September 16, 1856 – Wilhelm Von Gloeden
Before George Platt Lynes, Horst or Richard Avedon, there was Wilhelm von Gloeden. Quite famous in his own day, his work was mostly forgotten for close to a century, only to rediscovered in the 1970s as the most important gay visual artist of the pre–WW I era.
Von Gloeden was born near Wismar, Germany. His father, a wealthy Baron, died when Von Gloeden was a boy. His mother remarried, also to a Baron, who was a friend to Kaiser Wilhelm II. He gave himself over to art and aesthetics, and the study of ancient civilizations. But, his ability to sketch and paint was impaired by tuberculosis. Still in his early 20s, he was advised by doctors to seek a warmer, drier climate.
In the 19th century, travel for pleasure was the province of the wealthy. Von Gloeden happened to meet Baron Otto Geleng, some years his senior and a fellow painter, who served as mayor Taormina, a town on Sicily’s east coast. The Baron encouraged rich tourists and their money to visit the poor town. With Von Gloeden’s wealth and freedom, he was off to a place which, except for a short time during WW I, he would never leave.
Originally a Greek outpost, then a Roman fort, Taormina hangs between the sky and the Mediterranean with breathtaking views of the rugged coastline. A Greek amphitheater and columned temples, Roman aqueducts still providing water are everywhere. The people are a beautiful mixture of Greek, Roman, and Arab.
Von Gloeden purchased a villa and hired a staff to run it. Young Pancrazio Bucini was chosen to be the houseboy. Dark skinned with large eyes, Von Gloeden gave Pancrazio the nickname “Il Moro”, the Moor. His affection for Il Moro grew rapidly and was returned. The youth tended to Von Gloeden’s illness and arranged for other local youths to join in the late-night parties that Von Gloeden offered his house guests. Il Moro stayed on as Von Gloeden’s personal assistant for the rest of Von Gloeden’s life.
Von Gloeden made no attempt to conceal his gayness from the citizens of Taormina in a time of strong societal intolerance. The townspeople chose to ignore his midnight parties, even though they involved their own sons. They loved him as a kind, reliable friend.
A few years later, Von Gloeden’s stepfather, the Baron, angered the Kaiser by printing an account of a secret meeting with foreign officials. The state confiscated the Baron’s estate and all his possessions. Von Gloeden found himself with no source of income. He had no choice but to let go of his staff, including Il Moro. Yet, the youth refused to leave, saying that he had been with Von Gloeden in riches, he would now stay with him in poverty.
His wealthy friends who had accepted and enjoyed Von Gloeden’s hospitality vanished. The people of Taormina did not forget the generosity and kindness of Von Gloeden and provided him with food and wine.
Around this time, Von Gloeden’s boyhood friend Duke Friedrich Franz began sending money secretly (to do so openly would be dangerous). The Duke requested that Von Gloeden send sketches, paintings, and photographs of the beautiful island as payment. He then sent an immense view camera from Berlin.
Von Gloeden began photographing every example of antiquity and every scenic viewpoint, with Il Moro at his side to carry the heavy equipment and to help run the darkroom and laboratory.
For the public at that time, photography was entirely new. Von Gloeden’s compositional formality perfectly conveyed even in postcard size led to the sale of prints by the thousands around the world. People all over Europe used Von Gloeden’s photographs to learn more about the ancient world, and his pictures were sold in London and New York. Photography sales provided Von Gloeden with the money to resume his lifestyle.
He provided “royalties” to the young men who posed for his camera. The money allowed them to start businesses or purchase boats to earn a living or seek an education in the city. Many families in Taormina owe their prosperity to a grandfather who modeled for Von Gloeden.
Besides his scenic postcards, Von Gloeden produced purely pictorial photography which, for its day, was revolutionary. By 1887, people began buying large prints to hang in their homes.
Von Gloeden shot the town square, the large terraces overhanging the sea, gardens, convent and monastery courtyards, using props and locations that created a mood of Greek antiquity. Beautifully composed, Von Gloeden’s photographs transformed working-class youths into images of antique legend. Many of his photographs were of two or more boys. Some photos showed girls who were, in fact, boys dressed as girls. The pictures with explicit nudity were intended only for Von Gloeden’s gay friends, while the “classical Greek” postcards were intended for sale to tourists. These were enormously popular and became famous worldwide. American painter Maxfield Parrish owned many Von Gloedens and his own paintings strongly show Von Gloeden’s influence.
Von Gloeden became famous and wealthy from his work, for which he initially had no desire nor hope of profit.
Many of the world’s best photographers were attracted to his work, requesting to learn his techniques. He pioneered the use of filters and of transparent colors brushed directly onto photographs, which subtly altered the tonalities and intensities of the finished print. Assistants who doubled as models were hired and were supervised by Il Moro.
By the turn of the century, his prints were seen in all over our pretty planet. It became chic for famous and wealthy travelers to have a photo taken by Von Gloeden, including King Edward VII of England, who carried Von Gloeden’s nude photos back home in his diplomatic pouch, King Alphonse of Spain, composer Richard Strauss, and Oscar Wilde. Alexander Graham Bell brought home examples of Von Gloeden’s work for the newly formed National Geographic Society to be published in their magazine.
Gay German industrialist Frederich Alfred Krupp purchased large quantities of Von Gloeden’s prints. He attempted to recreate Von Gloeden’s paradise on Capri, but was soon the subject of a gay scandal back in Germany which threatened to take his entire industrial empire with it. Krupp did what was the required thing for his time and situation: he shot himself. Von Gloeden was fortunate to remain socially accepted, artistically respected, and sexually active for the remaining years of his life.
In 1914, WW I began, and Italy joined the allies in the war against Germany, and Von Gloeden was listed as an enemy alien. Il Moro was now too old to fight but was posted near Taormina as a lookout. He was able to keep an eye on the villa and maintain the photography studio.
When the war ended, Von Gloeden returned to Taormina, but many of his young models had been killed in combat.
There was more political upheaval. Mussolini rose to power in 1926. Von Gloeden continued to photograph until 1930, the year before his death. He is buried on the grounds of his villa.
In the will, Il Moro received all Von Gloeden’s 3,000 negative glass plates, representing more than a quarter century of work and he guarded them fiercely. They remained in trunks, chests, and cabinets un-reproduced.
In 1936, Mussolini’s fascist government, with the aid of the Catholic Church, began a vice campaign. The police raided Il Moro’s home. He pleaded with the fascists not to damage the fragile glass plates, but over 1,000 of the negatives were smashed. Those not destroyed were carried away as evidence. Il Moro was jailed again because of his association with Von Gloeden. This time he was charged with the possession of pornography.
Il Moro was now in his 50s, a simple man with no formal education. Yet, he was able to turn his defense against the charges of pornography into a defense of Wilhelm Von Gloeden and of his life and his art. He told the court that it was not within its competence to judge works of art. He listed the names of collectors: museums, critics, kings, industrialists and institutions including the Italian Ministry of Education, who owned Von Gloeden’s work. The judges let him off. Just one year later, after a purge of liberal judges, Il Moro would probably have spent the rest of his life in prison, and the world would have been deprived of most of Von Gloeden’s photographs.
The plates that had not been destroyed were safely hidden by local families, priests, and schools until the end of the WW II. When the collection was finally reassembled, it was found that of the more than 3,000 plates, less than a third survived.
Il Moro lived quietly in Taormina until his death in 1963. The glass plates were largely forgotten. After the war, laws in Italy and Germany, remnants of their former fascist governments, outlawed nudity in photography.
Von Gloeden prints were sold out of the back rooms of art galleries and bookshops. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, laws were changed to allow the purchase of pictorial nudity. Von Gloeden’s work was rediscovered and reprinted, His art is once again accepted and admired as it was during his own lifetime.