It was called the “white sore”, cloaking it in romanticism, and it was said that it affected people with a pure soul. As a matter of fact, tuberculosis was a really bad disease and, if it caught you, there was a real chance of dying.

Thus, in the nineteenth century, patients with tuberculosis who could afford it, fled from Northern Europe and its unhealthy humidity to take refuge in the south. It was in this way that Wilhelm von Gloeden arrived in Italy in 1878.

Wilhelm Von Gloeden in 1891
From Naples to Taormina

First stop Naples, where his cousin Wilhelm von Plüschow, lived. He was a thin and elegant man who called himself Guglielmo, loved good Italian wine and had a photographic studio. Here, together with his assistant – lover Vincenzo Galdi, a handsome and mustachioed young man, he developed his photos of masculine nudes framed in Neapolitan landscapes. Wilhelm learned the first photographic techniques from him, and surely found the photos interesting, but still he considered himself as a painter. After a few weeks, he left for Taormina, invited by a colleague, Otto Geleng.

The ancient theatre of Taormina in a photo by Von Gloeden
Otto Geleng and the invention of Taormina

Geleng had settled in Taormina as early as 1864 and had devoted himself to the creation of Sicilian-themed paintings: Snow-capped Etna, long coasts bathed by the sparkling sea, flowering almond trees, all the repertoire that today we define “classic Sicilian” but which, a century and a half ago, was practically unpublished. So much so that when Geleng presented his works in Germany, some of his colleagues accused him of having invented those landscapes from scratch. The trip that Geleng organized for those skeptical artists can be considered a real “educational” ante litteram.

Taormina in a picture by Giovanni Crupi. In the centre, the Hotel Timeo

The party settled in the simple house of Francesco La Floresta, a man not devoid of business sense who, in a short time, realized the profitable usefulness of creating adequate accommodation for the foreigners. In 1874, he laid the foundations for the Timeo Hotel, still one of the most beautiful hotels in Taormina.

A house in Taormina

But let’s go back to young Wilhelm. He immediately liked Taormina, with the tiny stone houses, the vestiges of antiquities, the views. Furthermore, the climate was perfect for treating his illness and, most of all, the atmosphere of the small Sicilian town was relaxed and tolerant. His homosexuality did not seem to make any impression on anyone. So he decided to stop and devote himself to the same landscape painting that had brought fame to Geleng.

He bought a small house, set up a studio and began painting with oils and watercolors. He was selling something too, but he wasn’t satisfied. Albeit the learned skills, he did not feel able to capture the light of Taormina. One day he remembered the photographic art practiced by his cousin: perhaps with it he could finally create images at the height of his imagination.

A postcard with a photo of Isola Bella shot by Wilhelm Von Gloeden

He turned to Giuseppe Bruno, an engineer from Taormina who had set up a pioneering photographic studio in the town, and with him he improved his knowledge of this art. He photographed landscapes, the people of Taormina and its surroundings, experimented with lights, filters, impression techniques, and finally printed the images in postcard format and sent them all over Europe.

Like Otto Geleng’s paintings, the images of young Wilhelm also aroused great curiosity and many decided to come to Sicily. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century the foundations were laid for Sicilian tourism, and Von Gloeden was in fact one of the protagonists of the birth of interest in the island. Especially after he began to include young boys from Taormina in his landscapes.

The island of the Arcadian ideal

Von Gloeden’s male nudes are very famous. The subjects are Sicilian boys, whom Wilhelm asked to undress and pose as ancient shepherds, or re-proposing the scenes of famous paintings (he loved Poussin very much) or the laying of a statue. Naked or barely covered with a cloth, crowned with leaves and flowers, surrounded by ancient ruins and Mediterranean plants, the boys seemed to arrive in the nineteenth century directly from Arcadia, a mythical place of pastoral serenity which, in Sicily, became real.

After seeing Wilhelm von Gloeden’s photos, a large number of travelers arrived in Sicily, attracted by the magic of a legendary world that took real shape: DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Eleonora Duse, Anatole France, Richard Strauss are just some of them.

From fame to destruction

Wilhelm Von Gloeden left Taormina only during the years of the First World War, but returned there in 1919, and remained in Sicily until his death in 1931. His sister Sofia lived with him in the house in Taormina. She was entrusted with the household management and the custody of the “golden book”, a booklet in which all those who visited the house were invited to write a thought and a signature.

It would have been interesting to see it, but the book (if it ever existed) was destroyed. After Wilhelm’s death, the more than three thousand photographic plates were inherited by his handyman assistant Pancrazio “il Moro” Buciunì. In 1936 the fascist police broke into his house, seized and destroyed what was considered child pornography.

Von Gloeden’s work regained its dignity in the Seventies. Today he is considered one of the masters of photography.