Taormina on the Grand Tour

Taormina Piazza
Taormina Piazza

Taormina was not always a magnet for tourists. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century that Taormina joined Venice as a star on the Grand Tour. Taormina would never become another Venice but she had several things Venice would never have—lots and lots of brilliant sunshine, warm embracing breezes and Mt. Etna. Not to mention that Taormina tourists did not have to suffer the stench of rotting garbage in Venetian canals. Northern Europeans, particularly the English, longed to get away from the dirt and horrors of the industrial revolution. So they packed their trunks and took the Grand Tour.

Taormina Theater
Mt. Etna in the clouds

In 1863 Otto Geleng, a red-haired Prussian painter, left his hometown of Berlin and settled into Taormina. Geleng’s paintings are academic. But they are imaginative and beautiful and very well painted. They picture a Mediterranean paradise. When they were exhibited in galleries in Berlin and Paris the critics stared at them in disbelief. They accused Geleng of having an overworked imagination. But he would have none of their criticism and offered to pay their expenses to Taormina if they could prove that his paintings were figments of his imagination. Geleng won the bet and apparently paid nothing.

Geleng rented a room in a house owned by Don Francesco La Floresta who had started renting rooms in 1850. Don Francesco named his house “Timeo” after the founder of the Greek city of Tauromenion in 358 BC. Today it is the luxurious Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo. While Don Francesco was enlarging his hotel Geleng became political and in 1872 became mayor of Taormina. He served as mayor for 10 years.

The hotel expanded over the years and eventually became a great attraction for European royalty. In 1906 Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany rented the entire hotel for a month for his family and court. 1906 was a good year for the Timeo—Edward VII, King of England, and his wife Alexandra visited that year and in the two years that followed. Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were both guests at the Timeo during the 1950s.

Von Gloeden Taormina
Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden

In the 1970s the photographs of a German baron, the Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, were in every souvenir and postcard shop. His photos of naked Sicilian boys were displayed in the windows of the shops. No one considered them pornographic. Sir Harold Acton, the British writer and scholar who had once described Taormina as Sodom, in the 1950s changed his mind about Taormina being Sodom and said that it was quite as respectable as Bournemouth. Acton should see Taormina today. The Von Gloeden boys no longer display their naked bodies in shop windows. Today you have to go into the shop and find the secluded corner of the shop where they keep the fun postcards.

Wilhelm von Gloeden was born in Wismar, Germany in 1856. He had studied painting but was forced by respiratory problems to seek treatment in a sanatorium in 1877. Later that same year he travelled to Italy in search of the warmer, drier climate his doctors hoped would solve his respiratory problems.

Hotel Victoria Taormina
Hotel Victoria

When he first arrived in Taormina he stayed at the Hotel Victoria on the Corso Umberto. It was Otto Geleng, mayor at the time, who introduced Von Gloeden to many of the local people he would need to know. Oscar Wilde also stayed at the Victoria when he came to visit Von Gloeden.

Eventually Von Gloeden bought a small palazzo on the Piazza San Domenico, very near the extravagant San Domenico Palace Hotel. There he developed his photographer’s skills, skills he had learned from a relative, Wilhelm von Plüschow, in Naples. It was during his first days in Taormina that he met the 17-year-old Pancrazio Bucini (also Buciunì), the son of a donkey driver. Pancrazio became his lover, his assistant and his housekeeper. He lived with von Gloeden until Wilhelm died in 1931.

Because his family was wealthy and well-connected—his stepfather was a friend and advisor of Kaiser Wilhelm—Von Gloeden’s photographs were exhibited in northern European cities—and in Philadelphia in 1902. They were also published in periodicals such as Kunst für Alle. Collectors bought the photographs. Postcards were made. The photographs of naked boys were very popular with the “Uranian School” of homosexual poets, including John Addington Symonds and Lord Alfred Douglas, boyfriend of Oscar Wilde.

Von Gloeden put Sicily, especially Taormina, on the map. The 1912 Baedeker guide to Southern Italy refers readers seeking photographs to “Gloeden, opposite the Hot. San Domenico (landscapes and figures. . .).” The grand Italian tour now had to include Taormina.

The wealthy and the famous visited von Gloeden—they included Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell, King Alphonse of Spain, King Chulalongkorn of Siam, who was the son of King Mongkut, the Siamese king made famous by Yul Brynner in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I. Visitors also included King Edward VII of England, composer Richard Strauss, author Rudyard Kipling, industrialist Frederich Alfred Krupp and, of course, Oscar Wilde. They bought pictures of boys and landscapes and Greek ruins.

Frederich Alfred Krupp, the son of German industrialist Alfred Krupp, was well known for diversifying and increasing the output of the Krupp factories. He served in the Prussian government and sat on the Reichstag for five years beginning in 1893. What was not well known about this German industrialist was his love for the boys on Capri and his visits to Von Gloeden to buy photographs of boys. He lived on Capri for several months of the year and was apparently quite “attached” to Adolfo Schiano, an 18-year-old barber and musician. On November 15, 1902 the German magazine Vorwärts published an article in which they claimed that Krupp was a homosexual. On November 22 Krupp put a gun to his head and committed suicide.

Von Gloeden became quite wealthy and was very generous. He paid the boys who posed for him very well. He set up bank accounts for some of them.

When those accounts had become sufficiently large one of the boys went to college, another bought a boat and launched a fishing business for his family. If a boy was getting married and his fiancee’s family could not provide a dowry, Wilhelm gave them a dowry. What did the boys’ families think of their sons appearing naked on postcards? They looked the other way. They could well use the money. Besides, it was better than herding sheep.

Von Gloeden died on February 16, 1931. Pancrazio inherited his estate, which included thousands of glass plate negatives and prints. In 1933 Mussolini’s fascist police confiscated and smashed about 1,000 negatives and destroyed hundreds of prints. Pancrazio was arrested in 1936 for creating and distributing pornography. He was tried in a court in Messina, where he defended himself. He explained to the judge that the photographs were art, not pornography. He was smart and he was persuasive. The judge agreed and cleared him of the charges.

Today the negatives that were spared destruction are at the Fratelli Alinari archive in Florence along with several hundred vintage prints. The Civico Archivo Fotographico in Milan also owns some of Von Gloeden’s work. A souvenir shop on Taormina’s Corso Umberto sells reproductions of the original postcards.

Trevelyan Taormina
Bust of Florence Trevelyan Cacciola

While they certainly didn’t travel in the same social circles, Wilhelm von Gloden arrived in Taormina just a few years before Florence Trevelyan came to Sicily. Florence, whose paternal grandmother, Lady Mary Wilson, was a cousin of Queen Victoria, served on the queen’s staff. At least she served the queen until it was discovered that Florence was romantically entwined with Victoria’s oldest son, who would become King Edward VII.

It was 1877. Edward had married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863. He was 21 and she was 18. Despite his marriage and despite Victoria’s attempts to curb Edward’s wayward social life, the Prince over a period of years had affairs with actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt, Lady Randolph Churchill, singer Hortense Schneider, prostitute Giulia Beneni, Alice Keppel, Agnes Keyser, a wealthy humanitarian—and Florence Trevelyan.

Florence was given 48 hours to leave England. She and her cousin, Harriet Perceval, toured Europe for almost two years before settling in Sicily. They arrived in Taormina in 1884. With family money and a monthly stipend of 50 pounds set up by Victoria, Florence bought the Isola Bella, a very small island off the coast below Taormina. She built a house there and surrounded it with gardens of trees and shrubs that were not native to Sicily.

Trevelyan Garden
Florence Trevelyan Cacciola’s garden

In 1890 Florence married Dr. Salvatore Cacciola, who had been mayor of Taormina for many years. They bought land on the hill below the Via Bagnoli Croce where they built a large palazzo. Florence created another garden of plants that were rare and not native to Sicily and called it Hallington Siculo, Sicilian Hallington, after the Hallington Demesne where she and her mother lived and gardened in England. When she died on October 4, 1907 Florence was buried in a cemetery near Castelmola.

Today the Hallington garden is Taormina’s public garden. The palazzo in which she and her husband lived is now the Scuola Babilonia, a school of Italian language and culture. The garden still contains the eccentric and exotic buildings that Florence constructed from brick and wood and stone for white peacocks and other birds not native to Sicily. The garden, with it’s incomparable views of the Ionian Sea and Mt. Etna, is the second most visited attraction in Taormina after the Greco-Roman theater.

A plaque on the front of the Hotel Victoria says that Oscar Wilde stayed there. Wilde spent a lot of time with the handsome Von Gloeden but mostly to help set the decor for photographs of naked boys. The German photographer was not his major interest. After his imprisonment ended Wilde was supported to some extent by Florence Trevelyan Cacciola. Like Von Gloeden, Florence also provided dowries for local girls whose families were poor.

Gayelord Hauser, the famous nutritionist to Hollywood’s most glittering divas, was born in 1895 in the German university town of Tübingen. He came to the United States in 1911. Shortly after his arrival he was stricken with tuberculosis of the hip. There were no antibiotics then and the disease was almost always fatal.

Surgeries were not successful so the young Hauser consulted Dr. Benedict Lust, a naturopath who recommended warm baths, clay packs and herbs. His condition improved and following Dr. Lust’s advice he went to Switzerland to consult a monk, Brother Maier, a food science expert, who prescribed a limited diet of salads, fruit juice, vegetable broth and more herbs. Miraculously, Hauser was cured within weeks.

He started his own studies of food science and became an expert. He continued his studies of foods in America and received degrees in chiropractic and naturopathy. In 1927 Hauser moved to Hollywood and because of his handsome face and enthusiastic personality—and his knowledge of food science—befriended Adele Astaire, sister of Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo.

In the early 1940s Hauser met Frey Brown, a handsome and very promising young Hollywood actor. They became lovers and bought a villa in Taormina in 1950. Brown gave up his acting career. Their most famous guest was Greta Garbo. When Brown died in 1979 Hauser could not bear to stay in the Taormina villa without him and returned to Hollywood where he died in 1984.

Wunderbar Taormina
Caffe Wunderbar

In their own individual ways the Baron Wilhelm von Golden, Otto Geleng, Lady Florence Trevelyan and Gayelord Hauser contributed much to Taormina and the people of Taormina. Together they put Taormina in the guidebooks. One of Sicily’s most beautiful towns quickly became a required stop on the grand European tour.

In the twentieth century Taormina attracted some of the world’s most noted and eccentric persons. The list is stellar and includes D. H. Lawrence, André Gide, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Salvatore Quasimodo, Tennessee Williams, Gregory Peck, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Willy Brandt and Greta Garbo. The Caffe Wunderbar at the Piazza IX Aprile was the place. Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote probably spent a lot of time there.

Taormina Theater
Greco-Roman theater with Mt. Etna

Today’s Taormina tourists are much greater in number but they are not as eccentric or as open-minded as they once were. They come thundering down the Corso Umberto from monster cruise ships. In another era John Ruskin, an English art critic, called them the “vulgar tourists.” They snap pictures of gelato, marzipan, cannoli, the Piazza IX Aprile, Mount Etna and Castelmola. They can see all this Sicilian stuff when they get back home.

Todd Lehman
Todd Lehmanhttp://www.toddwlehman.com
Todd Lehman is an artist and a writer. He has exhibited paintings in New York, Washington, DC, Toronto, Tucson, Munich and Tuscany. Many of his paintings, which are abstract, were inspired by Sicilian landscapes, Sicilian architecture and Sicilian puppet theater. He has a graduate degree in journalism and English literature and studied art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Art Students League in New York City. Recently he completed a book entitled Sicily: Sirens, Satyrs and Seductions in which he discusses the various cultures that have shaped Sicilian life over the centuries and links life in Sicily today to various art objects and other cultural influences. He is a member of Arba Sicula and serves on the board of directors of The Sicilian Project, an organization that teaches English language skills to young Sicilians. While New York City has been his home since leaving graduate school at Penn State University, he visits Sicily every year and considers Palermo his home away from home.

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  1. I read the book; A House in Sicily by Daphne Phelps, everything about the house Casa Cuseni in Taormina.

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