Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden
September 16, 1856 - February 16, 1931
Wilhelm von Glœden, Baron of the Court of the Hohenzollerns, was born in Schloss Volkshagen, near Wiemar, in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg, a city on the Baltic sea in what is now Germany. His father, Baron Erminio von Glœden, had married the widow of Herr von Raab and had died shortly after his birth.
His mother re-married with Wilhelm Joachim von Hammerstein who was a well-known, and well-to-do, journalist. His stepfather, also a Baron, was also a counselor and friend to Kaiser Wilhelm. Wilhelm von Glœden was thus raised a nobleman, affluent and classically educated in the highest circles of the Prussian elite. But Wilhelm had no interest in politics.
Instead, he gave himself over to art and aesthetics. The study of ancient civilizations was then more popular than at any time since the Renaissance, and Wilhelm became a student of antiquity. After briefly studying art history (1876 - 1877), he turned to the study of painterly composition under Professor C. Gehrts in Weimar, an education he was forced to break off prematurely once diagnosed as suffering from tubercolosis.
Wilhelm claimed to have been an illegitimate child in the family line of the Kaiser, because of which he was persuaded to become an exile from his native land, and for which exile he received a regular stipend from Berlin - on condition that he never return.
In reality, suffering from tuberculosis, at the time one of Europe's great scourges, von Glœden was advised to seek a warmer, drier climate. While recuperating at a Baltic sanatorium, von Glœden became acquainted with Otto Geleng, a man involved in developing the tourist trade of Taormina, Sicily. Geleng persuaded von Glœden to take up residence there in order to fully convalesce from his illness. Wilhelm von Glœden's step-father provided him the means to live in some splendour in Sicily.
He settled in Taormina, a hillside town on the northeast coast of Sicily which at the close of the nineteenth century was a small, impoverished Sicilian town unknown to tourists, to regain his physical and mental health (the psychological distress he experienced as a gay man unable to indulge his erotic fantasies). Although von Glœden originally travelled to Italy for reasons of health, he found there his "paradise on earth", as he himself put it.
In 1876, after arriving in Taormina, not only did health and psyche improve, but von Glœden was able to embark upon his artistic career. From Taormina he traveled often throughout Italy and in Naples would visit his cousin, Wilhelm von Plüschow, a commercial photographer who taught von Glœden photographic techniques and inspired von Glœden to dedicate himself to the craft of his newly discovered photographic hobby.
On the day Wilhelm arrived in Taormina, the son of a donkey driver - a handsome youth of sixteen or seventeen - was assigned to him to act as a guide. Wilhelm kept the boy with him the whole day, and, as fate would have it, for most of the night. Stretched out together on the uppermost tier of the ancient Greek theater, they talked and laughed and watched the brilliant Mediterranean stars above. Later, they lay together in the warm meadows of Monte Ziretto with the sound of summer cicadas singing in the cool of pre-dawn. This was the start of what Wilhelm called his long starry-nighted ecstasy, a delirium of carnal and spiritual rapture.
Taormina sits high above the sea. Originally a Greek outpost, then a Roman possession, Taormina hangs between the sky and the transparent blue Mediterranean with breathtaking panoramas of the rugged coastline. Snow-capped influences of the previous civilizations - the Greek amphitheater and columned temples, the Roman aqueducts still providing water - are everywhere. Above all, there are the people themselves, with their beautiful mixture of Greek, Roman, and Arabic features.
Being a Bohemian at heart, Wilhelm took up quarters in a modest villa with a lovely secluded garden-terrace where he would feed his birds and photograph his models. This terrace often appears in his photos, sometimes with a spring of a fennel tree propped in one corner (or in a Greek urn) for its picturesque effect, often with an animal skin draped over the bench upon which would be seated an artistic nude.
Though ill, Von Glœden retained his immense charm, which attracted to him ordinary people, as well as those closer to his rank and background. Everyone agreed that his company was a pleasure, and he soon was called to happily by the townspeople as Guglielmo, the Italian equivalent of William. He made no attempt to conceal from the citizens of Taormina what he was - a practicing homosexual in a time of strong social intolerance. He believed that human sexuality was to be enjoyed, and made this belief manifest in the way he lived his life.
His life harmed no one. People were never coerced into doing anything that they did not wish to do, and Von Glœden never prescribed sexual conduct for anyone. It is said that whenever a new model appeared uneasy at being photographed, the Baron would strip off his own clothes, don the leopard-skin, and together they would gambol about like young animal pups until the model lost his shyness.
During 1877 - 1878, von Glœden undertook his first photographic attempts, receiving instruction from local photographers. While on an excursion he visited Naples, where he established contact with photographer Wilhelm von Plüschow, a distant relative. Von Plüschow encouraged von Glœden in his ambition to become a serious photographer. Both men shared an interest in nude studies: both envisioned an antique revival via photographic composition. Von Glœden's travels took him, among other places, to North Africa.
Although rumors circulated that other boys in Taormina of whom he took nude photographs also became Glœden's bedfellows, he remained a respectable resident of the small town. The townspeople chose to ignore Wilhelm's midnight orgies, even though they involved their own sons. They loved him as a kind, reliable friend - a giver of employment when money was sorely needed, and one who touched their ordinary lives with the class of rank and intimate graciousness. When a local family had a setback, Wilhelm would often invent some work to be done in order to justify a gift of aid, which would not be otherwise accepted by the proud people.
The Baron in 1878 engaged the services of a fourteen-year-old boy, the handsome Pancrazio Bucini (c. 1864 - c. 1951). A darkskinned lad with large eyes, Wilhelm gave Pancrazio the nickname "Il Moro" (The Moor) because of the Arabic strains in his blood. Il Moro, after being one of his first models, became his assistant.
Wilhelm's affection for il Moro grew rapidly and was returned. The youth tended to Wilhelm's illness: administering medications, bargaining with the townspeople for special restorative foods, preparing the warm salt water baths prescribed by the doctors, and arranging for many local youths to participate in the midnight revels that Wilhelm offered his house guests. Il Moro was not just a servant but a much-loved friend, lover, and ally. He would stay on as Wilhelm's personal assistant for the rest of Wilhelm's life, and became the heir of his photographic legacy. Von Glœden and Bucini were, in a sense, monogamous lovers, for il Moro was still with the Baron when the latter died in 1931.
Wilhelm followed his own private cure which consisted of taking a bath every morning in fresh water mixed with sea water which men had to carry up the mountain for him. He could well afford this because his stepfather was a very rich and powerful man.
Selfportrait - around 1880
Image courtesy of Giovanni dall'Orto
As of 1883 his images began to appear in such important exhibitions as the annual exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society, and that of the London association for artistic photography, "The Linked Ring". From 1895 von Glœden was deprived of his financial inependence when von Hammerstein, his stepfather, lost his fortune. Grand Duke Friedrich III of Mecklenburg-Schwerin came to von Glœden's assistance, presenting him with a large format plate camera.
This encouragement helped von Glœden climb from amateur ranks to establish his career as a professional artist photographer. The period from 1890 to the outbreak of the Great War was the most fruitful of von Glœden's career, accounting for the major proportions of his glass negatives. From 1895, Taormina had become a favourite destination of affluent society.
He secretly provided dowries for daughters of poor families whose potential husbands were young men of whom Wilhelm was fond. He would later establish a system of accounts which provided, "royalties," to the boys who posed for his cameras. The money allowed many young men to start businesses or purchase boats with which to earn a living, or seek an education in the city. Many Taorminese families owe their present level of prosperity to a grandfather or great uncle who modeled for Von Glœden.
In 1889, von Glœden's stepfather, the Baron, had 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, and would have locked him in prison for life had he not been able narrowly to escape capture. He fled to Greece, unable to join Wilhelm in Sicily, since the Kaiser had agents who would seek him out and havve him killed. Wilhelm now found himself with no source of income, his regular remittance cut off by the Kaiser.
Wilhelm considered jouneying to Germany to plead his case, but decided - wisely - that this would be too risky of a venture. He had no choice but to let go of his staff of servants, even Il Moro. But the youth refused to leave. Saying that he had been with Wilhelm in riches, he would now stay with him in poverty.
Von Glœden now had the revelatory experience of learning about the true nature of love and friendship. The wealthy friends who had numerous times accepted and enjoyed Wilhelm's hospitalit simply vanished. But when things were at their worst, when there was no food for them - there would appear a couple of freshly-caught fish, a loaf of home-made bread, a basketful of eggs or vegetables. These were homages from the ordinary peoples of Taormina, who did not forget the generosity and kindness of "Il Barone."
When the political fortunes of his step-father changed, Wilhelm found himself in near-poverty. His sister had come to live with him and with the cut-off of his stipend, the servants were laid off and a lavish lifestyle came crashing to an end. But il Moro, who had first joined the household as a houseboy, remained on, and did odd jobs provided by the townspeople, off the estate, to pay for the needs of his mentor and lover just as Wilhelm had done for them.
His family allowance interrupted, it was time to turn art into business and, on the basis of his fame, Wilhelm was able to begin selling postcards of his photographs, as well as individual prints, to the tourists who continued to arrive.
von Glœden's interest in photography and the propitious of a view camera led him to a career in photography. He began by selling postcards picturing the landscapes and monuments of Sicily as well as portraits of its people. But Wilhelm was not content to photograph the natural scenery. He wanted to capture and share his own private view of heaven with his cultured friends (and fellow homosexuals) around the world. With a clearly defined aesthetic and a sure sense of his own artistry, Von Glœden abandoned scenic postcard photography to become the foremost proponent of a kind of purely pictoral photography which, for its day, was revolutionary.
He began photographing the male nude in the early 1890's. Initially he collaborated with his cousin, von Plüschow often sharing models and props, thus making attribution difficult when researching their early careers.
Wilhelm had a natural painter's eye and had studied art history, and then the craft of painting. It wasn't long before the painter became photographer -- in the early 1880s something exotic and looked down upon as an artistic medium. However the painter made this medium his own and, at first, made memorable -- and saleable -- pictures of the surrounding countryside, including the famous Mount Etna which appears in a number of his later pictures.
But all this was really nothing more than the expressions of a dilettante who, though art was his hobby, turned his social life into an art. The parties, and the generosity Wilhelm was able to spread to the locals, not least of which included the lithe, adolescent peasant boys, quite literally spread the name "Taormina" far and wide. Single-handedly, von Gloeden turned a sleepy paradise into a thriving tourist destination, in particular for homosexual men. It wasn't long before Wilhelm was again thriving and living a lavish existence.
After he lost his allowance, Glœden turned photography into a profession. Many of Glœden's pictures focuses on typical Sicilian peasant scenes - young girls and old men, fishermen, water-carriers and priests, country roads and town squares.
These were turned into postcards and achieved widespread popularity for their engagingly sentimental and charmingly "typical" views of Mediterranean life. Glœden also took hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of Sicilian boys, often in states of partial or complete undress.
He posed his ephebes against Arcadian backgrounds or antique ruins, sometimes clothing them in mock togas or laurel crowns or using such props as small classical staues. His models were robust though poor boys whom Glœden envisioned as the inheritors of classical beauty. None of the photographs portray sexual activities, yet the homoerotic message is strong.
Partly because of Glœden's fame, Taormina became a great tourist resort, attracting such homosexuals as Wilde and Krupp, and a number of other celebrities. Glœden lived a comfortable life, surrounded by the proteges whom he photographied. He established bank accounts for a number of his models, and set other up in business.
It's remarkable that in the Victorian Age von Gloeden's fame spread so rapidly. His images first appeared in magazines and soon galleries throughout Europe began to feature his works. At the close of the nineteenth century, von Glœden's work found swift recognition within the world of photography, his images appearing at important international exhibitions. During 1893 his photographs were published in such trend-setting periodicals as "The Studio" and Velhagen & Klasing's "Kunst für Alle" (Art for everyone).
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