Chimney Sweepers

During the Industrial Revolution  thousands of  desperate people came to the cities seeking work, but those lucky who managed to find one soon realized that the average wage would have kept them in poverty for the rest of their lives. Justices were given authority over the children of poor families, and began to assign them to apprenticeships to provide them with work, food and shelter.

For master chimney sweeps, these small, defenseless children of powerless or absent parents were the perfect victims to be exploited in their business.

“When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.”

 

Their apprenticeships lasted seven years or even more, but being generally unsupervised, once the papers were signed, the children were completely left under the power of their masters. Once left, their families often didn’t see them any longer. A Master was paid a fee to clothe, keep and teach the child his trade. Even if it common belief that both the master and the child apprentices were always male, this wasn’t always true, as many girls also climbed chimneys.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

 
After the Great Fire of London in 1666 new fire codes were necessarily put in place. Chimneys became smaller to burn coal and the number of turns and corners in the flues increased. The flues gathered ash, soot and creosote much more quickly than the larger, straighter chimneys had, so they needed cleaning more often. The chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. Sweepers’ job was, actually, to climb up, inside the chimney, brushing the flue as they went, propelling themselves by their knees and elbows and they weren’t done till their heads poked out of the chimney top. This, of course, was a scary job for these children and they were often unwilling to perform it, therefore, many masters used a dangerous punishment: first the child was forced up the flue and then a fire was lit. Since he couldn’t come down, he had no choice but to climb up the flue. Maybe this is where the term “light a fire under you” originated.

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

 
If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue. These children lived in deplorable conditions. They carried a large sack with them, into which they dumped the soot they swept from the chimneys. They used this same sack as a blanket to sleep in at night, and only bathed infrequently. They were often sick, and learned to beg food and clothing from their customers as all the money they earned went to their masters.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

 
Even if some children actually received the weekly bath outlined in the apprenticeship agreement, the majority of them was never bathed or followed a more common custom of 3 baths per year, at Whitsuntide (shortly after Easter), Goose Fair (early October) and Christmas. In London, many sweeper apprentices used to wash on their own in a local river, the Serpentine, till one of them drowned. Since then the children were discouraged from bathing in rivers.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

 
Another great increase in the use of small children as chimney sweeps occurred in England after 1773. Parliament passed an act which said that children couldn’t be kept in a workhouse for longer than 3 weeks, as it had been found out that death rates in both workhouses and orphanages was very high: only 7 out of every hundred children survived for a year after being placed in an orphanage. The effect of this act was that small children became much more available not only to chimney sweeps, but to any other business owners who were looking for cheap labor.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm. (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Innocence, William Blake)

 

The children risked to be stuck in the chimneys or die from burns and suffocation or even from long falls. For what concerns the boys, there was also another danger. Coal soot found its way easily into the folds of skin on a boy’s scrotal sac due to loose clothing and climbing in the nude. As the soot was not washed off for months at a time over the years, many of the boys developed scrotal cancer, called “chimney sweep’s cancer” about the time they entered puberty.

 

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

 

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

 

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.” (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Experience, William Blake)
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Elena Lucrezia Cornaro’s Accomplishments

“Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.)”

Only one hundred years ago the admission to culture for a woman was not for granted. Virginia Woolf herself had received a different education from her brothers who were sent to prestigious colleges, while her sisters and she were mostly home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature. After all, nobody expected a woman at those times to become a scientist, run a company or simply be freed from patriarchical conventions to achieve her own independence. The famous passage from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about the definition of an “accomplished woman” still fitted somehow the idea of what a woman should be like:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” (Pride and Prejudice)

In short, a pretty monkey to be exhibited in society whose accomplishments aimed at attracting a man and make him eventually her husband. Yet, there had been women in the past for whom education had meant more than playing an instrument and embroidering a cushion and had struggled for their share of learning.  Actually, if we want to find the first graduated woman in the world, we have to go far back in time to the seventeenth century and, oh my god, in Italy. She was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.

Born in Venice in 1646 , she was the fifth of seven children. Her father, Giovanni Battista Cornaro, was an ambitious and intelligent nobleman who was not afraid of going against the flow. He had chosen, in fact, to marry a woman much below his station, Zanetta Giovanna Boni, thus defying the gossipy and exclusive Venetian society. Such an unconventional father will have a fundamental influence on the girl.

Elena was only 10, when she understood how strong her passion for intellectual study was. At those times, when women were only allowed to choose between matrimony and the nunnery, Elena embarked on a new, solitary and in a way scandalous path. Elena showed a surprising ease in learning and her father could not ignore it, therefore, she received tutoring in Latin and Greek, as well as grammar and music. But that was not enough. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic, so that her command of languages brought the title Oraculum Septilingue. Yet, Elena’s greatest love was philosophy and in particular that forbidden land  – for a woman –  which was theology. Therefore, in 1672 Elena’s father sent her bright girl to the distinguished University of Padua, which was one of the main and most celebrated universities in the world, but tied to ecclesiastical power.

Even if she knew that women were not allowed to achieve a degree in theology at those times, she really didn’t care much about it. She just wanted to continue her learning, but it was her father who wanted the world to recognize and celebrate his daughter’s incredible knowledge and insisted on her getting the deserved degree. So, Elena applied for a Doctorate of Theology degree, but her application met the resistance of Gregorio Barbarigo, bishop of Padua, whose authorization, as Registrar of the University, was binding.  He refused the idea of conferring the title of Doctor of Theology upon a woman, an act that, he believed, would have made them look ridiculous at the eyes of the world. Elena insisted again, but this time the Church compromised and allowed Elena Piscopia to apply for a Doctorate of Philosophy instead.

A woman with a university degree became soon common talk, so the day of Elena Piscopia’s examination there were so many spectators that rather than being held in the University Hall of the University of Padua, it was transferred to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin in Padua. Throughout her examination, Elena’s brilliant answers amazed and awed her examiners, who determined that her vast knowledge surpassed the Doctorate of Philosophy. On June 25, 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received the Doctorate of Philosophy degree from the University of Padua. At age thirty-two she was the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree. In addition, she also received the Doctor’s Ring, the Teacher’s Ermine cape, and the Poet’s Laurel Crown.

Being a woman, however, she was not allowed to teach at university, yet, she became an esteemed member of various academies throughout Europe, and received visits from scholars from all parts of the world. Elena enjoyed debating, giving lectures in theology, and composing music. After successfully receiving her degree Elena Piscopia devoted her life to charity.  She will die in Padua on July 26, 1684.

Two more centuries will have to pass before women can enter universities. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia has been the first who initiated a long and very slow process of inclusion of women in the world of culture, demonstrating that intelligence and brilliance do not have gender.

 

 

Nothingness at Power

 

“Lady Bracknell. (….) I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

Jack. [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.” (The Importance of Being Earnest Act 1)

What seems to Jack a nonsensical question to a man, who is facing an interview to be allowed to marry the woman she loves, actually, hides much more sense that we believe. Being puzzled but determined to win Lady Bracknell’s good opinion, he decides to keep a low profile declaring to “know nothing”. Lucky man. He guessed it right, after all he had 50 % odds. For Lady Bracknell such an answer reveals lack of pride, a quality that she cannot but appreciate, but also a humble disposition which is typical of those who actually know something. The more you learn, the more you have the impression that your knowledge is comparable to a mote of dust in the immensity of the universe. Socrates himself said:

“I am the wisest man alive, because I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Yet, Lady Bracknell could not know that modernity would have brough to life a new category of people, that is, those who know nothing and live under the impression of knowing everything. They are the arrogant who believe that the bits and pieces of information they find grazing on the internet are the ultimate truth. It is the absence of doubt that makes them so. This is what Umberto Eco said about this social phenomenon:

“Social media give the right to speak to legions of idiots who once used to speak only at the bar after a glass of wine, without damaging the community. They were immediately silenced, once, while now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize. It’s the invasion of idiots .”

Once, if you were aware of your intellectual inconsistency, you would have never dared give your opinion on matters, let alone scientifical matters, you knew just a little or nothing about. Not today. Today you find pages and pages that promote, for example,  bicarbonate and even aloe as miraculous cures for cancer, that vaccines are dangerous and, therefore, pages blossoms where parents become in a fell swoop doctors, doctors with no degree of course, who give evidence and claim their right to choose whether to vaccinate or not, and who cares if their offsprings study or play with other children who are immunosuppressed, they are not their own, after all. On other pages you may learn that a hemorrhoids cream may erase your wrinkles and  that if you suffer from bags under you eyes, toothpaste is the remedy you were looking for – don’t do it!! – , but if you are in the mood of a more scientifical debate you may easily bump into people who are ready to give you proof of the fact that man never went on the moon, that the aliens are spying us and the earth is flat . Pages that may boast thousands of followers. So are we not far from the truth if we say that the free access to information has provoked general, arrogant, ignorant disinformation. I know, that at this point, Lady Bracknell, wouldn’t be with me, in fact she believed that:

“Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone” (The Importance of Being Earnest Act 1)

Maybe it was so at your time, my Dear, when there was no universal suffrage yet and the less fortunate envied, of course, but also admired the educated. The latters were a model for their children, which was eventually made attainable thanks to schooling. Today those elites do not represents any longer a model, and those voices who used to be silenced are allowed to vote and elect people exactly like them: ignorant, arrogant, selfish. Somebody who doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable with the inconsistency of their education or propriety of speech. Somebody simple, who speaks simply and is able to fuel minds with unattainable perspectives, envy towards the elites and fear for whatever is perceived different. These people today determine the fate of a country. The greatest revolution of our times would be allowing that delicate exotic fruit of ignorance to be touched by that virus called education, but I fear it is too late as they have already found the antidote.

“The opinion of 10,000 men has no value if nobody knows anything about the subject.” Marcus Aurelius

What’s in a Name?

“What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title..” (Romeo and Juliet. Act 2, Scene 2)

Dazzled by the darts of love, Juliet speculates on the nature of names. Names are immaterial, yet, they can become insurmountable obstacles. They cannot be touched or seen, yet, they belong to a man and may mark his fate, even if, of course, they cannot change his essence, whatever it may be. Therefore, names matter. If if weren’t so, my mother wouldn’t have opposed so strongly to the one which was destined to me: Rosaria. I should have been named after my grandfather Rosario, and even if the its origin, Rose, may sound evocative and sweet, here it connotes the typical woman of the South of past tradition and my mother, a modern woman of the North, would have never accepted it. That name did not fit the image she had of her daughter, that’s why she chose Stefania. Fortunately, my grandfather, a mild, sensible man, didn’t mind, after all, I was the last of his many grandchildren and some of them had already been named after him.

Names are clearly evocative, they give an impression, often deceptive, of a person. That is why writers have always chosen carefully the names of their most important heroes or heroines. Think about Heathcliff, for example. It is a name that reflects its complex nature. He is heat, that is passionate, hot, but also destructive and dangerous. He is the fire that attracts you like a magnet, but if you touch it, you’ll get burnt. As for that cliff, it evokes harshness and danger again, in fact, waves move naturally towards cliffs and inevitably break. It is their fate. Would that character have worked likewise, had he been called, Jack, for instance?

I’ll leave Gwendolen to give the answer to this question in the “Importance of Being Earnest”:

“Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.”

It is a no. Gwendolen believes that names reflect the essence of men, and she wishes that the appropriate title for her future husband should be Earnest:

“…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

Of course he is a liar, with a charming name, of course.

Even Walter Shandy, in Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy”, believes that names are as important to a person’s character as noses are to a person’s appearance. As Dr Slop had flattened his child’s nose in performing a forceps delivery, Walter Shandy believes that a solution to compensate him from what he believes to be a clear mark of loss of masculinity, would be to give him a grand name like Hermes Trismegistus, that is, “Hermes the thrice-greatest”. So, he needs a name “three times the greatest” to make things even. Trismegistus was also the name a legendary character: the greatest king, lawgiver, philosopher, priest and engineer ever. After all, isn’t this what all parents dream for their children? A grand, successful future and a good name may be a good start. Unfortunately, Mr Shandy’s hopes are definitively crushed, as his child is accidentally christened Tristram, which comes from the French “triste”  and from the Latin “tristis,” that is “sad” in English, with a final effect which is not exactly what Walter Shandy had hoped, but, quite the reverse. Tristram himself believes that this event has radically changed the course of his fate. So, what’s in a name?

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”(L.M.Montgomery)

 

Prudence and Obedience

Was parenting much simpler once? Who knows? But one thing I can say for sure, roles were more defined.Letter XVI from Richardson’s Clarissa is a proof of what I am saying. Clarissa has understood to be promised to old and odious Mr Solmes, a rich man, whose marriage with the girl would satisfy the social ambitions of Clarissa’s father. When the girl understands that everything has been settled, she tries  to do whatever is in her power to avoid her sad fate and decides to speak to whom she believes to be the weaker of her two parents, that is her mother, as she had found her particularly condescending at breakfast, while her father had left the house early with a “positive, angry disposition“. So much the better. Clarissa sends quickly a note to her mother to inform her that she needs to talk to her:

“I had but just got into my own apartment, and began to think of sending Hannah to beg an audience of my mother (the more encouraged by her condescending goodness at breakfast) when Shorey, her woman, brought me her commands to attend me in her closet. ( Clarissa Lett. XVI Vol. 1)

Nothing more should be said.The verbs in bold, in fact, sum up perfectly the roles and the psychological attitudes of the two characters. Clarissa’s mother is the one who commands, while the girl is expected to be submitted and humble.The meeting, which follows, in fact, respects  this pattern. Clarissa’s father had previously charged his wife to make his daughter accept the idea of marrying Mr Solmes, therefore, she approaches the meeting with the disposition of one who has to impart orders. Therefore, she mostly stands up and breaks the barrier of the roles sitting near her daughter and lowering to her level only to weak her resistance, trying to make her feel her true motherly affection with that more intimate approach, but she is ready to rise again as soon as she herself fears to yield, she is a mother after all. Clarissa, on the other side, keeps an imploring posture. She bows, kneels and eventually faints, when her mother tells her that the family, actually her father, expects her to perform her duty and that she would have soon received the visit of the head of the family whose disposition cannot certainly be defined gentle.

For a great deal of this meeting Clarissa’s mother is the only one to speak, while the girl is able to utter only few syllables, besides, whenever she essays to say something her mother doesn’t mean to be interrupted. Eventually, she lets her speak, but unheard. He is to marry Mr Solmes.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since those were the patterns of family relationships. But, how much water? What would such a meeting be like nowadays ? Well, I have no children and I cannot say, so I asked my students to give that dialogue a fresher look and these a couple of “gems” I picked:

Clarissa wants to talk with her mother about her obligation to marry a man of an important family that she doesn’t like, but the mother approaches her first.

* Clarissa, what’s the matter?

* I guess you already know what’s wrong, mom.

* Tell me.

* Mom! You know I’m so disappointed for your will to make me marry that Solmes. He’s such a creepy moron.

* Clarissa! You know it is your dad’s will, and I can’t disappoint him. And don’t use these words to describe him.

* He’s too old for me. There are many cool guys with big money in my school… and I also chat with a lot of them.

* I don’t mind.

* You can’t say that I must not marry him. It’s my life. I want to choose the man who will stay with me for the rest of my damned life.

* Clarissa, you know how it works for people like us. We can’t choose what to do about our life. It’s all about a big project for our family.

* But mom I…

* Clarissa, you are to marry him. There are no other choices.

* Go to hell mom.

Somebody shuts the door. ( Andrea T.)

You soon realize that, apart from the choice of words, this modern Clarissa is allowed to speak more than her mother and in Andrea’s imagination she cannot but have the last word. The following interpretation is more “sociopolitical” in its way, but in this case the mother prevails:

*Muuum, I have a problem, would you please come here and talk with me?

*What do you need, Clarissa? I hope it is important as  I am tidying you room!

*You already know what I want… you know… he is old and ugly… please I have a lot of suitors on Instagram!

*Yes I know but your father wants you to marry him and you are to respect and follow his will.

*I know mum but….but my friends can decide for themselves…. why can’ t I??

*Because you are different from your friends… you know… you are muslim and you are to obey or you will pay the consequences.  (Vittorio F.)

Definitely there has been a lot of water under the bridge.

 

 

A Matter of Chance

Miss Charlotte Lucas is exactly the kind of friend every woman wishes to have. If you are so fortunate to have as your best friend a Charlotte Lucas type, you will never be in danger of being overshadowed by her, as this specimen is usually “not handsome enough” to draw the interest of a man on her first – you know, we women are quite sensitive on this point – and she never seeks attention, but rather, she enjoys to see you in the limelight (I’ve never met one). In that shadow where Charlotte Lucas has comfortably placed herself for all her life, she has had all the time to study people and their behaviour in society, thus maturing a particular sensibility that allows her to detect whatever becomes unusual in their actions and to see events before they do happen. She is the first one to perceive Darcy’s change in attitude towards her friend Elizabeth and she is quick to understand that Jane’s demureness will not be the right strategy to secure Bingley :

“..it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a women had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.” (Pride and Prejudice Chpt 6)

Being wise and not afraid of speaking her mind, she always tries to find the right words to warn and advice her friend Elizabeth, but as a modern Cassandra, she is hardly ever given consequence as the limelight often blunders.

Charlotte Lucas seems to know the rules of love better than any other girl, but she also knows that love is not her game; not any more. At 27, she does not allow herself any longer even to dream a meeting with her Prince Charming. She is well aware that she has got just a few cards left to play, if she wants to marry and avoid “being a burden” to her family. The search of love would reduce her chances to get a husband, well, any husband. There is no room for any deceitful romanticism for her. She truly believes that neither love, nor wealth or disposition can guarantee a happy marriage:

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well-known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” (Pride and Prejudice Chpt 6)

Soon after Charlotte convinces Elizabeth to sing before their friends and Darcy. Once again, while Lizzie enjoys the limelight, she quietly retreats in her shadow, but her remarks cannot be ignored. Are these words or wisdom or just the bitter conclusions of a disappointed young woman?  Of course, Elizabeth, who is six years younger and claims her right to marry for love, considers her speculations unreasonable and laughs at her. When you are 21, even 30 and your entire life is before you, Charlotte’s disquisition may sound ridiculous, but when you grow older and you can ponder on yours and even your friends’ relationships, would I still laugh at the idea that happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance? I would not, and you?

Oscar Wilde in Sicily

Things had to cool down after the further scandal which had involved Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas while they were in Naples and Capri. So, Wilde quickly left the island and with the little money he had left, headed alone to Taormina in 1898. Wilde was not only attracted by  those magnificent rocky and enchanted bays of the dark blue Mediterranean or that mythological fascination that Sicily offered to its visitors. At that time Sicily, with its ancient Greek associations, had become a sort of dream land for homosexual literati of the time. It was the place where to project their sexual fantasies and invoke the legitimization of the ancient ‘Greek love’ tradition. This is the Sicily Wilde had in mind when he wrote the following lines taken from ” Charmides” in 1881.

“He was a Grecian lad, who coming home
with pulpy figs and wine from Sicily
Stood at his galley’s prow, and let the foam
grow through his crisp brown curls unconsciously,
and holding wave and wind in boy’s despite
peered from his dripping seat across the wet and stormy night»

Of course, Bosie had not been forgotten. Once arrived in Sicily and soon charmed by Taormina’s beauty and atmosphere, he missed him even more. He would have liked to enjoy his lover’s company in that magic place and so he started to send him passionate letters. This was more or less their tone: “my arms without you, grasp a void”, or “I’ve discovered a lover’s paradise where we will come to live together one day”.

Wilhelm Von Gloeden

In Taormina he stayed in the Hotel Victoria, which still exists today, on the Corso Umberto at number 81. Wilde made numerous visits to Baron Wilhelm Von Gloeden’s studio inTaormina, which was already famous throughout Europe. Von Gloeden had invented a new, extraordinary artistic genre: recreating the archetype of Magna Graecia with a backdrop of magnificent vistas and the close-up of beautiful and primitive Taormina children posing naked. Those photographs went out all over the great capitals of the Old Continent and  launched a simple message: in that world homosexuality was not a taboo, but it was practiced as in ancient Greece.

During the thirty days of Oscar’s staying in Taormina, he attended Gloeden, learnt his photographic techniques, adorned and made up the kids who posed for him before the photo shoot.They were the same kids who filled the barrels of sea water that carried on their shoulders from the Bay of Mazzarò to the village to pour them into the writer’s tub, following the example of his friend the Baron, who had the habit of bathing in salt water.

Oscar Wilde left Taormina on the 13th  February of 1898 with his suitcase full of shots of those “marvellous boys”; that is how he defined the boys in the photographs of Von Gloeden. Still today, among the cards belonging to Oscar Wilde, there are two of  Von Gloeden’s photographs. His friend Gloeden hoped to have his friend back soon in Taormina. He took him by the hand, and with great generosity and affection, offered him his house. Wilde responded with bitterness:

«I thank you, but the Mediterranean sun is no longer for me. Alfred yes he loves the southern sun and can enjoy it, so young and in love with life.. I know that he is nearly settled in Capri, who knows if he won’t decide to stop off in Taormina, which we’ve talked about a lot and where we have dreamt for so long of living together one day».

In April 1900 Wilde returned to Sicily, just a few months before his death but he would never walk again the streets of Taormina. He truly enjoyed the beauties of the Sicilian capital, Palermo, under the false name of Mr. Frak.  One day, young poet Achille Leto bumped into him. He was sure of having recognised the famous artist and asked : “Are you Oscar Wilde?“. Oscar looked at him and said: “I was Oscar Wilde“.

He died of meningitis on 30 November 1900.