Wednesday 19 February 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 5) Tourists and Taurus

Last time on “80 More Gays”: 9) Polycrates of Samos (d.522 BC) lent his name to a psychological complex exhibited by 10) Paul Morphy (1837-1884), who played a game of chess during “Norma”, an opera which inspired 11) Marion Bradley Zimmer (1930-1999) to write an Arthurian novel, a genre popularised by the Victorians including 12) Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942).

12) Charles Robert Ashbee was an architect and designer though he also wrote several novels. One of these was an Arthurian Utopian fantasy, “From Whitechapel to Camelot”. Ashbee founded the Essex House Press after William Morris’s more famous Kelmscott Press closed. Many books were published by Essex House and Ashbee created the type faces called Endeavour and Prayer Book.

With William Morris Ashbee was the major player in the Arts and Crafts Movement. He established several Arts and Crafts School in London which produced furniture, jewellery and metal work.

On several occasions Ashbee was asked to design buildings. After renovating the country home of Col. Thomas Shaw-Hellier in the 1890s the colonel invited Ashbee to design and build him a villa in Taormina, a popular tourist destination on Sicily. It was especially popular with gay men.

Oscar Wilde sampled the delights of Taormina and a gay photographer, Wilhelm von Gloeden, a friend of Shaw-Hellier, spent most of his life there building up a large portfolio of photos of young male nudes. A lot of British men visits the town escaping the anti-gay-sex laws in the UK. One of them, Sir Harold Acton, once described Taormina as “a polite synonym for Sodom”.

It is assumed that Col. Shaw-Hellier was homosexual. He married very late in life (at the age of 63) and was friends with many of the gay men who visited Taormina. Charles Ashbee was certainly gay, even though he tried to uphold Victorian respectability by marrying and having four children.

The site of Shaw-Hellier’s new villa in Taormina was on the site of an old temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The villa was built in 1907 and became known as the Villa San Giorgio. Shaw-Hellier died in 1910 and his villa is now the Hotel Ashbee.

Ashbee and Shaw-Hellier had a mutual gay friend on Taormina, 13) Robert Hawthorn Kitson (1873-1947). Kitson had just built his own villa in the town, the Casa Cuseni, in 1905. It became a magnet for visiting celebrities – Chanel, Picasso and Garbo, amongst others. Roald Dahl is said to have got the idea for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when he stayed there.

Today Casa Cuseni is an Italian national monument and museum. In 2018 one of the original frescoes was “revealed” to the public as part of a tour of the town. It depicts a real event in Kitson’s life. In 1908 an earthquake hit Messina, half an hour’s drive up the coast, killing around 80,000 people and creating many orphans. Kitson and his lover, an artist called Carlo Siligato, decided to adopt one of the orphans. The depiction in the fresco is the first known example in art of gay adoption. This website includes a YouTube video which gives a detailed look at this fresco.

As mentioned earlier Charles Robert Ashbee’s villa, now the Hotel Ashbee, was built on the site of an ancient temple. So was the town’s main church. It was built on the site of a temple to a Greco-Egyptian god who was created through the deliberate merging of Isis’ husband Osiris and the chief Greek god. The new deity can be called 14) Zeus-Serapis.

Zeus-Serapis was “created” by the Ptolemys of Egypt in the 3rd century BC in an attempt to unit the Egyptians and Greek communities. It became a popular cult and lasted for 700 years and a sacred bull had an important influence on it.

In Egypt there was a cult to Apis, a sacred bull who was transformed into the god Osiris when it was sacrificed – Osiris-Apis (a name which developed into Serapis). The Ptolemys, being Greek, knew that their Greek subjects wouldn’t worship an animal god, or even a mixture of bull and man like Osiris-Apis. So they depicted the bull god in the form of their own chief god Zeus, and Zeus-Serapis was “born”.

Zeus has strong links to bulls himself, most famously in the story of Europa. I wrote about the multiple bull connections in the Europa myths in my article on Taurus back in 2012. Being immortal Zeus was actually Europa’s great-great-grandfather, she being descended from his lover Io who was transformed into a cow to keep her a secret from his wife Hera. It’s interesting to know that Zeus was also great-great-grandfather to his male lover, Ganymede.

Back to Sicily and the town of Taormina, the location of a temple to Zeus-Serapis. The town’s name actually translates roughly as “I stay with the bull”, and a mythical creature, half woman, half cow, called a bucentaur, appears in the town’s coat of arms (below) which was adopted in 1928. And the town itself sits in the shadow of Monte Tauro – Mount Taurus.
Taurus is, of course, one of the major constellations. Within the constellation is a group of stars called the Pleiades. I also wrote about them a couple of years ago, of their link to drag queens, and their connection to Dionysos, the god of wine and cross-dressing who is also known as the Bull God (there’s that animal again).

The Pleiades, representing a group of sisters, have provided the inspiration behind an initiative within astronomy aimed at improving the status and inclusion of women. There is also a set of awards which accompany the initiative called the Pleiades Awards. These was given to organisations, universities or observatories which champion female equality within astronomy.

The initiative and the awards were launched in 2014 by the Women in Astronomy Chapter of the Astronomical Society of Australia. The Chair of the chapter at the time was 15) Dr. Lisa Harvey-Smith (b.1979).

Next time of “80 More Gays”: We meet the Rainbow Serpent of the southern skies and celebrate the millennium with a centenary.

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