From time to time a moment of artistic ferment burgeons in a place so
remote and unlikely that the phenomenon can only be regarded as - well
- surprising. Such a place was Taormina, Sicily at the turn of the 19th/20th
centuries where an outburst of artistic enterprise resulted in the production
of one of the most astonishing bodies of art photography ever created.
It was the work of a singular, obsessed talent; the German baron, Wilhelm
Von Gloeden (1856 - 1931).
The modern viewer might easily think of Von Gloeden as idiosyncratically
apart from his contemporaries - separate - in a sense alone, labouring
on Monte Tauro (in love with the youths and young men who were his models
and helpers to be sure) yet somehow merely an eccentric, isolated fluke
of photographic history. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
Von Gloeden was responsible in a very fundamental way for the establishment
of the social, psychological and artistic support which grew up around
him. He did not operate in a vacuum of remote isolation, but imbibed the
very real presence of a variegated, "art prone" society which
he had been instrumental in attracting to the wild Coast of Messina.
In Risorgimento Italy, Taormina was a virtually unknown (except to historians
of Ancient Greece) backwater in a Sicily that was still largely inaccessible
but for the necklace of railroad put down by Garibaldi and Cavour along
the island's coast. From the 1880's, when another German resident, Otto
Geleng, and Wilhelm Von Gloeden began to beckon many wealthy and aristocratic
Europeans, until the 1930's - when an older era came to its final, unhappy
end - there was a steady evolution which turned that theretofore unknown
little town into one of the truly grand tourist resorts of the world.
Coupled with this evolution and substantially contributing to it was a
fact never openly acknowledged, although everyone in Taormina knew all
about it. The fact was that many, indeed the majority of the well-to-do
foreigners who established permanent residences there, with the construction
of beautiful villas or the conversion of wonderful medieval buildings,
were homosexual men and not a few of them were artists; mostly gifted
dilettantes or serious amateurs of the arts.
Very often their first awareness of Taormina was the sight of a Von Gloeden
photograph. At the "fin de siecle" Taormina had already become
a place where homosexual men of the late Victorian era found, and would
continue to find, a hospitable and privileged atmosphere into and through
the Edwardian era and "The Jazz Age."
Situated on one of the most beautiful sites in the world and filled with
the monumental remains of nearly 3000 years of Western civilisation, the
place satisfied every aesthetic and romantic notion of the period. Siculs,
Ancient Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans - all had lived there and left
their mark, - and their bloodlines. It was in great measure because of
that happy Mediterranean mix - with its (to the Northerners) exotically
realistic and pragmatic sexual attitudes - that more northerly peoples
were so rapturously divested by their first encounters with the youth
and young men of the region. Unlike the Catholicism of the north, Sicilians
and southern Italians still retained, however unconsciously, a great sum
of pure Paganism in their traditions and attitudes. To men from north
of the Alps the Sicilians seemed blessedly free of the sexual Puritanism,
both Catholic and Protestant, so assiduously promoted in the 19th century.
The frequent homosexual liaisons - however driven by the usually combustible
combination of sexuality and money (the foreigners were generally rich
- the Sicilians generally poor) at their inception - regularly involved
long term emotional imperatives.
A discernible pattern for such relationships developed early on. Many-a-young-man
who consorted intimately with a foreign gentleman retained a special relationship
with that man until his dying day. And yet, other aspects of life went
on as usual. With very few notable exceptions the most common scenario
was of a young Sicilian developing an intimate attachment to a foreign
"gentleman," eventually marrying and raising a family (always
with significant assistance from the older friend) but never abandoning
a special relationship with that friend. If it finally ended in sexual
and monetary terms it rarely broke ties that bound them in what can only
be called a familial sense. And yet, the relationship always retained
something "special," clearly "different," and surprisingly
widely known. It was just not talked about by the Sicilians. Indeed that
rule of silence on the subject still obtains in Sicily at the end of the
The most vivid example we have of such a liaison, and one of the earliest,
is that of Von Gloeden and a Sicilian youth. Soon after he arrived in
Taormina Von Gloeden took an adolescent house-boy into his home and into
his bed. He called him "Il Moro." It was the beginning of a
relationship of passionate commitment that far outlasted any direct sexual
involvement and was indeed to last as long as both of them lived. This
reality was in no way lessened by Von Gloeden's frequent sexual adventures,
nor by Il Moro's eventual marriage, - a marriage which lasted for life
and was locally reckoned to be a decent and happy one. When Il Moro died
in the 1950's he was a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather,
and yet, still quietly regarded by many as Wilhelm Von Gloeden's "lover."
The beginning of their relationship was indeed the harbinger of a way
of life which was to transform Taormina. From the late 19th century onward
there developed not only an international enthusiasm for Gloeden's work,
but also a "local" foreign colony congenial to and supportive
of his amazing visual effort. The fact that his work was fraught with
a barely hidden element of "scandal" - signified and magnified
by the mere thought of male nudity in the Victorian work - added a special
"frission" to the acquisition of his prints. It is safe to say
that virtually no person of any importance or celebrity who visited Taormina
from the last years of the 19th century until 1931 ever failed to spend
time with the baron in his studio sales room or in his private quarters.
The attentions of this rich, mobile and sophisticated public not only
sustained him materially but also sustained his "amour propre"
as a photographic artist. Of equal importance to his international recognition
was the permanently resident community of foreigners for whose presence
on the island he was, in effect, initially responsible. It was Von Gloeden's
visual Arcadia which had originally attracted them.
Of essential importance in this mosaic of personalities was the fact that
many of them were artists in their own right who functioned in a milieu
which took for granted that, along with "love" (of whatever
kind) "art" was the real work of life.
There was also, to be sure, a small, worldly colony of foreign heterosexuals
- (a community which was to become enormous after the Second World War)
- whose lives were intertwined with those of the "gay" residents
and also, through love affairs and marriages, with the local Taorminese.
Both parts of the foreign community had much in common in that they were,
for the most part, of the same silken fabric of privilege, education and,
in many instances, artistic accomplishment or patronage. Some were writers.
Their presence lent glamour, prestige and a vast sum of passionate devotion
to a small town in Sicily which they all deemed to be an earthly paradise.
A brief glimpse of just three of the many extraordinary
foreigners who were Von Gloeden's friends and neighbours in Taormina is
both instructive and fascinating.
The first important arrival who came to stay - and certainly the best
painter of the many artists who followed - was a young Englishman; Robert
Hawthorn Kitson. Born in Leeds in 1873, he was far and away the most elegant,
cultivated and intellectual personality to settle in Taormina after Von
Kitson was the Scion of a distinguished English family which became immensely
wealthy as a result of establishing the first commercial railway in the
world (London to Birmingham) thereby becoming the parent company of all
railway systems for some years to come. He first visited Taormina in 1898
at the age of 26 when his family "adventured" around Sicily
by the coastal railroad. When they stopped off in Taormina he secretly
visited Von Gloeden's studio every chance he had to steal away from his
relatives. Like Gloeden before him, he knew at once that he had found
his place of destiny. He went back to England only to make arrangements
to transfer his life to Sicily forever and before the end of 1898 he was
steeled into a rented house. By 1905 he had embarked on the construction
of Casa Cuseni, a large Italianate villa of exceptional beauty and situation.
Robert Kitson knew he was homosexual very early on and determined not
to let that fact damage his life. He was in the fortunate position of
being able to - much as Von Gloeden - create his own world. As a painter
of genuine ability he was very much fulfilled as a creative artist and
was known to be absolutely serious about his work and greatly disciplined.
But Kitson's paintings were not his only legacy to Taormina.
As a young art student in Leeds he had a brief, romantic liaison with
an artist named Frank Brangwyn, - later to become Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867
- 1956) The affair, though short-lived, resulted in a life-long friendship.
Brangwyn was to become a highly successful painter and designer not only
in Britain, but on the continent and in America as well. (His last major
commission was the painting of some of the murals in the RCA building
in Rockefeller Centre in New York in 1933.) It was, then, a happy collaboration
which brought Brangwyn to Taormina in 1906 at Kitson's urgent invitation.
Robert Kitson, although a man of enormous classical appreciations, was
also keenly interested in the best that modern design and decoration had
to offer. At just about the time Kitson was creating the beauties of Casa
Cuseni and its large gardens Brangwyn was totally engaged with the movement
that proposed that professional artists were the right people to design
furniture, fabrics, carpet, woodwork, metalwork, glass, mosaic, and so
on. Kitson brought his old friend to Taormina to execute his dining room
as a "complete work of art" and gave him carte blanche. Because
of this undertaking and many others elsewhere in Europe, by 1914 Brangwyn
was regarded as highly for his design and decoration as he was for his
painting. And so, to this day, not withstanding the effects of time and
loss, Taormina's Casa Cuseni houses - albeit fragmentary - a complex of
furniture, paintings, and object de vertu by one of the foremost designers
of the early 20th century.
During this same period Von Gloeden was romantically recording the youthful
beauty of Kitson's handsome Taorminese lover in portraits and nudes and
Brangwyn is known to have painted him during his visit in 1906. Indeed,
at least one rare print of Carlo, in the nude, with his arm draped over
what is almost certainly a Brangwyn painting of him still exists. Nearly
all others were lost when Mussolini's fascists, in intimate cooperation
with agents of the Vatican, destroyed countless hundreds of prints and
over 80% of Gloeden's precious glass plates thus obliterating the images
Carlos's special friendship with Kitson lasted for as long as both men
lived and Kitson became an additional "grandfather" to his children.
Carlos's descendants live in Taormina to this day, prosperous and respected
Kitson is also remembered in Taormina for more mundane but decidedly pleasant
innovations. For example, he built the first private swimming pool and
brought in one of the first motor cars Taormina had ever seen.
Although Brangwyn made it clear that he had great respect for Kitson's
painting, Kitson insisted throughout his life that he was simply a dedicated
amateur. Frank Brangwyn acceded to and probably agreed with Kitson's own
estimate. Brangwyn referred to him as "my friend, patron, and gifted
In the summer of 1981 The Commune of Taormina organized an impressive
exhibition of Robert Kitson's paintings.
The story of the elderly Kitson's return to Taormina after his forced
exile to England during World War II is pure melodrama.
In the first months after the war conditions of civilian travel were almost
impossible in Europe. But Kitson, who felt that the end of his life was
near, was determined to return to his beloved home. Against all advice,
he set out.
A younger man - whom Kitson had known since he was a young boy and who
was now a hotelier sent to Rome to oversee the reopening of a big hotel
there - arranged to meet Kitson and, after a rest, accompany him to Taormina.
The man was Francesco Rigano, the charming and witty son of an upper class
Sicilian family, who had bonded with Kitson and his circle as a youth
and maintained warm friendships with them through the years. He once said,
"They saved my life. As a young 'gay' person growing up in a little
Sicilian town I could have been lost, ruined my life. Because of my family
I was not nearly so free as fisher boys and other working class boys who
could do what they wanted to do. They [Kitson and his friends] taught
me everything...how to make my life wonderful."
When "Cicio," as Francesco was affectionately called by friends,
saw Kitson he was so alarmed he tried to dissuade him from continuing
the journey...Kitson would have none of it.
The frail old Englishman and the handsome, impeccably dressed little Italian
(Rigano was only about 5 feet 6 inches) began the arduous journey through
war ravaged southern Italy in half ruined railway cars with little food
available and almost no potable water anywhere.
Using the last of his strength Kitson was able to make it to Taormina.
Riogano said that when he entered the house he seemed to go into a kind
of "trance of memory."
He was able to spend one night in his own bed in his beautiful Casa Cuseni.
He never woke up.