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three pairs of lovers with space

THE BARON VON GLOEDEN
BY ROGER PEYREFITTE

Peyrefitte. Les Amours singulieres 2 

Wilhelm Iwan Friederich August von Gloeden (1856-1931) was a well-known German photographer who specialised in the teenage boys of Taormina in Sicily, where he lived most of his life.

The prize-winning French writer Roger Peyrefitte (1907-2000), like von Gloeden a lover of boys, was drawn by the latter’s reputation to stay in Taormina in 1947 and there got to know those still living who had known the great photographer well, most significantly Pancrazio Buciunì, nicknamed "il Moro", his lover as a boy, then his main assistant and finally his heir. Le Baron von Gloeden, which Peyrefitte then wrote, is an imagined account of how von Gloeden might have recounted his life towards its end. It was published by Jean Vigneau in Paris in 1949 as one of the two stories that make up Peyrefitte's Les Amours singulières (Strange Loves).

It is presented here in its entirety, translated for this website by J. M. Thian in May 2024. The division into chapters has been improvised from extra large spaces in the published text. All the photographs are by von Gloeden and drawn from the superb collection of them on Wikimedia.

 

[Introduction]

Today, 16 September 1926, I am a respectable seventy years old and, as the day I arrived in Taormina on my twentieth birthday, I have been in the safest of paradises for half a century. I’ve been so happy here, I’ve done so much here, and this blessed place owes me so much, that I wanted to mark this jubilee by starting to write my story.

It is not meant for historians. It is of interest only to those who are voluptuous and artistic. It is the testimony of a life devoted to the cult of beauty, an act of gratitude to a country and a people.

[1]

NN. Hermann v. Gloeden Wilhelms pa. ca. 1845
Hermann von Gloeden, Wilhelm's father

I was born at Volkshagen Castle, near Wismar, in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg on the Baltic Sea. I was given but one name: William. My father, an officer and a baron, died shortly after I was born, and my mother, already the widow of a gentleman called Raabe, soon remarried to another baron called Hammerstein. From the first marriage she had only one daughter - my dear Sophie, the providence of my Sicilian days and who, unmarried like me, lives in my house. From the second marriage, I was the only child; and from the third, two daughters, one of whom was married and died in childbirth, the other growing old all alone in Berlin. So, of three marriages and two barons, there will be no one left after us. Let there at least be something left of the Baron von Gloeden.

I did quite well at the gymnasium in Wismar and then at the University of Rostock. I was rather sullen by nature, probably because of my delicate health. My family doctor gave me the pleasure of believing me to be much weaker than I was. He declared that I would die were I to stay any longer in our provinces. It was thought that a long stay in Italy would be good for me, and my step-father, with whom I did not get along very well, was the first person to hasten my departure.

No project could have seduced me more. Powerful motives drew me to these radiant lands. I was in love with beauty, and they were its birthplace. I was gifted as a painter and I dreamed of making a career there, and they were the school all painters would go to.

Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples enchanted me. But I was almost frightened by so many treasures, as if each of these cities required several years of contemplation and meditation. I wanted to be in the palaces and the churches, the theatres, the museums and the streets all at the same time. Wherever I stood with my palette in my hand, I would soon be distracted by the spectacle of life. I was intoxicated and overwhelmed, I had to give up seeing or give up painting so I fled one after the other from these illustrious cities.

Capri’s fame was just on the rise. I hoped to find there the place of choice that I had been searching for and which I could both admire and possess. Shall I admit it? I was disappointed by my visit. This island, where another German was later to renew the legend of Tiberius, seemed to me of mediocre interest. The distant view of Vesuvius does not make up for the narrowness of its landscapes, and I feel that it is more suited to the stay of a tyrant than to that of an aesthete. I would have been very surprised if anyone had told me that I would one day be the guest of the famous Krupp and one of the causes of his suicide.

Despising, quite wrongly, Calabria, I set sail for Sicily. I immediately had the impression that I was getting close to my goal: Palermo, Segesta, Agrigento and Syracuse gave me enough to satisfy me, but not enough to satiate me. The further I travelled along its coasts, the more I loved this realm of romance and battle, sung by poets and fought over by conquerors.

Sicily 1898
                                                 Sicily in 1898. Taormina is shown on the eastern coast

In Syracuse, I had greeted the funerary monument of my compatriot Platen. I liked this author, who came to ask Sicily for the right to love. A few lines from him and from Goethe’s Journey had taught me the name of Taormina. I looked up the location of this obscure town on a map. It lay between Messina and Catania, about a hundred kilometres north of Syracuse: it was the natural culmination of my peregrination.

It was by train that I reached the foot of its steep hills. There were no cars that day: there weren’t many visitors yet. Luckily there was a donkey driver, to whom I entrusted my luggage. The carriage road leading to the village, with its long winding roads, already existed. But we followed the shortcut traced on a rock spur between the two points of the promontory. As we climbed higher, I could see houses to the left, and the lines of a convent, a square tower, the façade of a Baroque church, the cone of a bell tower, palm trees whose branches swayed against the sky. Dominating this terrace, a rocky peak soon came into view. It was crowned by the ruins of a feudal castle. To the right, the other slope, less steep, was planted with pines and cypresses, and the summit, which seemed uninhabited, bore a thick olive grove. These weren’t the only trees that greeted me: almond and carob trees, amidst Indian fig and agave trees, lined our path. As we passed, I came across the little chapel of the Madonna of Graces, which must have been built there to cheer up the traveller with an invocation of good omen.

0195 recto. Boy with a dramatic attitude. ca. 1880 dtl

The donkey driver had warned me that there was no inn in the village and that I would have to stay with the locals. He himself offered me hospitality, but I wasn’t sure what the home of a Sicilian donkey driver would be like. He lived almost at the end of the path and I was in front of his door before I could dream of any way to escape. As if sure of my acceptance, he called out loudly: “Virgilio! Virgilio!” I was still smiling at this beautiful name, when the person it referred to arrived: it was the son of my guide. He was sixteen or seventeen, with a fresh, golden face beneath his black hair; the poverty of his clothes made his youth all the more striking. The rest of the family were also crowding round me, and Virgilio’s mother assured me that I would be very welcome in their home. I asked to see the room and was led up to the first floor by a sort of ladder; the room was clean, but the window only looked out onto the street. I hadn’t come to Taormina not to be choosy, and I explained to these good people that I was a painter and needed vast horizons, even when I was asleep. They were all very sorry and tried to find somewhere to take me. Suddenly, Virgilio had a flash of joy: “To the convent!” he said. It must have been a good idea, because the whole family agreed. “Yes,” said the father, “it’s just the thing for a painter, and you’ll be almost alone.” I replied that I felt reluctant to stay with monks: but the monks were no longer there; they had left ten years ago when the religious congregations were abolished, and the convent had been handed over to the commune, which didn’t know what to do with it.

I was accompanied to the town hall, where I was authorised, for a small fee, to occupy premises that I had not yet seen. Something told me that I was right to trust my first friends from Taormina.

We retraced our steps and, after passing by the olive grove, we reached the convent. It wasn’t the one I had noticed on the way up, a former Dominican convent called San Domenico: mine had belonged to the Franciscans and was called San-Francesco.

As soon as I entered the surrounding park, I was amazed. It was the ideal setting for a happy life: magnificent shades, fountains, lavender-covered walls, a huge house shrouded in silence, a chapel and a cloister.

The guardian of the place eventually showed up. I chose for my bedroom a room on the first floor overlooking the sea and the distant coastline. Every shade of mauve and pink played out between Sicily and Calabria. Long, mysterious trails seemed to have been made by the chariot of a god who had just passed by.

4003


Virgilio helped me put my things away; then he took me back to the village, where the evening meal was waiting for us. We had now taken the carriage road and I discovered new viewpoints, which added to my delight. The neighbouring coasts and the whole scenery appeared to me: we were suspended between bays and capes, beaches and plains, hills and mountains, the most picturesque of which, above the rock of the castle, was topped by a village that seemed inaccessible, and the most majestic of which, Mount Etna, opened out its snowy crater. I had never seen so many natural beauties together; I had never dreamt of a sweeter harmony of earth, sky and water.

The village appealed to me no less than the country itself: Roman arcades, Frankish walls, Saracen towers, Spanish churches, palaces of the Middle Ages, Spanish churches, Renaissance palaces - small-town palaces, but all the more exquisite for the sculpted frames of their doors, their black and white mosaic bands, their fine-columned windows and their gracefully crenulated roofs - all this, more or less along the only main street, between the two fortified gates, one opening onto the Bay of Giardini, Mount Etna and Catania, the other onto the Bay of Letoianni, Messina and the Pelorian mountains. The alleyways were just as inviting, as everything exuded a cleanliness to which I had not been accustomed during my trip to Sicily. Even the squalor here was correct, as it was where Virgilio’s parents lived. Better than that: it was noble. I wasn’t staying with villagers, but with fallen nobles. I had been struck elsewhere by the nobility of the Italian race, but nowhere had that nobility seemed so genuine.

0162 recto. Three boys at San Domenico. ca. 1895 2

I had only to congratulate myself on my first meal: the donkey-keeper’s wife was a good cook. As I was settling in and making my way around the village, I hadn’t had time to think about Taormina’s most beautiful ornament: its Greek theatre. In fact, I’d forgotten all about it, in the midst of so many other things. It was during dinner that I remembered Goethe’s enthusiasm for this monument. I was anxious to verify his opinion, for I had not always found it to be correct: he had seen nothing of the true beauties of Palermo, he had not understood those of Segesta, and he had exaggerated some of those of Agrigento.

I asked Virgilio to take me to the theatre. Night had fallen, but there was moonlight, and the walk promised to be very romantic. It was, in fact, just a walk: the theatre, whose location I hadn’t guessed, was very close to Virgilio’s house. It is carved into the sides of a long rock, overlooking the olive grove that had hidden it from me during the climb. It was, in a way, even carved into the name of Taormina, since, according to archaeologists, it was this “bull-shaped” rock that led to the town being named Tauromenium. Needless to say, in those days it was unguarded and you could enter it as easily as you would a mill.

I remember the emotion that seized me when I stepped under the dark vaults, then in the moonlit hemicycle. There was no one there and yet we seemed to be overhearing some sort of ritual or enchantment. We climbed up to the gallery, where niches and porticoes remain. On the slopes, the tiers of seats have been torn away, but the theatre has retained its mural crown. Everything I had admired since my arrival unfolded before my eyes with greater scope and splendour. I sat down on the grass to contemplate a spectacle similar to what it might have been two thousand years ago. This is probably the place in the world where you can savour perfection most perfectly. In any case, it is the one most likely to inflame or discourage not only a painter, but also a playwright. I am therefore not surprised that it has never inspired a good painting and that the drama of Nausicaa, meditated on by Goethe in front of this horizon, has remained a project - one of those projects too perfect to be accomplished. But I could murmur the lines from Oedipus at Colonus, which the Greeks must have recited there and which you would think were intended for such a setting: “O stranger, here you are in the most beautiful place on earth.”

0100 recto. Teatro Greco Taormina. ca. 1890


I had better company than Goethe and Sophocles: a Virgilio who didn’t even know what Virgil was. But he knew the incantations of shadow and silence. The hour I spent that evening in the most beautiful stay on earth was the most beautiful one of my life.

[2]

I thought I had seen everything in Taormina, from the first day and the first night. But there was so much left to see! Apart from the village which kept revealing unknown places to me, there were the ruins of the castle, the other hilltop village of Castelmola, the coves and islands bordering the promontory, that revealed themselves to me.

There were so many things I still needed to know! The whole history of Sicily, Italy, Greece - in a word, the Mediterranean world - was summed up in Taormina. There was something for the mind as well as the senses. For the beauty of its people was worthy of the beauty of its things and the beauty of its memories.

0152. Two boys embracing a column. ca. 1890

There was an immediate connection between the country and me. It was a world I could measure up to and which could be entirely mine. I had achieved my ideal: I was on the Acropolis of beauty. It was no longer a question of painting, but of being happy; of capturing happiness and not colours. Better than the description given by Goethe of Agrigento, using the words of the Latin poet, “that’s where one should live, forgotten by one’s own and forgetting them”. My mind was made up: I would live and die in Taormina.

I liquidated my share of my father’s inheritance. This did not put me at the head of a great fortune, but the simplicity of my tastes and of my Sicilian existence reassured me for the future. I also hoped to make some money from my paintings. My beginnings had not been without success; I had sold some of my paintings, not only to merchants in Catania, but also to middle-class people in Taormina. The welcome I received here from everyone showed me the sympathy I had inspired: the village was like a large family to me.

Think about it: I was the first foreigner to settle in Taormina, the first to make it his home. The self-esteem of the locals had not yet been shattered by emperors and kings, and I embodied a whole world they didn’t know. The Dukes of San-Stefano, who had a castle close to the surrounding wall, never came, nor did the Princes of Cerami, who owned a convent there. The Dukes of Bronte, descendants of Nelson’s sister, lived on their lands: one of them had not yet built the residence in our village where a back door was planned, the height and width of which were exactly the size and volume of his clandestine love affairs.

Taormina was never so beautiful or so pleasant as when I was its only conquest. There wasn’t a house I didn’t enter, not a table I wasn’t invited to, not a child I didn’t paint. And who knows if anyone would have known my name? They only called me “the baron”: I was received as lord of this place; they treated me as a conqueror, not as a conquest anymore.

On my walks, I always had a real escort. Sometimes we were on the mountains, sometimes we went swimming in the sea. After a few weeks, this delightful climate and this harsh life had made a different man out of me.

0194 dtl

A rather pleasant anecdote relates to this time during which I lost the somewhat frail and languid appearance I had brought with me from the Baltic. Virgilio, who had a sort of passion for me, couldn’t help but feel annoyed by my success with his friends. His character darkened, and he even became almost ill. One day, when he was alone with his mother, he had a fit of tears and told her it was about me. The poor woman was so upset that she suddenly had the strangest idea: rightly explaining her son’s grief as love, she asked him if I wasn’t a woman in disguise. Virgilio stopped crying and started laughing, but his mother, who had probably never had such a powerful idea, wouldn’t give up. In vain he offered the testimony of his friends: she said that perhaps we were all accomplices and that she would only believe her own eyes. Virgilio came running to tell me this strange story, which had made him forget his jealousy. The next day, we were lying on the sand when his mother arrived, pretending to be looking for sea urchins. The women of Taormina rarely went down to the shore, and the boys, whose example I followed, bathed naked. In front of this venerable person, my companions struck a discreet pose. I did the opposite; her suspicions were dispelled, and she no longer doubted either her son’s or my virtue.

[3]

At the beginning of the following year, I was regretfully expelled from the convent, as the monks had been: the town council had seized the opportunity to get rid of it by selling it to a rich citizen of Taormina. In fact, the latter gave me plenty of time to find a new home, and I resolved to buy a house myself. But I will always regret not having had the means to buy this convent. The seven thousand lire that were asked for it would seem derisory today. If I had been able to make this expense, my work would not have been any more important or my life any sweeter; but instead of remaining “the baron”, I would have become the king of Taormina.

Apart from reasons of vanity or glory, it was with sadness that I lost this first asylum. Just as I had never stopped discovering the beauties of the country, I had never stopped discovering those of this convent. The details I had learned about its past had made my stay there even dearer. Although I was a Lutheran, Catholic things never failed to move me and it seemed to me that I tasted in this place the peace of soul, if not of body, that the monks had come there to seek. I had not expected this result and I have noted the movement of repulsion I had felt when such a dwelling had been suggested to me. I guess I could not escape anything that makes up the Sicilian atmosphere, and we know that Catholicism is an essential part of it. In the chapel, was there not even the remains of a saint, or rather a blessed person? It was the Blessed Cherub, whose merits I do not know, but whose name was a worthy counterpart to the Madonna of Graces. A saint of a different stature had also passed through here: Saint Anthony of Padua had meditated in this park and had planted there, with his own hands, a Cyprus tree which can still be seen today.

0198 recto. Nude boy laying on seashore. ca. 1897


What incomparable moments I spent under those trees, alone or in the company of Virgilio! What long daydreams and sweet conversations we had on the terrace that adjoined my bedroom! And if I have spoken of its seaside horizon, I have not yet said what a sublime neighbour the convent was: its high rocky wall, behind the park, was the very same one where the theatre has nestled. From below, you could make out the presence of the building by the levelling of the upper gallery, and I liked to think that the ancient theatre would cast its shadow over the Christian monastery. For you can imagine that, if I was already less Lutheran than Catholic, I was much more pagan than Christian.

Was it the attraction of convents? I left San-Francesco for San Domenico, or at least the area around it. In the square in front of the entrance to this convent, I found a charming little house, which I bought at a good price: the one where I have lived ever since and where I am now writing. Its shape is odd and it has only one floor, under an unevenly pitched roof; as it is quite long, it almost forms, on its own, the back of the quadrangle occupied by the garden.

0320. Boy in the garden. ca. 1898

The garden was my real luxury. Over the years, it became one of the curiosities of Taormina. I turned it into a jumble of shrubs and flowers, giving it the appearance of a miniature Eden. I planted a cypress, like Saint Anthony of Padua, and gave it as companions such classic trees as: a laurel, a pomegranate and a palm. The high boundary walls, on which I placed fragments of columns and amphorae, gave me the impression that the secrets of this paradise would be well defended.

So here I was, face to face with the first convent I had seen on my way from the station on the day I arrived! The convent itself, with its two cloisters, offers a marvellous viewpoint: it overlooks the sea from an even greater height than the one I had just come from. The princes of Cerami, to whom it belonged, eventually turned it into a hotel. I’m sorry it hasn’t stayed as it was: I had to praise elsewhere the absence of the monks, but I would have liked to see them still at San Domenico. They used to run a college there, through which all the noble youth of the island passed. The hotel brought me clients; the college would have brought me models, and perhaps better.

Landscapes appealed to me no less than living creatures. I didn’t know which to prefer, but I soon felt that my career as a painter was in jeopardy. So many beauties defied painting. In this setting, both limited and limitless, I found myself as if in the midst of Venice and Rome. The very excess of my admiration was gradually reducing me to impotence. It was then that another career appeared to me, one that I would never have thought of.

Wanting to provide Virgilio with a means of subsistence, I had him give photography lessons in Catania. This art, which was in its infancy, had piqued the curiosity of my young friend and seemed to him, in a way, a reflection of my own. I had bought him a camera and he photographed the whole village. He worked at my place and it was from him that I in turn learnt the trade that I had made him learn about.

I sent a few photographs to art magazines, where they were well received: they were assuredly the first photographs of Taormina to be published anywhere in the world. I had thought that becoming a photographer would be easy, but as I progressed, I realised that photography was not such an easy art. That’s what drew me more and more to it, and I took more and more images, which didn’t seem unworthy of my new homeland.

I was also the first to spread what has come to be known as “the Sicilian type”: tarantella dancers, little beggars, water carriers, fishermen, boys driving their painted carts.

1087. Five nude boys on the sea shore. ca. 1895 dtl U


One day, I had photographed some village kids playing naked near a boat. Not without trepidation, I sent the photograph to a German magazine. However, to defy my compatriots, I proudly signed it, as if it were a real painting: W. v. Gloeden fecit. I was expecting, if not a refusal, at least a reduced reproduction. What a surprise it was, instead, to see my little fellows at the place of honour! They must have made a good impression there, because orders came in from everywhere “for shots of the same kind”. My path was mapped out: all I had to do was follow it.

Having revealed the beauties of Taormina, I was now going to reveal those of its young inhabitants. I admired the ease with which they took to it; they had no hesitation whatsoever; the habit of bathing naked made nudity familiar to them. Not only did I photograph them at home, but also in places where it would be quite impossible today. I marked all the landscapes of Taormina with their shapes, from the peaks of its mountains to the sand of its shores. I adorned their foreheads, chests and hands with seaweed, flowers and foliage; they wore it all gracefully, like a natural ornament. In fact, they found it as natural to pose in this way as to pose nude on the rocks or in the cloisters.

I even took my models across Sicily: I wanted to illustrate it even more by exposing beautiful bodies everywhere. I used its horizons and monuments to build a monument: that of triumphant youth. This is my Nausicaa! It bears little resemblance to the one Goethe would have written; it is without words, but it is not without poetry.

0188. Naked boy on a staircase. ca. 1890

In this branch of my art, which was to supersede all the others, I did not easily achieve perfection either. How many clichés I destroyed! To have an artistic nude, it is not enough to put flowers on the model’s head or arms. This can be seen from the attempts carried out by my colleagues, as it wasn’t long before I had imitators, right here in Taormina. I must say that I was always frankly amused by them. Their ephebes must have been paid for by an enemy of Taormina or an enemy of ephebes. The strangest thing was that they were my own models and I paid them neither for myself nor against any others: with me, they shared the elegance of their attitudes; as for others, what they displayed was a caricature.

My Italian rivals were quickly discouraged and their plagiarism remained discreet; but there was one German who attributed my know-how to Germanic virtues. What’s more, he was my cousin, and a baron too. His name was Pluschow and he had settled in Rome. After a year of fair competition, he conceded defeat and we divided up the world: it was agreed that he would take the Italian girls and leave the Sicilian boys to me.

As time went on, there were two or three generations of nude photographs. This proves that freedom of morals does not necessarily harm the propagation of the species. When, as is customary when a boy is born, the parents open the windows and shout at the top of their voices in the street: Un maschio! un maschio! - a male! – they at the same time announce a future subject. This secret between Taormina and me is as enduring as our agreement was immediate; it remains a secret, even though my business is a matter of public record. And that’s what earns me a smile from so many people here that they don’t have for anyone else.

2096 Selfportrait in moorish garb. ca. 1890
Self-portrait in Moorish garb by von Gloeden

Most of my models remained quite indifferent to the photographs I took of them. They didn’t seem to know their price, just as they didn’t know that of their beauty. Very few are those who asked me for a few prints. However, it must be said that some of them kept them, as witnessed by the comment made recently, in my presence, by a little boy of five. I was watching a stranger photographing a group of toddlers in a small square, and one of them said gravely to the others: “When I grow up, I’m going to have my picture taken naked, like Grandpa.” I was amused by this tribute, which he was paying to me without knowing it, and then I felt some melancholy: it reminded me of a distant past, a time when the grandfather of today dazzled me with his fifteen years of age. All in all, I felt happy to have created both a gallery of young people and a gallery of ancestors.


Continue to Chapter 4