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July 6th
2017

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Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden
September 16, 1856 - February 16, 1931

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By 1893, the artist's fame had won him awards in Europe, not only for his work as landscape photographer, but for his stagings of classical settings and even for his growing interest in nude photography which was almost exclusively focused on adolescent males. A cousin, Wilhelm (Guglielmo) Plüschow, as it turns out, was also in Italy, also working as a photographer and soon the two Wilhelms were co-producing nude male pictures.

During the 1890s, none other than Kaiser Wilhelm himself was wont to voyage to Sicily, where he would anchor the Imperial Yacht in the picturesque bay or Taormina, perforce to sleep with one or the other of the Baron's boys. Von Glœden's nudes were avidly collected. Their suggestion of ancient places, use of artifacts and classic compositions helped to divert or at least excuse their sexual impact. In 1898 von Glœden became a corresponding member of Berlin's "Freie Photographische Vereinigung" (Free Fotographic Society).

The "Baron of Taormina" cultivated friendships with prominent and popular personalities of the fin de siècle. Mr and Mrs Alexander Graham Bell visited von Glœden in 1898, and came away the proud possessors of several of his photos of native Sicilians, which they graciously presented to the National Geographic Society for its magazine (which thence contained two or three shots of semi-clad boys, up through recent times), and were published in the October 1916 edition, in an article entitled Italy - The Gifted Mother of Civilization.

By 1900, Wilhelm's Taormina estate had been visited by a number of world celebrities, not least of which were Oscar Wilde, who dropped by for a chat (and a look) upon his release from prison, and humbly presented the master with a signed copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. By now the stream of house guests had become almost overwhelming.

Hundreds of famous people signed Wilhelm's guest book, including Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia, King Alphonse of Spain, the stern Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II (the same monarch who had persecuted the unfortunate Baron von Hammertein) and the gentle King of Siam Paramandra Maha Chulalongkorn. King Edward VII of England (who carried Von Glœden's nude photos back to the U.K. in his diplomatic pouch) stayed at the von Gloeden estate.

André Gide came to stay for a while penning his famous The Immoralist inspired by his stay at resort town. Also the well-known bankers and industrialists as Rothschild, Stönnes, Morgan, and Vanderbilt were amongst his guests, as were composer Richard Strauss, celebrated French author Anatole France. Other of the Baron's renowned guests are said to include Rudyard Kipling, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Eleanora Duse, and Guglielmo Marconi.

German industrialist and munitions manufacturer Frederich Alfred Krupp, was a frequent visitor and he purchased large quantities of Von Glœden's works, but was soon the subject of a vicious scandal back in Germany. The scandal threatened to topple the House of Krupp, taking his entire industrial empire with it. Krupp did what was the required thing for his time and situation: he put a bullet through his brain.

von Gloeden as ArabianFortunately, while a homosexual scandal hit his cousin Plüschow, forcing him to return to Germany, von Glœden was adored by, and ultimately protected by, the locals. Von Glœden was fortunate to remain socially accepted, artistically respected, and sexually active for the remaining years of his life. And nothing stopped the prolific photographer from creating, and distributing, image after image of male models, scantily clad and, more often unclad - except for props such as sashes, flowers, leaves weaved into the hair, ancient columns, urns, and other paraphernalia evoking antiquity.

Von Glœden's photographs (about 80 percent of which were of lightly-clad or unclad boylimbs) were circulated not merely among the extensive coterie of the "Uranian School" of homosexual poets, but in many of the "physique and health" magazines spawned by the German Korperkulture (physical health/naturalism/nudism) and Wandervogel (boy scouts/hiking) movements. His more carefully draped studies were regularly reprinted in hundreds of travel magazines and brochures advertising the joys of a Mediterranean holiday, and was even noted in Baedeker. The British concept of what constitutes "the romantic Mediterranean" was invented by von Glœden.

By the turn of the century, poets and actors, painters and famous society figures flocked to Taormina, making it a must on their grand Italian tours. After touring the city's charming Ancient Greek theatre, the travellers would pay a visit to von Glœden at his studio, purchasing his pagan Illustrations of Theocritus and Homer - as von Glœden called his photographs - images which were mounted in travel albums alongside the architectural studies of Fratelli Alinari of Florence, and the Neapolitan folk portraits of Giorgio Sommer, a Frankfurt-born photographer living and working in Naples.

Even the explicit nude photos were accepted and often cherished by the ordinary townspeople of Taormina whose songs and brothers were their subjects. Likewise Von Glœden's wealthy and educated friends could not keep secret the beauty of his Greek vision. They spread the word and Von Glœden found himself becoming famous and wealthy once again from his work, for which he initially had no desire nor hope of profit.

Von Glœden's photo labroratory became busier and busier. Many of the world's famous photographers were attracted to him - requesting to learn new techniques. Around this time, Von Glœden developed an emulsion of milk, olive oil, glycerin, and scent which he used on the models to give their skin a soft, even glow. He pioneered the field of filters and of transparent colors brushed directly onto the photographs which subtly altered the tonalities and intensities of the finished print. Many more assistants (who doubled as models) were hired and were supervised by Il Moro, Wilhelm's co-worker and life-long companion.

In 1911 von Glœden was awarded a medal in recognition of his valuable assistance in helping Taormina become a favourite tourist destination.

1914 saw the outburst of World War I, and in 1915 Italy joined the Allies in the war against Prussia, and so Von Gloden and his sister Sofia were classified as enemy aliens. Their options were to remain in Italy in a detention camp or return to Germany for the duration of the war. Wilhelm, already in his late fifties, would have preferred to stay in Italy but could not bear the thought of his sister in the harsh environment of a camp. As German citizens, von Glœden and his sister were thus forced to leave Taormina. Wilhelm von Glœden did not live in Taormina from 1915-18; his place of residence in Germany during the war is unknown.

Happily von Glœden had a fantastic "right hand man" who helped him for the choice of all his models. This was his studio assistant, Pancrazio Bucini, "il Moro". Therefore the home and studio were left in the care of his model, lover and friend il Moro until his return in 1918. Il Moro, for his part, was always up to any task required of him, even in the most complicated of circumstances.

Il Moro was conscripted into the Italian Army. It was by sheer good fortune that he, who was at the oldest end of the conscription range, was sent not to fight but was posted on the slopes of his home town, Taormina, with a coastal artillery unit. He was able to keep an eye on the villa, maintain the photo studio, and even see to it that the many pets were fed by the local boys too young to be sent off to war. Wilhelm and Il Moro were able to communicate, although dangerously, with the aid of a Swiss friend who was forced to return home. Since letters to an enemy state were not allowed, Wilhelm mailed letters to Switzerland, a neutral country. These letters were then re-addressed and mailed to Il Moro.

The system worked well for most of the war, and news of mutual friends, expressions of affection, and Wilhelm's longing and homesickness passed back and forth. The letters were devoid of any political or military information, but when some were opened in a routine postal check, officials were alarmed. Il Moro wrote about his house and the animals and the letters were full of strange details about the conduct of "the crow", of "the dove" and of "the may-bug", all the models were referred to only by first names... thus, as one can well imagine, embroidered on it: naturally it was a case of an espionage network.

They arrested Il Moro on charges of treason, with the firing squad a real possibility. The young man was imprisioned for three months and was subjected to brutal interrogations, during which time the wretched fellow was continually threatened with shooting if he did not reveal the true identity of these "cover names", faced court-martial as a spy, charged with consorting with the enemy. But a silver-tongue - which would come in handy years later - convinced his superiors that Bucini was a loyal Sicilian.

Wilhelm was uncertain of his fate the whole time. Il Moro steadfastly maintained his innocence, and eventually proved it to the satisfaction of the miltary officials. He was eventually formally exonerated of all charges, returned to duty with his artillery company and, amazingly, was allowed to resume his correspondence with Wilhelm. After a three-month gap, the correspondence between the lifelong partners resumed till the end of the war. Von Glœden and Sofia returned to Taormina after the Peace Treaty of 1919 without delay.

Il Moro and everything was ready - flowers, fruit and wine on the tables, and the studio ready for work. Through tears of joy, Wilhelm saw the faces of the boys he loved. But he also saw that some were missing. Later that first day, Wilhelm retired alone to the locked studio to pore over his many photographs of the youths he would never see again. Throughout the night, some residents of the village reported hearing erratic sobs coming from the locked studio. Wilhelm later told and English friend that the joy and pain he experienced on that first day of his return had been almost beyond bearing.

The years after the war were prosperous and comfortable. The fame of this Baron from Taormina continued to attract admirers from all over the world. The villa and the studio were constantly active - Sofia was at Wilhelm's one side, and Il Moro was at his other. The secret nighttime revels were revived. Although political upheaval was in the air again, the news reports seldom affected Taormina. Mussolini rose to power in 1926, but fortunately the changing political situation never interfered with Wilhelm's final years. During 1929 a fateful alliance between the Vatican and Italy's fascist government was formed. Von Glœden never realized this "alliance" would later be responsible for the destruction and suppression of what remained of his life's work.

von Gloeden as ArabianThen in his seventies, Wilhelm was beginning to slow down. He continued to photograph until 1930, the year before his death. Sofia died just three months before Wilhelm. They were buried side by side in the local protestant cemetery, surrounded by the land they loved. Pancrazio Bucini (Il Moro) was named as Wilhelm's inheritor. He received all the personal possessions and some 3,000 negative glass plates, representing more than a quarter century of work. Il Moro had no thought of exploiting the potential financial treasure. People still sought out photos, but for Il Moro, they were a personal rememberance, and he guarded their safety fiercely. They remained in trunks, chests, and cabinets of his humble lodgings - unreproduced. They were a tangible link between Wilhelm and his own life.

Bucini, who had married and had children, inherited the estate and the vast picture collection and the surviving masters. During 1929 a fateful alliance between the Vatican and Italy's fascist government had been formed. In 1933 some 1000 glass negatives and 2000 prints were confiscated and destroyed by Italian Fascist police.

In 1936, Mussolini's fascist government, with the aid of the Catholic church, began a vice campaign. When the Fascists entered Taormina in 1936, the police raided Il Moro's home, pounding at the door in the night with no warrant or warning. He pleaded with the fascists not to damage the fragile glass plates, but over 1,000 of the irreplaceable negatives were smashed before him as he wept. Those not destroyed outright were roughly thrown into crates and carried away as evidence. Many more were destroyed in the process. Il Moro was accused of "keeping pornography" and once again taken off to jail because of his association with Von Gloden.

Il Moro was now in his fifties, a simple man with no formal education. Yet he was intelligent and possessed considerable knowledge of the world owing to his lifelong relationship with Von Glœden and his friends. He was capable of turning his defense against the chargest of pornography into an astonishing defense of the memory of Wilhelm Von Glœden, and of his life and his art. This simple man risked contempt of court in a potentially hostile tribunal in the midst of fascist insanity. In a passionate plea before the judges, he told the court that it was not within its competence to judge works of art of any kind. As evidence of the error of the charge of pornography, he listed countless names of collectors: museums, critics, kinds, industrialists and institutions - including the Italian Ministry of Education! Il Moro finished his impassioned statement, and then rested his otherwise undefended case.

Miraculously, the judges concurred! Had the trial occured just one year later, after a purge of liberal judges, Il Moro would likely have spent the remaining years of his life in prison, and the word would have been deprived of most of Von Glœden's photographs. The verdict could not, unfortunately, save the plates which had already been destroyed. The remaining plates - less than half of the original number - were distributed among and safely hidden by local families, priests, and scholarly institutions until the end of World War II. In the course of these moves, many plates were lost. When the collection was finally reassembled, it was found that of the more than 3,000 plates (given to Il Moro), less than a third survived. Several hundred are still preserved by Bucini's own heirs in Taormina today.

Other confiscations occurred between the years 1939 and 1941. In the legal action which ensued, Bucini was charged with contributing to the dissemination of pornography, but found not guilty.

Pancrazio Bucini passed away in the 1950s but his descendants remain in Taormina to this day. The remnants of von Glœden work, some 800 glass negatives and 200 albumen prints, were transferred to the photographic archives of Lucio Amelio in Naples.

It's difficult to estimate the exact output but a commonly held figure is around 7000 pictures. Of the 3000 glass masters and negatives seized by the authorities in the mid-30s, only 25% were returned intact. Substantial collections reside in the hands of the Florence firm Alinari; the Kinsey Institute claims 250; and smaller collections are prized by institutions and independent collectors. Currently, shows travel on all continents and still, occasionally, provoke controversy.

Even after the war, laws in Italy and Germany, remnants of the former fascist governments, forbade nudity in photography. Under the pressure of the Catholic Chruch and the right wing, these laws were allowed to remain on the books. The ban on buying and selling such photographic work assured an ongoing suppression of Von Glœden's vision. But it did not suppress the desire of informed collectors. Von Glœden prints were sold out of the back rooms of art galleries and book shops, much as liquor was sold in the U.S. during the years of Prohibition.

But finally, legal challenges in the late 1960s and early 1970s allowed the purchase of pictorial nudity and other so-called pornographic materials. Von Glœden's work has been slowly reprinted, and is now readily available throughout the West (including the U.S.). Von Glœden's art is once against accepted and admired as it was during his own lifetime.

The last surviving boy model who exposed himself to the great photographer's lens, died in 1977, at the age of 87. It is accepted that all of the models were photographed willingly and many were paid handsomely in royalties, their descendants continuing to prosper as a result today. No harm was done then; how can there be any harm done by showing the images, savouring the male beauty, and reliving, however briefly, the halcyon heaven von Glœden created for himself, his friends and lovers on the romantic seaside in the heart of the ancient world.

As we have seen, many of Glœden's photographic plates were destroyed by the fascist authorities as being obscene, but it is not only Italian fascists who are against von Glœden's art...

A 1999 showing in Australia by the Martin Browne Fine Art gallery of Sydney was visited by the police after complaints by the Rev. Fred Niles that the images constituted child abuse and pornography! But the exhibition was not closed.

Today, anyone who visits the Sicilian tourist resort of Taormina and picks through the stands of the "cartoleria", the local postcard merchants and souvenir traders - for instance stopping by the venerable firm of the Malambri Brothers - may come across some sepia-toned postcards, and some very good books still celebrating the little that remains of von Glœden's art.

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NOTE: Most of the pictures by Gloeden that were signed and numbered by him (or his assistants) with a typical blue pencil do not exceed number 3,000. Numbers exceeding 3,000 are therefore, normally, reprints (mostly scriblled in grey, plain pencil), and include reprints printed before and after World War II by his heir Pancrazio Buciuný dubbed "il Moro" (who stuck to old albumine printing for a while before converting to silverprint), which sometimes are also marked BP, or B.

Other numberings might have been added by distributors, both in Italy and abroad, and reflect the distributor's catalogue numbering, not Gloeden's.

Eventually, other numberings simply reflect catalogue numbers of recent reprints, not from negatives but from positives. Since in online auctions very often sellers do not disclose whether there is a "blue" or a "grey" number, some confusion may have arisen in the online catalogue (at Wikimedia), which will have to be corrected in the future.
(Text by Giovanni Dall'Orto)

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We have to express our thanks to Mr. Giovanni Dall'Orto - Several of the images and data we have collected come from his work, and he kindly helped us to correct some mistakes we did while gathering our collection.
Please, visit his website, and his work published on Wikimedia at the following addresses:
http://www.giovannidallorto.com - (in Italian)
http://commons.wikimedia.org - with the images ordered by their catalog number.

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