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three pairs of lovers with space



This is the second 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.

With one possible and noted exception, all the photographs are by von Gloeden and drawn from the superb collection of them on Wikimedia.



Even more difficult than the individual photographs were the group photographs. Getting nude models to pose together is an awkward business: you’re somewhere between the ridiculous and the indecent. I think I often got away with it, within my own limits.

No number 13. 183 Narcissus a blossoming boy

My customers had enough taste to be satisfied with those limits. Nevertheless, some of them would ask me if I didn’t have something more titillating to offer them. “Well then, I’d say to them, are you without imagination?” I showed them the photograph that I thought was the most suggestive: it’s the bust of a young boy, his head crowned with jasmines, and clutching a bouquet of these flowers to his chest. My whole intention is to be found in his gaze, which is slightly lowered; you can’t even make it out, you can only imagine it, and it is a miracle of innocent perversity.

“What a terrible man you are!” a visitor once said to me. “You’d make the angels blush with a first-communion photograph.”

I have never received praise that gave me more pleasure. Suggesting is, in fact, my whole art and seems to me to be the end-all and be-all of any art.

It wasn’t just for amateurs that I was taking so much trouble. Many of these photographs were sought after by painters, sculptors and even writers, so I took it upon myself to provide them with ideas too.

Fascism thought I was providing too many of them. It was in its infancy and very busy with what it called “the revival of the race”: a few zealots persuaded it that I was compromising that achievement. A police officer came to my house and told me that he had been instructed to make an enquiry under article 528 of the Criminal Code, which punishes obscene publications. He was rather surprised not to find anything incriminating in my albums; as with some of my clients, he had been expecting better.

“But where are the obscenities?” he cried.

“Here is the strongest one,” I said.

And I showed him the photograph with the jasmine child. I told him that this photograph was more obscene than all the obscene photographs, but that it could not be prosecuted, since its obscenity lay in his eyes. The investigator examined this accusatory piece with an interest that reassured me. I suddenly had the impression that he was convinced, because he was defeated. To remove his last scruples, I had him admire the signatures in my visitors’ book and the medals I had won at exhibitions. He pretended to bow to these references. He did not leave without choosing, as a souvenir, he said, a batch of my works, which I gladly gave him.

It was Taormina’s victory rather than mine, because Taormina had other reasons for erecting a statue of me. I know that the development of my art coincided with that of tourism, but I can flatter myself that the most interesting tourists came because of me. My images were proof that Sicily was a place of exception and beauty. In a world doomed to hypocrisy and lies, I had turned on the Taormina lighthouse. And Taormina was worthy of its role, because I had prepared it for it.

Like Augustus in Rome, I had found a city made of bricks and I am leaving behind a city of marble. I don’t claim the honour of having built all the hotels, but the most beautiful villas, I do. On their facades, it is W. v. Gloeden fecit... that I seem to see, instead of the architect’s name.



I had other equally profitable initiatives for Taormina: I inaugurated the happy order of the chamberlain there – chamberlains who have nothing in common with those of the Pope. After having my household run by women, I thought of following my lineage by replacing them with their sons.

0151. Youth prob. Pancrazio Buciuni. ca. 1890
Pancrazio Buciunì (1879-1963), known as Il Moro on account of his dark skin

My first attempts were more or less successful (I’m not talking about Virgilio, who had only been with me for a short time: I had set him up as a photographer on his own account and he was absorbed in work which were quite different from mine). Finally, I found out the perfect servant: my faithful Moro, who is certainly the dean of the great Taormina chamberlains. He was fourteen when he entered my service, forty years ago. Most of the wealthy foreigners who followed my example have already died, leaving their beautiful homes to their chamberlains. Under the skies of Taormina, all conditions are equal and no one attaches any idea of social revenge to seeing the servants take over from their masters: nothing had separated them much one from the other. There is less chance of these inheritances going to foreigners: while the former masters were bachelors, the chamberlains got married; for among Sicilians, everything ends in marriage. As for me, I married Virgilio and Moro, chamberlains and models. But unfortunately for him, Moro has fallen in with a hard-living master who will leave him a meagre legacy.

Chamberlains are the triumph of habit, not of love. Love affairs have banished love from Taormina. As a matter of fact, it is unknown here. We never bother with it, because we never have to look for it; no sooner do we think of making love than it is over with. My work responds to this state of affairs: I sell, just the way I have found it, ready-made love.

I wasn’t being unfaithful to Taormina by robbing her of two or three months’ holiday every year. Wherever I went to spend them, I always came back more in love with Taormina, more smitten with Sicily. Even Italy could not distract me from it, and I’m not saying anything about Greece, which seemed to me a rather severe initiation, or North Africa, where I wouldn’t have thought of burning my ships, or France and Germany, where frightened Love lived amid scandals.

Yes, it was to the land of freedom that I was returning on my way back to Taormina. And I liked to think that, for one reason or another, Taormina had always sided with what is free. It is perhaps the only Sicilian town where there has never been a king or a tyrant. It was here that, during the wars of servitude, the rebellious slaves sought a last refuge: when I had so delightfully dreamt in the ruins of the theatre, I didn’t know that these unfortunate people had been slaughtered there. Taormina had also fought against Octavian in favour of Roman freedoms, just as it had fought against Syracuse and Carthage, and later against the French at the time of the Sicilian Vespers and, with Garibaldi, against the Bourbons. Taormina owed it to itself to fight so hard in order to better reconcile all men.

Yes, when I returned to Taormina, I had the firm conviction that I was also returning to “the most beautiful place on earth”. At least, it doesn’t matter to me if earth has more beautiful places to stay: this one sums up for me the civilisation to which I belong body and soul, even though it is not the work of my ancestors.

I have pitied the tourists - they’re quite rare, anyway - who were being picky. I’ve heard some of them say that our flowers have no perfume compared with those of Java; that our sunsets have no colour compared with those of Arizona; that Etna isn’t as beautiful as the Fujiyama.

I haven’t been that far to check if I was right, and I have no desire to go there. Sicily is as dear to me now as it was then. I feel contemporary with all those who have lived there over the centuries; they are my brothers and my friends and they have prepared friends and brothers for me there, whereas nothing interests me in the history of Java, Arizona or the Fujiyama.

Hammerstein Baron Wilhelm Joachim von 1896 dtl
Von Gloeden's step-father, Baron Wilhelm Joachim von Hammerstein, 1896

During my stays in Germany, I had finished settling the interests of my estate and I was well advised to have done so: it was as much that would be spared by the storm. My step-father had been involved in some disastrous operations, which he tried to make up for with political activities: he became editor-in-chief of the Gazette of the Cross, where his management was even more disastrous, and he had to go abroad in a hurry. One fine day, he came to seek asylum in Taormina, following the tradition of this land of freedom. But freedom in Taormina now existed only for love, and he was asked to flee to another country to escape the German justice system. The Greeks were more rigorous: he was arrested in Athens.

I immediately went to Germany in order to comfort my mother, whom I thought was very distressed. Her misfortune had not left her destitute. Thankfully, when the Grand Duke remembered my father, he felt pity for her. She was given a pension which was even important enough for two people: it was decided that she would keep my sister Hammerstein with her and that Sophie would go with me to Sicily.

Raabe Sofia WvGs half sister poss. by him ca. 1900 dtl 2
 Von Gloeden's sister Sophie Raabe (photo probably by him)

It was from the day I had this presence in my house that I understood everything I had been missing until then. I had settled into a slightly bohemian life, where the pursuit of beauty replaced happiness.

From then on, I thought I was being re-acquainted to feelings I had forgotten. I tasted the sweetness of fraternal friendship, of a feminine smile, of innocent tenderness.

Art and pleasure had taken the place of everything else, but I had nothing to fall back on. I owe to my sister - to her indulgence, her discretion, her attentions – this repose of soul, mind and senses that I had never known. Lastly, she was as useful as she was pleasant: without changing anything in my habits, she served as a barrier against the invasions of the youths who had taken my house, if I may say so, for God’s house.



I have spoken of my garden, but plants were not its only attractions: I had a large aviary of rare birds, many of them tame. My patience was as indefatigable with the birds as with the models, and I was rewarded by both. It is common to teach crows and parrots to talk, and I had not failed in this tradition. But it is perhaps more extraordinary to get, as I did, a nightingale to sing in a cage.

My flowers, my birds and my photographs are all my wealth; I have never collected antiques. However, I was lucky enough to acquire one of those great medals struck four centuries before Christ in order to commemorate the victory of Syracuse over Athens. I had this splendid piece, still fresh in its glorious silver, suspended from a necklace that I put around the neck of my favourite model. And one of the photographs of which I am most proud shows, on a beautiful bare chest, and beneath a face that was the human masterpiece of Sicily, this face of the nymph Arethusa, which is the masterpiece of Sicilian art.

I have medals that are more personal to me: the ones, as a matter of fact, that have rewarded my photographs at exhibitions. It is nice to think that Taormina, in the beauty of its children, has received official crowns in such a way. I have never had any exhibitions in America, but I have won prizes in almost every major European city. When I leaf through my family album, in which many of my parents appear decked out in decorations, I am tempted to have my picture taken with my humble medals. And instead of all of them looking haughty, I would laugh with all my heart, thinking about how they earned their medals and how I earned mine.

0241. Les musiciens 1897 2
                                                 The Musicians (on a terrace, Taormina), 1897


It’s about time that I mentioned the two people who, regardless of any sentimental issues, have played a certain role in my life: the parish priests of Castelmola and Letoianni, Don Giuseppe and Don Manuele. They died a long time ago, but their memory is not extinguished, because they were both good companions and good priests.

They were appointed to these parishes when they were very young, and they remained there. They were solid fellows, sons of these mountains; their faith was also solid, but that didn’t prevent them from feeling like men.

They allowed me to see the prestige that ecclesiastical costume still holds for the fairer sex: there were often beautiful foreign women seeking their spiritual care and I would tell them that this kind of information, given to international clients, must have come from the Vatican. Apart from that, in their own villages, in the hamlets they served and in the farms, both of them had regular relationships, or rather real unions: Don Manuele had four or five children, and Don Giuseppe boasted of having had eighteen. Nature is generous in Sicily, and they would have felt they were committing a sin had they not responded to its wishes. Need I add that their children became my models? I sometimes regretted not having written any civil status on my photographs; my clients would have had an even greater impression of a strange paradise, reading under some of them: “The daughter of the parish priest of Letoianni”, “One of the sons of the parish priest of Castelmola”.

No number 09. Self portrait w. a priest ca. 1900
Self-portrait of von Gloeden with a priest

These good parish priests were neighbours in more ways than one: they each had a small property on Mount Ziretto, which lies in the background of Taormina. Don Manuele’s house was rustic, but he had inherited it from his family; Don Giuseppe’s was spacious, elegant and comfortable: a wealthy Swiss woman, who came every year, had had it built for him.

This house, painted in Pompeian red, was called the “Red House”. It was surrounded by beautiful trees and had a magnificent location; I stayed there for long periods of time in the warm season. My sister, who loved only Taormina, rarely followed me up there. My parish priests were used to having their evening meal there. Above all, it was a chance for them to meet their mistresses. These ladies would do the cooking, helped by my faithful Moro and the two or three little models I had brought with me. When I photographed them without any veils, the presence of these brave peasant women didn’t bother us: they would even give me their opinion - which amused me more than it guided me. The arrival of the priests didn’t bother us either. We were all on the same wavelength, because we saw nothing wrong, neither them nor I. The French inscription, “Au plaisir de Dieu,” from the chapel of Saint-Jean in Oleo, near the Latin Gate in Rome, could have been engraved on the Red House.

The parish priests and their female companions would then return to their villages, leaving the house to me and my companions. If the collective dinners were entertaining, these more solitary nights were intoxicating. A terrace dominated the deep valley that separated us from Taormina; the sea was shining at the foot of the mountains; the extraordinary silence of these places was disturbed only by the barking of a dog in a distant farmhouse or the cries of a nocturnal bird. Sometimes we would disturb it ourselves: a boy would play his harmonica or make long calls that would be echoed back to us. Sometimes, too, the echo would send back the clatter of bombs and rockets which are abundant during Sicilian festivities. Nobody saw the Taormina fireworks better than we did.

1150 Boys
Boys in the White Ho., Monte Ziretto, 1898

My happiness made a person jealous, about which I had no complaints: the German singer Wullner, who had come up to see me at the Red House, was enthralled by the site and vowed to build a house there himself. He bought part of the land from Don Giuseppe and had the beautiful house known as the “White House”, built a little further up. He added to it a pretty garden surrounded by rocks. Our meetings at his place didn’t have the bonhomie of those at the Red House. He had many servants whom he still keeps and who are trying to compete with the favourite chamberlain for the future inheritance. The parish priests didn’t take part in these parties: they were witnessed by Heaven and Heaven only.

I still seem to be reliving those happy nights, which brought together all kinds of pleasure. Like a melody rising from the waves or the stars, our host’s suave voice would intone a few lines from Platen that he had set to music:

Warm and bright is the winter night in Rome. Child, come! Walk with me and put your arm beneath mine. Lean your brown cheek against your friend’s blond hair.

... May the place where you first appeared to me always be sacred to me, may Mount Janiculum always be sacred, and all things peaceful, the beautiful cloister, the evergreen piazza: may they always be sacred as well!...



0333 recto. Two boys at San Domenico cloister. ca. 1890
Boys in the cloisters of San Domenico, Taormina

Platen was not the only one who came to love cloisters thanks to love. The cloisters of Taormina had been involved not only in my work but also in my love affairs. Finally, for these as for those, I went hand in hand with the local priests. The more Sicilian I became, the more Catholic I felt I was becoming. If it hadn’t been for my sister, who stood against it, I would have made a sparkling conversion. Such a result would not have been obtained by a professional converter, and it was almost achieved by my two hosts, who had never sought for it. This conversion would not have had the same motives as that of Boccaccio’s Jew, who became a Christian by witnessing the spectacle of the disorders of Rome, for it was necessary, he said, for the Christian religion to be the true one, to allow oneself to have such ministers. The disorders of Mount Ziretto were not sacrilegious, and they were hardly disorders at all: they were only simple natural manifestations, caused by the beauty of the beings and the mildness of the climate.

Only once did I see Don Giuseppe and Don Manuele scandalised. They had learned that a good goat herder, who took communion every Sunday, was fornicating with his goats and hadn’t thought for a moment of confessing it. It was also the only time we ever had a minor moral discussion: I defended the goat herder, showing them that the scandal was in them and not in him. I cried out:

“Take care not to reveal to him a sin of which he is ignorant. You would turn him away from a Sacrament that helps him to live. Never mind if he draws from it too much love for his goats! What pope or saint ever had a purer heart than this goat herder?”

What I admired was to see all these people so settled in their religion that they no longer thought about it at all, just as they no longer paid attention to the marvels that surrounded them. But hadn’t I also, with no profane intention, photographed my models naked, with the scapular around their necks, in some abandoned convents or ruins? One day, while I was in Segesta, cars full of young people arrived to visit the temple. After listening to their guide’s explanations, they improvised a game of football inside the temple. It was then that I was scandalised, indignant, almost frightened. Weren’t the noble columns going to topple over on these impudent players? But I soon understood and my eyes opened: far from toppling over them, they seemed to me more eternal than ever. Their youth was confirmed by these young men. And since ruins always evoke both memories of massacres and memories of lust, those of Segesta could not be better conjured up or commemorated than by this demonstration. The cries from the ancient slaughter were answered by these joyful cries; and perhaps the beautiful Menon, who alone was spared along with the temple when the city was destroyed, was brought back to life in one of these ball players.

0180 B recto. The well in San Domenico. ca. 1895
                                   The well in the monastery of San Domenico, Taormina

Wouldn’t such a people feel entitled to be as familiar with God as they are with the gods? They treat churches as they treat temples. They have multiplied the gods and the churches in turn, in order to have a free hand with Heaven. In ancient Taormina, in addition to the worship of the main divinities, there were three or four that were only worshipped there, and modern Taormina has up to a dozen churches and as many convents. The more gods, churches and faithful there are, the less religion there is. At some of the Masses I have attended, in the pilgrimage sites that abound in Sicily, the hubbub is such that the bell would try in vain to make itself heard and that’s why a large bell hanging on the wall is rung instead. The children besiege the altar where the priest is officiating; they watch him, they babble, leaning on the tablecloth. But nothing ever scandalised me there; I had another guarantor of the candour of the spectacle: the priest himself, who was not bothered by so much shamelessness. He was praying to God, surrounded by God’s children and, who knows, by his own children?



If I had thought of becoming a Catholic, it wasn’t out of conviction: it was for pleasure. I said that my sister had prevented me from doing so, but there was another reason: I would have liked to be the only one to convert in Taormina. Preceded on this path by heretics of my kind, I would have feared ridiculing the whole category. In a brilliant coup, the Roman Church won over two wealthy foreigners whom I had already won over in Taormina and who were the successive owners of the same house: a Swiss Israelite and a Puritan Englishman.

2095 Self portrait as Jesus ca. 1890
Self-portrait of von Gloeden as Jesus

As if Mount Ziretto was made for gathering extravagant people, it was in the vicinity of the Red House and the White House, but on a different slope, that this house had been built. By gathering around this mountain, they did not claim to be neighbours: there was no road linking them to each other or even leading to their homes. You reached these enchanted palaces by walking through the undergrowth. The Swiss woman who sheltered her loves, the Swiss man who preferred the Ziretto to the Jungfrau, the Englishman who fled from the Puritans, the German who wanted to sing in freedom, all had this in common: they sought solitude.

I don’t know how the parish priest of Taormina went about it, but one fine morning it became known that he had an additional Catholic in the parish: the rich Israelite from Ziretto had just been baptised, with his chamberlain as godfather. From that moment on, he was the official benefactor of the brothers’ school and spent almost all his life there, under the pretext of teaching French to the children. It is said that he was a severe teacher and did not hesitate to whip them with his own hand.

The Englishman, who was even richer and wilder, also recanted at the hands of his chamberlain. His zeal for Catholicism was expressed in a different way to that of his predecessor: on all the festivals announced with bells - and God knows how many there are! - he spiced up the nocturnal processions with torch-lit retreats and music. It was said that his generosity was in proportion to his faults: the more he had sinned, the more drums and lanterns there were. His faith was no less naive than that of the inhabitants and their shepherd. So it was right to give him penances that reminded everyone of the proverbial truths: that you mustn’t mistake the smoke for the fire and that what comes from the flute goes back to the drum.

“God, you gave me my lover and I love you and I adore you.” Mme de Krüdener’s prayer was no doubt inspired by her stay in Italy.


Continue to Chapter 10