Boys of Taormina: Reflections Upon Another Vanished World
My first visit to Taormina was in 1982. The hilltop town, on the east coast of Sicily, was already a major tourist destination but there was still an air of quaintness about it. It was on its way to becoming a haven for a wealthier class of tourists but it was not quite there … yet. The coastal shoreline, with its beach coves below the town, was still mostly undeveloped.
When I arrived, I had the naive idea of doing a collection of young male portraits, in contrast to those of von Gloeden. The idea may have briefly caught my imagination, but I am not von Gloeden and we are not living in the decades preceding (and following) the end of the 19th Century. In addition, I was there in March (or maybe April) when the beaches were empty and few of the boy ‘models’ were in their stripped down, bathing suit-only presentation mode. So the project’s expectations were lowered to the point of my abandoning the idea … but not before I took photos of these three beautiful lads, physically so very different from von Gloeden’s models. Perhaps they are the offspring of the Sicilians and other Italians who came to Taormina intent on building up the tourist industry. None of them, except perhaps the ‘fisher’ boy (with the deliciously thick head of wavy black hair), even slightly resembled the darker skinned, swarthy looking, working class boys in von Gloeden’s work.
A recent visit to Taormina revealed how very lost that world is now. The public beach area is just another small strip along the much divided shoreline, partitioned off as the ‘exclusive beach access’ of paying patrons only. Lost now is most of what must have been the turf where local lads were free to swim and fish and carry on, away from the confines of the hilltop town. Glimpses of that world were captured by Michael Davidson in his collection of memoirs, ’Some Boys’. I think that my very first trips to Italy, starting in 1970 and then throughout that decade, caught the last glimmerings of that world.
In Liguria, I remember swimming with a local lad and being taken to a small, rocky outcrop in order to find privacy for our lovemaking. In Naples, nothing on a personal level really happened – except for having my wallet pickpocketed in the Spagnoli district. I remember the thief holding the emptied wallet in the air above the street crowd. When he saw my eyes focused on him and the wallet, he threw it back at me. I did manage, however, to take a series of photos that remain one of those most viewed galleries on my site. And there was my first visit to Palermo – a second time in Sicily – when a group of lads, realizing that I was gay, led me to an abandoned broken down area of the port where we enjoyed the pleasures of group sex. I also recall visiting the local porno cinema in Palermo and encountering a scruffy boy – a truly working class street lad – most likely a shepherd (just like the one I described meeting when I first arrived in Naples). He flung open his cubicle door, staring at me with tormented, feverishly horny eyes, all the while grasping his hard cock with one hand and beckoning me in with the other.
The images and the world captured by von Gloeden may still be some sort of magnet for a certain small class of visitors … but as for the locals? There is no genuine acknowledgement – in any form – of their most famous resident! At least his grave was still there, below the town, in a small hillside cemetery where non-Catholic residents were buried. From the sheer number of clearly Nordic names on the tombstones, it’s obvious that Wilhelm wasn’t the only northern European who found paradise in the Taormina of that era!
Back in the 1980s, a few shops sold prints and postcards with von Gloeden images and I recall chatting with a man who said that his grandfather had been a model. This may have been true or just a fabrication to sell the poorly reproduced prints. Surely, many descendants of his subjects are likely to still be living in Taormina. The last time I passed through, only one shop had any old images for sale (leftovers from the last print run), tucked away at the back and watched over by an attentive granny.
It’s my guess that the largely conservative Catholic locals are uptight bourgeoisie, ashamed of the German photographer’s life and achievement … and especially that it all happened right under their noses, in their small Sicilian town! One can only conclude that things back then were far, far more relaxed, far less uptight (kind of like how it was in Tunisia and Morocco when I first set foot in those lands back in the 1980s). Von Gloeden’s boy models had a freedom that is difficult, if not impossible, for us to understand in today’s ‘1984/politically correct’ cosmos. Of course, modern Taorminian tourist sharks don’t really need a pederastic German hedonist photographer (or his legacy) to sell the town’s setting and place in ancient history.
And what of the boys of today? There are no photos of Taormina’s youth from my last visit. Where were they? It’s hard to believe that my eyes and camera failed to focus on even one desirable face/body. Before this recent era, they all seemed so utterly beautiful that I found it hard to restrain my desire to embrace them. My own instinctive theory (reinforced, long ago, by Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd” and Edgar Friedenberg’s “The Vanishing Adolescent”, and backed up and compounded many times over by my observations of the corporate consumerist impact of globalization), has concluded that boy culture has largely vanished from much of the western world.
The natural evolution of boy culture is predicated upon the territorial idea that boys seriously need a turf, a private space of their own … where they can experiment with the degrees and ways of bonding. For example, is it a ‘casual’ friendship, or is it secretly tinged with lustful and romantic overtones? Is it a ‘passing phase’ or a deep natural biological longing asserting itself (in spite of religious taboos)? Is it something that surfaces in places away from the pressures put upon them by adult conformity? … where boys of any and every culture learn, together, about openness, honesty, trust and comradeship in its many forms. They could also learn about their shared physiological and psychological characteristics as young males. But take away their turf – whether it be a forest, a field, a stretch of beach or even a tree house – and boy culture itself largely fails to coalesce. When this happens, it seriously impacts the development of identity, community and respect for the individual. And then a culture that’s ever more disconnected and alienated replaces it: its genuine cruelty and ‘mean spiritedness’ expressed – in North America at least – by the (mostly adolescent male peer group) phenomena called bullying: a way of torturing the lives of boys who are ‘different’ in one way or another.
For myself personally, I feel that the startling increase in obesity as well as the current fad of affixing large (and usually quite ugly) tattoos permanently to the body, are the most obvious symptoms of how estranged, not only male youth but the entire population of millennials, have become. In retrospect, my own ‘coming of age’ in the 1960s (having grown up in the 1950s) now seems like a blessing!
As for Wilhelm von Gloeden? Despite the many fine (and less than fine) volumes reproducing the images captured from the surviving glass plate negatives – now scattered all over the world … mostly in private collections and in a few dedicated photography museums (those without an anti-sexual institutional bias) – serious biographical study and analysis of his life and work has not yet found itself in an English translation (with the exception of the brief, but well presented, biography by Charles Leslie that accompanies his trade paperback).
From my browsing of the internet, I’ve come to believe that my old acquaintance Giovanni dell Orto – a major figure in the Italian gay movement – is now the expert on where this subject is at, in terms of the various directions of the research and in what languages (this is mostly in Italian … although, as with the prints themselves, scholarly interest is international).
There is also the novel based upon von Gloeden’s life by Roger Peyrefitte: ‘Les Amours Singulières’ (1949) but, like so many of his works, it has never been translated into English. And if this volume is as well researched and as accurate as Peyrefitte’s later historical novel, “The Exile of Capri” (1959), it certainly deserves to be issued in English.