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TAORMINA, ITALY
by Stuart Haggas

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The beauty of Italian men has inspired artists throughout history, from Michelangelo’s perfectly chiseled “David” to Caravaggio’s passionate and sensual religious paintings. The provocative photographs of naked youths, taken by German aristocrat Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden in and around the Sicilian resort of Taormina in the late 19th century, put the town firmly on the gay map. In his work, von Gloeden made maximum use of Sicily’s rugged cliff topography and glorious sunlight; while Europe’s largest volcano, Mount Etna, and the ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Taormina, provided evocative backdrops to the theatrical nudity. These homoerotic portraits had a similar effect in the 1900s that shots of muscular hunks in an ad for a gay-friendly hotel or an Atlantis Events cruise have in 2008: they encouraged wealthy gay tourists from countries like the United States, the UK, and Germany to visit.

Visitors to Taormina today will be impressed by the town’s geography. As if determined not to be overshadowed by the snow-capped peak of nearby Mount Etna, Taormina is dramatically poised along a cliff edge, guaranteeing stunning vistas of the sea below. The town itself is a beguiling mix of narrow streets lined with honey-hued palazzi, intimate piazze, pretty churches, and balconies and terraces overflowing with flowers.

The primary tourist attraction is Teatro Greco. One of Sicily’s most celebrated ruins, this ancient amphitheater was founded by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC—although the arches and columns standing here today were built later by the Romans. Seemingly carved into the hillside and surrounded by panoramas of the town, the bay of Giardini Naxos, and majestic Mount Etna, its location could not be more breathtaking. Once the place to enjoy bloody gladiatorial spectacles, today Teatro Greco hosts less visceral events such as the Taormina Film Fest, and the Taormina Arte international arts festival, which in August 2007 featured divas Liza Minnelli and Montserrat Caballe.

Taormina’s charming little churches like Chiesa di S Giuseppe, its 17th-century façade embellished with a macabre skull and crossbones, and Chiesa di S Caterina, with its cherubic statues, are much prettier than the bigger, blander Duomo, but all warrant a quick snap with your camera. After checking these off your “must do” list, you’ve pretty much seen all there is to see in Taormina—giving you time to experience the town like a Sicilian!

The main thoroughfare, pedestrianized Corso Umberto, is flanked by a pair of historic gates, Porta Catania and Porta Messina. A sign at each gate warns that it is forbidden to go bare-chested or to eat in the squares and streets of the historical center. This law seems to be directed towards the countless cruiseship passengers who arrive on tour buses in the heat of the afternoon, because the locals clearly adhere to a more stringent dress-code that seems to require them to wear Dolce & Gabbana at every given opportunity.

The absolute best opportunity to make the most of any Dolce & Gabbana outfit is to participate in the traditional evening stroll: the passeggiata. Accessorize your most sublime designer clothing with a pair of huge designer sunglasses, some fierce designer shoes, and a luxurious designer bag, and then treat Corso Umberto as if it were a runway, stopping to refuel with gelato, espresso, or Campari and soda at regular intervals. On balmy summer evenings, you can hardly move along Corso Umberto because of all the fashion-mad Italians walking about. Fashionistas, however, will love the upscale boutiques and perfumeries here like Parisi and Narcisse.

Gay visitors to Taormina are bound to be intrigued by the life and art of Wilhelm von Gloeden. Von Gloeden came to Taormina from Germany in 1878 at age twenty-two, hoping the climate would be easier on his tuberculosis. As well as an improvement in his health, von Gloeden also found an opportunity here to combine his two passions: classical art and handsome young men. He began taking photographs of local youths, and although they frequently posed in the nude, von Gloeden’s pioneering use of sunlit outdoor settings, props, and body make-up gave his photographs a painterly look that hinted at ancient Greece, and gave the nudity a veil of validity. His cousin Wilhelm von Plüschow was working commercially along similar lines in Naples, so when the family fortune was lost and his allowance ceased, von Gloeden also turned professional and began selling his photographs.

Photographs of naked men had until then been either scientific studies of anatomy, like those of Eadweard Muybridge, or a source material for artists, like those of American painter Thomas Eakins. Wilhelm von Gloeden’s scenes of an imaginary ancient time populated by beautiful young men were among the first photographs of the male nude taken simply to please the eye of the beholder. He established a successful mail order business, although the majority of customers were wealthy tourists who, lured by von Gloeden’s sensual visions, included a visit to Taormina in their Italian tour itineraries. Despite the full-frontal nudity, this trade wasn’t as underground as you might expect. As it’s unlikely that prim Victorian ladies in gloves and starched dresses would be in the market for such homoerotic snapshots, we must assume that men who liked men were the primary collectors.

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Numerous influential and affluent gay visitors came to Taormina in the late 1800s, including Oscar Wilde and the occasional Rothschild and Vanderbilt heir. It is said that such tourists helped give this relatively poor region of Italy a significant economic boost. Far from exploitative, von Gloeden was ultimately a benefactor to Taormina. Whenever he sold a photograph, he shared his profits with the models, thus providing many young Sicilians with an income that enabled them to set themselves up in business. It’s therefore likely that some of the cafés, bars, and boutiques you see in Taormina today were founded with money earned because someone posed nude for Wilhelm von Gloeden.

When Italy aligned herself against Germany in the First World War, von Gloeden was obliged to retreat home. Although he returned to Taormina afterwards, he was grieved to find that many of his models had lost their lives during the war. This, combined with the fact that his romantic, neoclassic photographs didn’t suit the mood of the postwar years, meant von Gloeden’s output virtually ceased. After his death in 1931, von Gloeden’s former lover and model Pancrazio Bucini inherited his estate. Italy was at that time gripped by fascism. Mussolini’s police seized von Gloeden’s archives, Bucini was accused of selling pornography, and the majority of von Gloeden’s thousands of glass plate negatives were destroyed.

Fortunately, as von Gloeden had been so successful in selling his photographs to private collectors, his work wasn’t entirely lost. An archive of his photos is gradually being pieced back together.

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A very accurate description of Taormina. One item that may be necessary to mention to readers: Nothing happens at the bar scene until well after midnight.
- Frank Ricchiazzi , Laguna Beach, CA, USA

Good story, well written and comprehensive. It nicely compliments and updates my own gay Taormina story on GlobalGayz.com. (See Europe, Italy, Taormina) Also see the photo gallery for Taormina on the same web site.
- Richard Ammon , Laguna Beach, CA

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