In the XIX century, in order to give new life to the small town of Taormina, some famous people occupied the historic center and resided there, often for a long time. Among these, many were not only foreigners, but also homosexuals. The first forms of tourism in the city got developed thanks to the extravagance of these men, who considered Taormina their happy “island”
In 1885, a young Guy de Maupassant wrote: « If a man had only one day to spend in Sicily and asked what to see, I would answer without hesitation: Taormina ». The Greeks built their acropolis 206 meters above sea level and today, after many centuries, Taormina is one of the most precious jewels preserved in Sicily. In the XIX century, in order to give new life to the small town of Taormina, some famous people occupied the historic center and resided there, often for a long time. Among these, many were not only foreigners, but also homosexuals. The first forms of tourism in the city got developed thanks to the extravagance of these men, who considered Taormina their happy “island”. Many of them left their riches and their inheritances to the town, while others became true symbols of the place, like the German baron Wilhelm von Gloeden. We owe him the refined depictions of some youths in the guise of pagan gods, whose prints can still be seen today in the town’s bazaars. When Wilhelm arrived in a sunny Taormina he was only 22 years old and he had to take care of his tuberculosis. He was a rich scion of the German aristocracy, whose strangeness soon became apparent – for example, he used to bathe in the house only with some sea water collected and transported by handsome boys, who always received a good reward for this.
In the island the baron found not only health, but also a new way to interpret his greatest passion, photography. The artist said: « The idea came to me reading the rural idylls of a great poet, Theocrit of Syracuse ». Almost a century later, the Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia had the opportunity to admire the photos of the baron too: « In the eyes of each of them (of the models) there was a light of savage distrust that contradicted the positions of their abandonment. Perhaps the baron would have loved a look full of love in them; but it was impossible to achieve this result with those children of Sicilian peasants and fishermen seeing themselves reduced to the object of an incomprehensible caprice or of an understandable and alarming lust ». Not everyone in Taormina appreciated his work, especially men, who looked those strange images with suspicion. Today only 1300 of them are conserved, because they were saved by the faithful servant Pancrazio Bucinì, who remained close to the baron even when his wealth vanished, and he became poor. Bucinì was tried for possession of obscene photographs twice and told the judges: « You lawyers are not able to judge the very high work of a great artist ». One who appreciated and admired it, however, was one of the greatest writers of English literature, Oscar Wilde (homosexual too), who went to Taormina after having had the opportunity to observe « the portraits of the wonderful Sicilian boys » posing for the baron. His vacation lasted less than a month, but the London dandy made all sorts of experience: from the sea water bath to the possibility of dressing and posing the von Goldeon youths. Unfortunately, the story says that soon the writer was tried and put in jail with the only fault of loving someone.
Not only many men, but also many women arrived in Taormina, fascinated by its landscape and especially by young local women. In the early 1900s from the Crimea arrived Sofija Parnok, the poetess of sapphic love, who had already divorced her husband to indulge in the love of his colleague Marina Tsvetaeva. With the company of several noblewomen, who hoped to find their idyllic place in the town just as men did, they soon realized that, if the jealous Sicilian mothers were able to turn a blind eye to their children’s behavior, they certainly could not do that with their daughters, so they abandoned their illusions and left the island.
After the war went to Taormina the writer and diplomat Roger Peyrefitte too, called the “Pope of homosexuality” in France because he wrote texts such as “The Keys of St. Peter” and “The Knights of Malta”, while accompanied by his lover Alain Philippe Malagnac, that he adopted as son before giving him in marriage to the model and singer Amanda Lear. Many talented men passed through Taormina, such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and the Nobel Prize André Gide, who was infatuated with a waiter and spent his days observing him sitting on a wall and smiling at him. The boy, whose name Gianni Sciacca, always talked to him politely, as the unknown man did every day.
Those who cross the ancient walls of Taormina today can still dream of meeting their lover in this enchanted town that gives a dream to those who live there. It can be found on a bench, in a hidden corner or on a wall, like a poet who could be answer to those who derided him by quoting his words from the Pastoral Symphony: « Sin is all that obscures the soul; love, all that exalts it ».
Translated into English by Eva Luna Mascolino