziretto had seen the birth of my work, but in a way they had remained strangers to it. The archbishop, the canon and the monk who came to my place in turn were more interested in it.

Of all the visits I received, that of this archbishop could be both the most surprising and the least unexpected. His sumptuous installation at the San Domenico, in the company of a much too-pretty secretary, had put him in the limelight. He had come from Hungary, he was not only an archbishop, but also a count; and when he was preaching, with his mitre on his head and a chasuble embroidered with his coat of arms, his too-pretty secretary serving as his acolyte, one no longer knew what he claimed to illustrate, in terms of titles or religions.

I had seen my albums leafed through by august, glorious or charming hands; but I had never yet seen them leafed through by episcopal hands. The way my visitor was looking at them reminded me of the gravity of Anatole France and the distinction of the Princess of Courland. He seemed to be listening to the confession from a special case and absolving it at the same time. Then, turning to his young secretary, he handed the albums to him and said to him with his most detached air: “Choose, for yourself, whatever you like”. And he then told me about Central Europe.


The monk was not such a great lord and spun things a little more. When he knocked on my door, I thought he had got the wrong address. Yet he didn’t look like a begging monk: his robe was impeccably white, his sandals showed off feet that were just as white, and his nails were well cut. He exuded the strictest austerity. With an icy air, he expressed his desire to take a look at my collections.

0247. 14 023 Angelina A boy disguised as a Sicilian girl. ca. 1895 2

On this particular occasion, I couldn’t do anything but start with the landscapes. He took three or four of them; then he wanted to examine the Sicilian types: he took a few of them too. Nothing had yet enlightened me as to his true intentions and I assumed he would leave it at that. But when he asked me if I had any “draped subjects” for some religious paintings, I felt that he was at last showing the beginning of what he really wanted. I was now as sure of him as I had at once been of the young prince. However, we were only talking about some “draped subjects”. The man was walking on eggs so, in order to speed things up, I decided to tell him about what was truly under those draped subjects: seeing him holding up a photograph entitled The Little Saint, I revealed to him that this young girl, so beautifully hooded and whose clasped hands were clutching a lily, was in fact a young boy. This revelation didn’t seem to faze him; he didn’t even smile and continued to look through the album. He looked at a head that was unequivocally that of a boy:

“If I’m not mistaken,” he said, “you crowned him with passion flowers.”

“Yes, the flowers of the Passion have thus made a religious subject out of a subject that was hardly religious at all.”

Judging, no doubt, that a new step had been reached, the austere monk asked me if I had any Saints Sebastian or John the Baptist. I admired this residue of modesty, or rather this innocent cunning, similar to that of the Italian artists of old, who used this name for the boys they wanted to have the pleasure of sculpting or painting naked. We were entering, without any more innuendos, the realm of undraped subjects. This is where my client found the most to choose from. He did not, however, change his attitude. He was as impenetrable as ever; there was not the slightest tremor in the gesture with which he set aside the images of his choice: on the contrary, there was a kind of rigour. It was as if he were preparing an auto-da-fé for them or, more accurately, as if he was sharpening arrows to pierce Saint Sebastian with or a sword to take off Saint John the Baptist’s head.

He made no comment whatsoever, picked up his booty, tucked it under his robe against his chest, paid, and took his leave, without my having been able to meet his gaze.


The day I saw another clergyman arrive, I thought my name was now in the religious directories. This one was neither an archbishop nor a monk, but a canon of St John Lateran, as he willingly told me. I was touched by such confidence; to prove to him that I was not intimidated, I showed him the archbishop’s signature in my visitors’ book. He closed the book angrily:

“I have not come here to feel pity for misguided people, but to try to put an end to it.”

The conversation was taking an unexpected turn: the canon was not there as a client. I thought I had the right to reply that I didn’t need to take lessons from anyone. This made him change his tone of voice.

“Of course!” he said, “but I am appealing to your feelings, to the memory of your youth, to urge you to cease a trade which is wreaking havoc among many of the faithful.”

I had already had to justify myself to the police; I could just as well consent to justify myself to an envoy of Heaven. I told him that I was not in control of how my photographs were used. But I did not add, by way of example, that a monk had bought some from me in order to use them as religious pictures.

“At the home of one of my penitents,” he said, “with whom I have a close friendship, I saw some of the works that bear your stamp. For me, this was a way of discovering the cause of the sins he was not accustomed to and whose very horror tormented him. I need hardly say that he willingly sacrificed these objects of scandal by handing them to me. The chance of a journey having brought me here, I was curious to get to know a man whose trade consists in defiling the eyes and misleading the souls.”

The diatribe was a little strong, but I promised myself I would stand firm.

“The defence I have already outlined,” I replied, “is victoriously based on the Gospel: “All is pure to the pure”.

“Perhaps your images would be pure, even to the impure, if you put some purity into them.”

“Ah, Monsieur le Canon, you are putting the whole of art on trial here! Art has no other purpose than beauty; it ignores morality.”

“I’m not sure you represent art, but I’m sure I represent morality.”

Vatican Museo Pio Clementino. Eros of Centocelle 1st AD marble Roman copy repl. no bkg 3
The Love of Centocelle (1st century AD of a 4th century BC original from the school of Praxiteles)

“Do you mean to say that you don’t represent art when you represent the nude? Then why would the popes have filled their museums with ancient statues? They didn’t ask them to scandalise visitors, but they can’t stop them from turning them into objects of scandal either. On my last visit to the Vatican Museum, I paid my usual visit to the Love of Praxiteles, otherwise known as the Love of Centocelle or Thespia. And do you know what I discovered on one of its buttocks? The signature of an Englishwoman who had looked at it right there!”

The canon seemed to find the anecdote amusing: he thought I had too willingly criticised the Englishwoman’s indiscretion.

“I hope,” he said, “that you quickly erased this sacrilegious inscription, just as Byron erased Elgin’s one from a column in the Parthenon.”

“Quite so: I wore out my handkerchief doing it but I succeeded in doing so. Aren’t there enough Herculeses in all the museums of the world for Englishwomen to leave the Love of Thespia alone?

“But let’s leave the Vatican and move on to St Peter’s. (As you can see, I’m sticking to venerable places.) What could be more moving than the tomb of the Stuarts, as sculpted by Canova? The only tombs around it are those in which popes are buried. Well, the funerary geniuses who adorn it and should inspire purifying ideas, have nonetheless received, in the same place as the Love of Thespia, some signatures which cannot be erased, because they are engraved in it. We are entitled to hold a grudge against these impudent signatories, but I don’t think you will hold a grudge against the sculptor. So don’t hold it against the photographer either.”

The canon relaxed once again:

“You make me smile, in spite of myself, about distressing matters. But you are only talking about things that can be seen. Imagine what a confessor can hear. That’s why we often go from being indignant and disgusted to wanting to close our eyes and ears. Let me tell you a little story about Saint John Lateran. It will show you just how far the consequences of a sin go in the Catholic faith. It will make you smile in turn, but I flatter myself that it will inspire some salutary reflections that will benefit your photographs.

“I am not only a canon of Saint John Lateran, but also chaplain to the college of the nobles, who sometimes attend services in this cathedral. One day, during confession, one of the young men confessed to me that he and some of his classmates had taken advantage of the fact that they were secluded in the gallery where they were singing to commit a serious sin. The details he gave me left no room for doubt: the act was “certain” and “notorious”. According to the terms of the canon law, the basilica had been “violated”. It had to be reconciled. Can you guess what that meant? That I had to refer the matter to the Pope, to make him blush over this schoolboy story, because he is the “parish priest” of Saint John Lateran.

“In any case, you didn’t pull the gallery down. Just tell yourself that everything in the Taormina gallery is a celestial song, and that it’s not my fault if morality misses a few beats here and there.”[1]


0108 B recto Erminio. Self portrait as a gladiator. 1892
Self-portrait of von Gloeden as a gladiator, 1892

Just as I have had generations of models, I have had generations of clients. This belies the common belief that generations follow one another and are not alike.

More often than not, it was the interested parties who took great pleasure in telling me that their names should not be unfamiliar to me. If, on the other hand, I discovered it myself, I kept it to myself. An incident which I unintentionally provoked led me to adopt this cautious attitude. Although I never knew its consequences, I hope that they were less serious than for Baron Krupp.

A young Englishman, who had just given me an important order, asked me to show him my visitors’ book. He suddenly turned white upon seeing the name on one of the pages.

“That’s unbelievable!” he exclaimed.

He pushed the book away angrily, as the canon had done, but it wasn’t because of the archbishop’s name:

“My father too!”

He cancelled his order and left, slamming the door.

I was lucky though: if he had examined the book more closely, he might have torn it up because he would have found his grandfather’s name in it. I was amused by his fury. Did he want to be the only one to have discovered America, in other words Sicily? Or did he feel annoyed because his father had loved green grapes before him?


The Hohenzollerns had an equally loyal relationship with me, albeit less turbulent. One of the Kronprinz’s sons came to Taormina after the war; he didn’t ask for my services like his uncle did, but although he had fallen, he paid for his purchases in full.

Chulalongkorn centre in white jacket during his European tour dtl
Chulalongkorn King of Siam during his grand tour of Europe, 1897 (The Graphic, 7 August 1897)

It would take a long time to list all those I have not yet mentioned. How many writers, scholars and artists have passed through my house! But if I mention Kipling, you will have guessed that he was not interested in the same things as Oscar Wilde, and that I did not present him with the same albums. I also thought it pointless to mislead Richard Strauss or Marconi’s admiration. On the other hand, Doctor Voronoff told me that contemplating my youths was a process of rejuvenation which was more flattering to the human race than his own processes.

Since I have to finish with names, I will glorify myself a little by finishing with a king. The Prince of Wied would not be enough for me, even though he had been Reigning Prince of Albania and had consoled himself in Taormina for no longer being so. My king was neither Edward VII nor Alfonso XIII, who stayed here thirty years apart and who were not touched by the grace of the Sicilian type. My king could have been the King of Cambodia, but that monarch was content to delegate his orderly to me; whereas his majesty the King of Siam came in person. This proves that, in any case, I would have made my way in the oriental courts.


Yes, it is pleasant for me to recall these more or less distinguished visits, these characters who asked Taormina for reasons to feel happier or less unhappy. But what I loved most of all was the people of Taormina.

I love their voluntary poverty, their lordly manners, their taste for spectacle, their irony, their enthusiasms, their song-fuelled gaiety. For a long time, they produced devotees who were forbidden to lick the flagstones of the church during the pilgrimage to Saint Alfio, or to run naked through the mountains while castigating themselves during the pilgrimage to the Madonna of the Chain. But they have also produced those good people who, on telling me a legend, would conclude: “It’s so pretty that it would be a shame not to believe it!”

Finally, I love in this people their love for work. My young models had jobs that were tougher than modelling: they were bold little fishermen, busy mechanics in garages, journeymen masons who, when I passed their building sites, waved at me with their white hands, carpenters who came to see me with their hair still full of wood chips, and shoemakers who remained shoemakers, even though they had been courted by princes.

0874. Boy with a vase. ca. 1895

These contrasts of beauty and misery, of nobility and simplicity, of Christian religion and pagan customs, riveted me to Taormina as much as its natural splendours. I knew I could, at will, exalt myself and reflect, be moved and joke, love and forget love. I reconciled philosophy and delights, spirituality and sensuality. I seemed to be a disciple of Epicurus and a disciple of Saint Anthony of Padua.

Shall I admit it? Without this peace that I was able to find, I would already have given up a life filled with too constant happiness and too easy pleasures, in too beautiful a setting. Like a Roman of decadence, I would have left in the middle of the banquet. It was the only form of suicide I could think of: sometimes it even smiled at me. But then I remembered that Pythagoras, passing through Taormina, cured a young man suffering from erotic madness by playing a tune with his Phrygian flute. So one of the first mentions of Taormina in history told me that this place had long known the delirium induced by love. It also taught me that wisdom can get the better of it. Admittedly, the years have calmed me down more surely than the Phrygian flute did. But if they have done their work, I have not suffered, because I had foreseen it.


One of my old recipes is to take a walk: I head for the convent called the Capuchins by tradition. It now belongs to nuns who bring up orphan girls. Its church stands in a pretty square on the edge of the valley overlooked by the Ziretto. Acacia trees lead to it, along an old aqueduct with an arch spanning the road. The façade is as simple as can be: an arched door, framed by two twisted columns and topped by a festooned half-rosette. This quiet spot comes alive at the angelus. Following Sicilian custom, the sacristine rings the bells at the top of the bell tower. Shortly afterwards, we hear children chanting prayers in the church, whose door remains closed. I can’t think of anything sweeter than these murmurs, backed up from time to time by the sound of a harmonium. At first I wondered whether I wasn’t mixing a bit of devilry with these angelic concerts and whether I wasn’t attracted by these invisible children rather than by their voices. The idea that they were little girls reassured my scruples.

0016. San Domenico cloister with three lads. ca. 1895
The cloister of the Franciscan convent of San Domenico

I can go to Capuchin Square whenever I like, but only once, on a fine winter’s day, have I returned to the Franciscan convent: after being sold and resold, it was finally handed over to the Franciscan nuns. They set up a workroom and a nursery in it. The young superior who received me, exquisite under her white veil, was astonished when I told her that I had preceded her within these walls and that I had almost bought them. I saw again the magnificent park, the fountains, the rocks of the theatre, the horizon of the sea. I even saw the cloister again, perfumed with the scent of violets. The nun bent down to pick a few and offered them to me, a charming gesture of worldly politeness that took on the value of an exorcism, of a blessing. In the workroom, girls were working on the embroidery that is one of Taormina’s trades. In the nursery, it was siesta time: my kind guide gently opened the door and I saw the children sleeping gently at their desks, their heads resting on their folded arms. It was like a fairy tale, an enchanted world, a paradise of purity and silence. I had another reason to be troubled, but by evocations that had little to do with this innocent spectacle: this nursery had been my bedroom.

I thought of Virgilio, who had accompanied me to this place on the evening of my arrival in Taormina, and who accompanied me there for so many evenings. Poor boy! He is no longer with us, but perhaps his grandchildren were in that nursery.

He was killed during the war and is buried in the Taormina cemetery, in one of those poor alleys where the coffins, lined with marble and piled one on top of the other, form a sort of columbarium. On the Day of the Dead, all the little lamps hanging from the tombs are lit, giving the alleyways a festive air.

There are many dead in this cemetery who were once mine, but I have the illusion that they are not here: their immortal youth, preserved by my images, is safe from the Fates. In some of the catacombs of Sicily, you see the hideous dead under the glass which covers their coffins; thanks to me, you will always see desirable living beings.

0106. Three boys in Gloedens garden. ca. 1890
                                                     Von Gloeden's garden, Taormina

But I know where to find them in a more moving way, and that’s what makes my walks the most moving of all - a sublime walk. Only the Italians could have come up with the idea of creating “gardens of remembrance”, by placing plaques on trees with the names of the soldiers who died for their country. In Taormina’s public garden, two long avenues of olive trees are dedicated to this pious service, olive trees that are the remains of the wood that I had contemplated during my first ascent.

Almost all the names on these trees were those of my models, of my friends. I seem to see them again in a different guise, changed into trees, as in the fables. For no one more than for me, these two alleys evoke so many things.

I reread those beautiful names - those simple names: Eugenio, Santo, Gaetano, Filippo, Antonio, Francesco, Domenico - my two convents! – there are so many Salvatores! So many Rosarios! So many Giuseppes! So many Giovannis! There is the Virgilio to whom I owe my profession and my happiness; and there is an Orazio. What am I saying? There’s even a Vittorugo, a strange first name that pays homage to French literature; I have so often joked about the owner of this name.

And what a place to survive! This garden is the most splendid panoramic viewpoint in Taormina. Amid flowerbeds and under light shades, you can see the bay of Giardini, the coast towards Catania and Syracuse, the Alcantara plain and Mount Etna in all its glory. It was from here that I contemplated the terrible eruptions of the volcano, this river of fire slowly making its way towards the other river and towards the sea. A grandiose spectacle, a misfortune so near and yet so far away, since we know that Taormina has always been spared by a special protection!

1209. Two youths sitting before Mount Aetna. ca. 1890 dtl
                              Panorama with a snow-capped Mount Etna in the centre

It was also from this garden that, on one of the rare days when this phenomenon occurs, I contemplated the fog that rises suddenly from the calm sea under a serene sky. Everything disappears in an instant: the city, the mountains, the sun. It looks like a sign, that of the end of the world, the smoke of a huge fire - the fire of some Sodom. Then, in another instant, the sky becomes serene again and we can see the calm sea again.

Then I think of Goethe’s poem Ganymede, whose title, like its subject, seems to situate it in Taormina. And isn’t it this garden, with its ghosts, that seems to have dictated it?

... In your bosom,
I rest and yearn
And your flowers and your herbs
Press themselves to my heart.
... Up there my impulse carries me.
The clouds bow
Towards the earth, the clouds
Lean towards nostalgic love,
Towards me! Towards me!

Towards you all, my friends!

Gloeden Wilhelm v.s tombstone  behind that of sister Sophie by Giovanni DallOrto dtl
            The tombstone of Wilhelm von Gloeden in Taormina, with that of his sister Sophie behind it


Baron von Gloeden went to join “his friends”; but he left some who still speak of him with a respect and affection that are highly honourable for his memory. He died in 1931, three months after his sister, at whose feet he is buried in the small Protestant cemetery of Taormina. His eternal backdrop are the mountains of Sicily and the Ionian Sea. The earth alone covers his coffin: there is no headstone, but a border of pebbles, a beautiful rosebush in one corner and a stone cross with this inscription engraved on it:

Guglielmo von Gloeden

Buciuni Pancrazio. Photo from tomb in Taormina
Photo on the tombstone of "Il Moro" in Taormina

Some time after his death, the Fascist police seized a large part of his photographic treasures, and his heir, the faithful Moro, today a simple fisherman, had another run-in with the law because of him. The case was won before the Messina court; once again, the work was justified. The plates were returned, or at least what remained of them, three quarters having been destroyed.

In 1943, when a German headquarters was installed in Taormina, the Allies carried out an aerial bombardment that destroyed part of the town: fortunately, the main monuments were not hit, including the theatre that Renan, after Goethe, hailed as the most beautiful one in the world. One of the cloisters of San Domenico was reduced to ashes, but the house of Baron von Gloeden was barely touched. A little later, during the landing operations, the English fleet bombarded the mountains: on the Ziretto, the White House did not suffer and it became the property of a Polish diplomat; but the Red House is now nothing but ruins.


[1] There is a pun here on “chant” (song) and “déchanter” (to disappoint) which is lost in translation.  The French is: “Dites-vous donc que tout est chants célestes, dans la tribune de Taormina, et que ce n’est pas ma faute si la morale déchante.”