Priapus’ Odyssey

Daniel Tejero

Director of the Art Department, Universidad Miguel Hernández

Javier Moreno

Deputy Vice-President of Culture, Universidad Miguel Hernández

The concepts of Arcadism and Mediterraneity can be applied to the photographic representation of the nude adolescent boy in late 19th century and early 20th century southern Italy because at that time major photographic work focused on the adolescent body. From this specific area of the Mediterranean, artists such as Wilhelm von Gloeden, Guglielmo Plüschow and Vincenzo Galdi developed Arcadian and ethnographic pretexts to shed light on homoerotic and pederastic (eromenophilic) pleasures visible through a kind of corporeal Mediterraneity.

But gave them of the lotus to taste. And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way.

Homer, Odyssey

Any holiday might be motivated by a desire for voluntary oblivion, for a temporal retreat from the everyday. A rhythmic descent into what immerses us in the experience of the journey while amplifying the emotion of the adventure. And this experience, paradoxically simultaneous to and preceding a contemporary amble, needs an objective that announces the irrevocable transformation of the traveller. 

The Mediterranean grand tour was one of these journeys undertaken by many youths of noble birth or high social position from the Renaissance until the early 19th century. Before marriage and the responsibilities of adulthood, many wealthy families sent their children to travel through Europe to complete their education and establish aristocratic relations, and Italy was generally the final destination on this tour. Although rooted in the great journeys conceived by the early poets, the main objective of this tour seemed to have been the acquisition of knowledge of classical art, defining an aesthetic and functional Mediterraneity based on the journey to paradises in some way forgotten.

Rome, with its architectonic, statuary and pictorial richness, embodied a densification of high culture where one could get lost while establishing relations with important figures. Other places also stood out on the grand tour as ideal destinations for the early tourist, such as Naples and Sicily, given that the south of Italy was usually the final stage. In the 19th century, with the development of the railways and rail networks in Italy, journeys through the peninsula became more common. While Italy was being reconstructed and reorganised, the south was not, in this case, the destination most in demand. Neither was the new unified Italy particularly concerned with investing in the south of the peninsula and developing its transport. However, it was visited during the grand tour and, on many occasions, was the end of the journey; moreover, once the main rail lines were laid in the late 19th century, it added other tourism destinations such as thermal waters or convalescent homes for recovering from certain illnesses.

Therefore, a Mediterranean proto-tourism emerged seemingly in parallel with and as a result of the recovery of classical forms in different moments of western culture after the 16th century. The discovery of Herculaneum in 1738 and the excavations of Pompeii in 1748, the European neoclassical movement and a literary fashion particularly rooted in Great Britain through, among others, the work of Walter Pater, Lord Byron, John Addyngton Symonds and Oscar Wilde seemed to favour an inclination to the aesthetics of the adolescent body following Greek tradition. 

After unearthing a route that showed the remains of an archaeology of Mediterraneity and the journey as a search for a perpetual summer, two German barons decided to travel to the south in the midst of the “machine era”. 

Silver Skin

In the wrestling school they would sit with outstretched legs and without display of any indecency to the curious. Never was a child rubbed with oil below the belt; the rest of their bodies thus retained its fresh bloom and down, like a velvety peach.

Aristophanes cited by Bernard Sergent (1986, p. 120)

Wilhelm von Plüschow (Wismar, 1852), who changed his name to Guglielmo Plüschow, arrived in Naples around 1875. There he developed a career as a photographer and chose as the main subject for his work the nude body of the adolescent boy posed in classicist terms. He received commissions, such as the series of photographs of Nino Cesarini, the young lover of Baron Adelswärd Fersen, taken in his Villa Lysis in Capri; and the instructions were clear: to glorify and immortalise Nino’s pubescent beauty, either as a pagan god or as a saint. 

Wilhelm von Gloeden (Mecklenburg, 1856) arrived in the coastal Sicilian town of Taormina in 1878. Studying art history and painting, he learnt photography with Giuseppe Bruno and with his cousin Guglielmo Plüschow in Naples; like him, he explored the same subject and became an admired photographer in Taormina.  

Both German photographers took many daguerreotypes of landscapes, journeys through North Africa or scenes of local customs and manners, but their work mainly comprised numerous scenes of adolescent boys from Naples and Taormina. These images, almost always nudes, also showed, not necessarily explicitly, an accumulation of “intraphotographic” desires between boys or boys and men (staged or real) and of “extraphotographic” desires (where the boy looks at the camera and the gaze of an adult photographer or the consumer of the image is assumed). Perhaps inspired by the stories of adventurers and anthropologists in search of paradises to be discovered, the ephebic journey to the south seemed to seek a representational expansion of certain desires, bodies and pleasures. 

However, between the 18th and 19th centuries, homosexual and pederastic pleasures were explored, and ranged between vindicatory and coercive discourses (Moreno, 2015: 76-161). After the exaltation of the young man’s beauty in Ancient Greece and the sexual permissiveness of the early Roman Empire, there was a process of medieval demonisation of the body. In the 18th and 19th centuries the most visible bodies were those that could be seen in the Fine Arts academies, in classical statuary and in all forms of the Mediterranean essence invoked in the neoclassical artistic manifestations; and which could be imagined in the numerous Hellenist literary stories. 

We find the Greek reference in Plüschow and Gloeden through the use of a series of recurrent themes, resources and procedures in their photographic compositions: the floral and/or vegetal, mythological, musical and animal iconography, the use of femininity and affectation in the boys’ poses, the landscape of Arcadian references, the introduction of archaeological pieces and classical scenarios, or the reference to academicist postures. Vincenzo Galdi (Naples, 1871), one of Plüschow’s favourite models, who was also his assistant and finally a photographer, also used a similar working method. Although the images were based on the guidelines developed by the previous photographers, they gradually become mere studies, more or less academic, of the adolescent nude body (as elements auxiliary to the body were gradually detached from the photographic discourse). It was Galdi who most explicitly began to show homosexual desire and intimate companionship between boys, moving from a suggested eroticism to explicit homosexual pornographic imagery. Thus, we can see how a Mediterraneity in the place, in the object of study, in the interest (halfway between anthropological and touristic) in representing the local boy and the use of a classical iconographic imaginary, finally defined a kind of Arcadian and ethnographic pretext as guarantors of the visibility of “eromenophilic” desire.

“A war machine against the medicalisation of the discourse on homosexuality” (Eribon, 2001: 231) that can also be seen through the implementation of ancestral Greek homosexual pedagogy. In the same way that British 19th century literature exalted the master-disciple relationship, Plüschow and Gloeden seem to reference the homosexual and pederastic pedagogy of Ancient Greece to shape a male identity. Their models, with a similar age range, were mainly workers, peasants and fishermen, labourers from an impoverished Italian south for whom extra income for posing nude in front of the camera of these photographers could help their family. Moreover, all photographers included their personal muse within their repertoire of models, and these were their assistants: Gloeden had Pancrazio Bucini, nicknamed il Moro, Plüschow had Galdi and Galdi had il Serpente. Galdi, schooled in the Arcadian and ethnographic pretexts, also became a photographer; in a peculiar and metaphorical way his model’s name was lost in history to be remembered only as il Serpente in honour of the size of his penis and, therefore, was objectified given the Galdian pornographic interest. 

Thus a power relationship was defined expressing the eromenophilic and visual desire between an adult male (erasta: high class photographer) and a male minor (eromenos: low class model); “the adult induces the child in his image” (Scherer, 1983: 54). A logic of classes (noble – proletarian), of age (adult – minor) and of gender (man who possesses the gaze – minor as visual object) that resulted in the representation of the nude adolescent boy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in southern Italy and in the inclusion of an Arcadian Mediterraneity in contemporary homoerotic and pederastic iconography. 

The Return Inland 

These men, therefore, I brought back perforce to the ships, weeping, and dragged them beneath the benches and bound them fast in the hollow ships; I bade the rest of my trusty comrades to embark with speed on the swift ships, lest perchance anyone should eat of the lotus and forget his homeward way.

Homer, Odyssey

In 1902, Plüschow was accused of having had sexual relations with a minor and sentenced to eight months in prison. In 1907 he was again involved in another scandal of similar characteristics, which meant he turned his interest to landscapes and went back to his native country in 1910 (until his death, twenty years later). Such accusations ended with the police seizing many of his pictures, and Vincenzo Galdi was considered his accomplice. After Gloeden’s death in 1931, il Moro became the sole inheritor of the photographic work of his mentor, which it seems comprised around 3,000 plates. Later, the fascist government destroyed much of his work. 

The desexualisation of the minor and the persecution of the pederast and the homosexualthrough medical-legal powers seemingly ended the Mediterranean journey in search of the ephebe. Many works were later labelled by art history as mere aestheticist exercises in full effervescence of the avant-garde; however, they adopted a very narrow perspective, disregarding the potentiality of subversion in the representation of bodies and pleasures that these photographers had managed to achieve in the 19th century through the use of pretexts assumed and exalted by the high culture of a western heterosexual system. Today this work would not be possible without serious legal problems and, despite it peculiar consideration as liminal sediment, ended up sliding into the midst of the 20th century and successfully shaping popular homoerotic imagery through creators such as Herbert List, Bernard Faucon, Will McBride and Larry Clark or beefcake photographers such as Mel Roberts.

“These little Greek gods (already a contradiction because of their dark color) have peasants’ hands, somewhat dirty, with large, misshapen nails; hardened feet, not very clean; and swollen, clearly visible prepuces which are unstylized, that is, not slenderized and tapered: our attention is drawn to the fact they are clearly uncircumcised: the Baron’s photographs are at the same time sublime and anatomical” (Barthes, 1986).

Bibliography


Barthes, R., Taormina. Wilhelm von Gloeden, Pasadena, Twelvetress Press, 1986.  

Eribon, D., Reflexiones sobre la cuestión gay, Barcelona, Anagrama, 2001. 

Laqueur, T., Sexo Solitario. Una historia cultural de la masturbación, Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2007. 

Moreno, J., Eromenofilia Representaciones fotográficas del muchacho adolescente desnudo a finales del s. xix y principios del s. xx. Homoerotismo y pederastia en la obra de Wilhelm von Gloeden, Guglielmo Plüschow y Vincenzo Galdi, Elche, Universitas Miguel Hernández, 2015. 

Mulvey, L., Placer Visual y Cine Narrativo, Valencia, Editorial Episteme, 1994. 

Schérer, R., La pedagogía pervertida, Barcelona, Laertes, 1983.
Sergent, B., L’Homosexualité initiatique dans l’Europe ancienne, Paris, Payot, 1986.