Cosenza, Calabria, Italy. 1935
My real name is Carlo Tonelli. It was our village priest Don Fontinella that first called me “il Moro”. I asked my mother what he meant and she said… perhaps he meant that in summer my dark skin made me look like a moor, the dark skinned people of North Africa.
“They are very fierce!” She said, with perhaps a twinkle in her eye.
I thought about it and decided that I liked it… il Moro… If I was to have a nickname then one that sounded manly and fierce was a good place to start. Of course, I was only eight years old, and if anyone could have explained who il Moro had actually been… I wouldn’t have understood.
Later I understood… Later, our priest told me of the Sicilian boy Pancrazio Buciuni, that the German Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden had photographed all those years ago.
There were lots of things that our priest knew that the people of our village didn’t. Except for goats… his knowledge of goats was sadly incomplete.
He was an educated man, of good family, with some private income. Some said that his mother was a countess. The Church has always sent its young priests out into the countryside… Sometimes they remember them, and move them to a larger town… But, sometimes they forget all about them. Our priest seemed to have been one of the forgotten.
We lived in a very small village in the hills around Cosenza in Calabria, in Italy.
So how should I tell you where that is? … Cosenza! Not Italy! Everyone must know where Italy is!
Well, if Italy is shaped like a leg, about to kick Sicily, then Cosenza is where you would knot your shoe laces. So it’s a long way to the south… very hot and dry, and poor… as poor as it is hot and dry.
Just so that you will know, Cosenza is about 300 miles south from Rome.
Rome contains the Vatican where our church has its capos… its bosses. Papa said that each church in Rome contains more wealth than there is in the whole of Calabria. Papa, who I think was a Communist… said that in the Bible it says “from them that hath not shall be taken even that little that they hath.” He said that the Cardinals read that and took all the poor peoples’ little, and used it so that the Vatican hath… That’s how it came to be beautiful… and how we came to be poor.
I wasn’t jealous of their wealth like Papa. I had never had more than the clothes I wore, so I didn’t understand what it would mean to be rich… maybe never to be hungry, but to own things? No-one I knew owned more than a shovel or cooking pot. No, I wasn’t envious of the Cardinals. One day I hoped to see Rome. Perhaps if I was lucky I too would become wealthy
How that wish came true is the story of my growing up… I grew up on the way from Cosenza to Rome. I left as a child and arrived in Rome as a tough young man with a profession, a way to earn my living. It wasn’t a great profession but it had been feeding mouths since the world began... or at least since one person was wealthier than another.
I will tell my story as it happened.
I can see now why things happened, and what I should perhaps have done differently, but… I will tell my story as it happened to the child, and then to the boy, and then to the young man.
Mama said that the Don… we called him “the Don” or “our Dom”, had been our village-priest since she was a little girl. Papa looked up and said that the Church had thought that he was better left in our village where he was liked and his frailties forgotten. I asked what he meant… He said I would find out when I was older…”He looks after us well, but… you must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”
That’s what he said, but I had no idea what he meant… I suspect that Mama didn’t either.
Why do people try to confuse eight year old boys?
The Moor... Our priest was right of course… in summer my skin matched the flashing black of my eyes and the rich gloss black of my hair.
If you are poor, really poor, poor as in Southern Italy poor, then nice things that cost nothing, like beautiful hair and clear obsidian eyes… well they matter that bit more. Nothing else in my life had worked in my favour. Actually… that’s not true! My singing voice was high and pure and I was smart… the priest had recognised that and at eight I was his favourite choir-boy.
I would be quite clear about what it meant to be his favourite by the time I was eleven.
By ten I was simply the boy who he preferred to help him serve the bread and wine at Mass. I was quick and discreet and could count the people who would come to the rail to receive the Sacrament. I could count them without looking, and I could subtract the elderly who would probably stay in their seat… rather than risk their knees at the rail.
The Don said I was the only altar boy who could count without moving his lips or using his fingers. He said that in Calabria that made me an intellectual, but he didn’t tell me what an intellectual was.
Mama encouraged me to stick close to our priest. The ladies, especially the old ladies liked him. He was tough but fair at Confession, so they said. They said that he understood peoples’ weaknesses. He didn’t pretend to be perfect. That’s what they said. He just totalled up your sins, awarded a penance of so many Hail Marys or Stations of the Cross and… no more was said.
In a community that survived on goats, theft and banditry it was probably a sound approach.
When I was eight it was no great burden to go to Confession. It was nice to sit in the dark and tell him my childish sins… pinching my sister, or stealing the last plum and blaming her.
Not only was I able to unburden myself to someone who wouldn’t tell Mama but… he was someone who could tell me afterwards that because I had confessed to him I was forgiven… God had forgiven me. Of course my sister hadn’t forgiven me, but she was a girl and we were Italian mountain men. Right down in the toe of Italy, in Calabria, the men are real men… we are all scared of our mamas, but not of our sisters!
Mama was scary, but once I had been to Confession and was pure as pure can be… then I got cuddles and extra bread soaked in the better olive oil. Yes, going to serve our priest was the way to Mama’s heart.
It was when she had heard me singing to the goats that she had the idea of taking me to sing for Don Fontinella.
I had heard some of the older boys secretly calling him Don Feminella behind his back. At eight I had no idea what they meant… I just thought it was unkind… I was confused… to me he was a nice and gentle man.
There were so many things that were confusing. I knew that Italy’s boss, our leader, the Duce Benito Mussolini had been opposed to Germany wanting to take Austria to make Germany bigger. He’d promised to use our army if Hitler moved against Austria. On the other hand, almost the only person to seem friendly with il Duce was Adolf Hitler and almost the only person friendly with Adolf Hitler was il Duce. That’s what people said and I found it very confusing.
I felt very unsettled, as if I might need to run at any moment. It’s tough being eight.
Things didn’t get any clearer when we Italians invaded Abyssinia… The League of Nations was unhappy, England and France were unhappy. In fact the only person to openly support us was Adolf Hitler.
So… Hitler supported our annexation of Abyssinia while we opposed his annexation of Austria… Germans lived in Austria while almost no Italians lived in Abyssinia… It was very confusing. It would have been easier if I had understood long words like annexation! Meanwhile, it seemed to me that the difference was that Mussolini had taken Abyssinia, ignoring France and England while Hitler was still only talking about Austria.
I kept my things tidy… I was ready to run, but I still wasn’t sure where to or what from.
Cosenza, Calabria 1937
If the sacristy door wasn’t shut then the Don wasn’t robing and I could just walk in… He said I was a nice surprise so there was no need to knock.
It was when I was ten that I first came upon the Don when he was looking at one of his photograph albums. The photos were quite old, a sort of faded-brown colour. All the pictures were of boys dressed as Romans or Ancient Greeks. They wore togas or tunics.
They were very handsome.
I sat down beside the Don and asked him where they came from.
“There was a German in Sicily early this century… an artist-photographer. He liked the beauty of our dark-skinned young men. In Germany the boys are very blond and so pale they don’t look healthy. That’s why he admired our boys’ healthy tanned skins, dark curls and flashing eyes!”
He smiled wistfully…
“Hair and eyes just like yours!” He said. I glowed that he said it!
I was a child who was full of curiosity…
“But… if he could see the boys every day, why did he need to photograph them? … How did you get them? Was he a friend?”
He looked sad… “No, I never met him… though I did meet the first il Moro, the companion who looked after him… he did a good job of it too… The man was very sick all his life, but he was so well looked after that he lived beyond seventy!”
I said… “That must have been hard work for il Moro, all those years… Did he pay him?”
“Oh yes, he was very generous, and fair… He not only paid him, he also paid all the boys and men that he photographed. It was a very poor village, so the money he paid them was very useful.” He paused, perhaps to give me time to think.
“They are very handsome!” I said… “I’m glad he photographed them, their children will be glad too… Did he give them copies of his photos?”
“No… the photos were valuable, they were collected by dukes and emperors… They came to see his collection, and to buy. The German Kaiser came in his private ship to visit and… to meet the boys. This is all that is left of my father’s collection” Again he paused.
“I wish he had photographed me, so that I could meet Emperors!” The hook bit deep, I was his, even if I didn’t know it yet…
“I take photographs… It’s my hobby too.” The Don said.
“Would you take my photograph? Maybe in my best altar-boy surplice, the one with all the lace! The white lace would go so well with my dark hair!” I sat there entranced by the beautiful boy dressed as a Greek, with a bare-bottomed child standing beside him, his arm rested affectionately on the child’s shoulders.
“Maybe we could… Why not!… I have a friend in Rome. I feel sure that he would like to have a copy, for his sacristy wall… If I send him a copy and his friends in the Vatican like it then I shall pay you one lira for each copy he requests. Would that seem fair?” The hook dug deeper, we were very poor.
Photography was fun. I had to dress in the best cassock and surplice. He insisted that my work clothes spoiled the way the robes fell, so I had to start again and remove everything. He didn’t seem to mind that I stood there totally bare. In fact he chose that moment to wipe my face and neck with his wash-cloth. I was only ten and Mama still supervised bath-night (Saturday while Papa was away in the village bar… a tin tub in front of the fire… to be clean for Sunday.).
Being naked with the Don was less embarrassing than with Mama, though I still felt the need to cover my parts with my hands. But the Don said “Don’t be silly, God made you… you should respect what he made!”
I stood a little prouder, and a lot barer.
He made two photographs of me looking angelic in white lace and black cassock. His friend in the Vatican asked for five copies of each, so I had ten lire to take home to Mama. She was so pleased. She didn’t enquire too closely what I had done to earn the money… When she asked, I said that I had helped the Don with some sacristy stuff for his friend in the Vatican… She said “Good boy, do be nice to the Don, he is so kind to us!” So I did, and he was.
After that he took many more photographs of me in church robes. His friend in Rome liked them and the money became a regular thing. Some were very popular and would earn me significant amounts of money. I always gave all of it to Mama and she would give me part of it back. I saved it in a jar that I hid in the dry stone wall at the end of the garden, so that Papa would not find it and drink it.
It made me proud to be able to make a contribution to the family funds. Later I suspected that in those few years I contributed more to feeding us than Papa did. We ate better than before, a few lire can buy so many eggs and better olive oil. My jar in the wall too began to seem like riches.
Meanwhile, I was still nervous; Mussolini had taken Italy out of the League of Nations and Hitler? Hitler would take over Austria in 1938.
I was no longer a confused and worried eight year old… I was eleven, confused and worried. I was still ready to run if need be.
Cosenza, Calabria 1938
One day that summer I had a surprise. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
When I arrived for his photography I found the Don with another altar-boy. Luigi was a year younger than I... and he was already naked. The Don was washing his face. Had I lost my place in the old priest’s heart?
I had not! Later he re-assured me that I was still his il Moro, his boy for all time. But, he needed to create some variety. His friends in Rome had asked if our village really was so small that it only had one choir-boy!
“Come in my son,” He greeted my appearance. “Luigi is helping us today. We can make much more interesting tableaux with two of you.”
I wasn’t sure what a tableau was, but it was interesting to see Luigi’s bare bottom. When he turned round I could see that he was partially erect. The Don looked at it with approval.
“Luigi is growing fast. You will need to practise to keep ahead of him.” And he laughed merrily.
“You know that I give you a penance when you have impure thoughts… about your body?”
“Yes Don! I really do try…” I didn’t need a penance, that wasn’t why I was there!
“Well, it’s the impurity of your thought that is the sin, not what you do to your body. If you keep your thoughts pure and remember that you were given your body for God’s purpose, then practising to be a good husband is a worthy thing and is to be encouraged. If you like you can say two Hail Marys afterwards to say thank you for what you have enjoyed… just in case your mind wandered a little… while practising.”
I liked that idea, and another thought occurred to me…
“Don, you always ask me if the act was alone or with others… If the act is kept pure as you say… does it matter if I’m not alone?” I phrased my question carefully. I hoped that I was guessing the rules that governed this new freedom.
The Don looked delighted…
“il Moro… That’s an excellent question! In everything we do motive is what matters. If you cook a meal for gluttony that is a bad thing… if you do it to feed a beggar then that earns you credit in Heaven. Yes… First, you should never do it with a girl, before you marry her. But, if you and another boy are agreed that your motives are pure and that the act is simply to learn to give joy, then practising together… to be better husbands later… that is the purest of acts.
Remember to tell me in detail at your next confession, so that I can reassure you that you have indeed maintained a pure heart, and… if your mind wandered during the act I can give forgiveness… But… yes you may need to practise with a friend… but remember purity… purity of spirit is what matters!”
He seemed excited by what we had said… his face was quite red.
Then he stood and drew me to him in a hug that lasted… longer than expected… longer than I expected. I noticed that he also drew Luigi in to join us. His hug involved Luigi’s bare bottom… but he was our Don, and I was sure that his motives were pure. I allowed my hand to grip the other cheek of Luigi’s bottom, and the tips of my fingers touched the tips of the Don’s. He smiled and moved his fingers, stroking mine gently.
Luigi must have thought it was all for his benefit. I heard him sigh happily.
I wondered later… ‘Do priests have confessors, in case their minds wander?’
Perhaps the Don confessed to his friend in Rome. If he did then my picture would be on the wall beside them, looking down on them… that was a nice thought!
As Luigi went to get dressed in his robes, the Don said quietly…
“After confession next time, would you like to practise… a lesson? … instead of a penance? I can teach you how to do it properly… to create the most happiness. Happiness is what God made your body for.”
I was happy and quite excited. The Don was such a nice priest, lessons in happiness instead of a penance!
The photography that followed was an interesting series of “tableaux” as the Don called them. He wanted each picture to tell a story, so Luigi and I adopted prayer positions facing each other as if we were praying together in private. Then he took a series of full length and face shots. It took quite a while because he was loading glass plates into his old fashioned camera.
“That’s all the sacristy shots for today!” He said.
I started to pull my surplice off…
“No, no… not yet, I need a few more pictures. I have another friend who is… romantic, sentimental perhaps.”
He had us kneel in prayer again, but this time we clasped our hands together. I had seen angels posed on tombstones like that so I quickly gave him the effect he was looking for. I held Luigi’s hands between mine and looked into his face as if I might kiss it. Our Don became very excited…
“Yes, yes. That’s exactly right… you look as if you are falling into his eyes… the purest love for one another! Two altar-boys in love!”
It all seemed a bit silly, but I now understood exactly how to please him.
Indeed, the Don was very pleased. He also had us pose side by side as if sharing a prayer-book in one hand each, but holding hands with the other hand. We looked as if we thought no-one would notice. Holding Luigi’s hand was nice. Wearing nothing under the cassock was a problem that day. I hoped our Dom wouldn’t notice, but he didn’t miss much.
“There you see how easy it is for love to create pleasure in your body? Kiss Luigi to share the pleasure. I think that you two have already become friends!” He was right. Of course he was right!
We blushed, but did as he suggested and I swear that the pleasure God gave us increased.
I looked in Luigi’s eyes as our lips met and I could see the same feeling in him as I felt. Our hands were still clasped when our bodies met. I could feel the same swelling in his robes as there was in mine. I pressed his hand secretly against me… his smile broadened and the depth of his blushing grew in proportion.
We had indeed become friends… and the best thing was that the Don’s broad smile meant that he… and God… approved!
Luigi and I may have had very little material wealth but we now had each other and we had our priest’s approval.
Afterwards, while Luigi changed back into his work clothes, he smiled shyly at me… “That was more fun than when the Don took photographs of me on my own!” I could only smile back in agreement. It was indeed, much more fun.
Encouraged, he said “Can we do that again?… When we are alone?”
“Yes!” I said. “When we are out on the hills with our goats.”
He ran goats for his family, just as I did. Normally we avoided other herds. Although their ears were clipped to show ownership it was still a lot of work to separate them again if the herds became muddled.
“If we meet at the long-wall we can sit and talk, with the wall to keep our goats separated.“
The long-wall ran straight down the mountain for about a mile. In earlier times it had separated the lands of two rival families, but they had inter-married since and the rivalry died out many years ago. Walls are popular on our hillsides. They gather the rocks out of the way to give the sheep and goats easier grazing and they protect the animals in bad weather… we like our walls in Calabria!
We met later that week. We sat on the wall, keeping watch for wolves. They were less common than in earlier times, but we would be in terrible trouble if one got among the goats while we were supposed to be watching over them.
In the bright light of day we were much shyer of each other than we had been in the privacy of the sacristy under the Dom’s approving and encouraging gaze. Still, we sat companionably eating our apples and cheese for lunch. When we finished I rested my hand on the wall beside Luigi’s. He ever so gently moved his hand to rest it on top of mine. We sat there in silence, aware of each other and enjoying the feeling that the touching of our hands brought to us. His fingers stroked sideways, brushing across my fingers. It was nice, and I could feel my pants becoming slightly too small for comfort. I tried to ensure that I felt the purity of the moment. It was nice to think that just for a change I would have something worthwhile to tell the Don at my next confession.
“Did you think about what our Don said?” Luigi asked very quietly.
“About pleasure? … or about purity?” I replied.
“About both… It’s been puzzling me… I don’t feel pure when I do it… do you?” He asked.
“Not always… not until we met in the sacristy.” I replied.
“What’s different now?” Luigi asked, turning sideways to look at me.
“Well, before… it was sort of selfish… I could understand why our Don called my thoughts impure. Since what he said in the sacristy I’ve been able to think about someone else while I do it, and he was right… once it isn’t selfish… it’s purer. I’m looking forward to talking to him about it at confession!” It was a long explanation, but I wanted Luigi to understand my feelings.
“Who do you think about?” He asked.
I looked sideways and smiled… “The only person I have ever touched like that.” I answered.
He thought about that for a while, and then he said…
“Am I the only person you have touched?” I nodded, I was too nervous to speak… was he going to be pleased that I thought about him when I… well when I had pure thoughts?
I held my breath!
“That’s good,” He said “I‘ve been thinking about you too.”
I let my breath out.
“The Don seemed pretty sure that it wasn’t something we should worry about… He just wanted us to be kind to each other… that sounded pretty good to me.”
“Yes, it reminded me of “This message I give you, Love one another”.”
I suppose it was natural for us to think in those terms we were choir-boys after all.
“Well, I liked it… it’s nice advice!” I said and put my arm around his shoulders.
“I think so too!” said Luigi and pulled me against him. Our hands clasped together, we sat there for a while in a companionable sort of hug, thinking.
“I’m feeling pure!” He said. “So am I!” I replied eagerly.
“Do you think…?”
“It’s what he said!”
I turned towards him and took him in a proper hug, my head alongside his, so that I could smell and feel his hair… hot in the sun. I kissed the side of his neck. His cheeks were so hot.
“Does this make you feel good?”
“Me too!… That’s alright then.”
We had started, and as far as I could see, according to the Don’s advice what we were doing wasn’t sinful. We were making each other happy and that was what mattered. We went on cuddling and not quite kissing… grown up kissing I mean… for much of the afternoon. The sun on his hair as it began to set was glorious, like spun gold. I felt so good… I hoped he did too.
“May I kiss you?” He asked very quietly.
“That would be nice!” I replied… It was important that he knew that it would make me happy. So we did.
We had never kissed anyone seriously before. Even in the sacristy the kiss on his lips had been so gentle it almost didn’t count. This time when we met lips to lips… well actually we met nose to nose with a bit of a bump and a giggle, but we sorted that out, the kiss was firm and lasted while the sun set.
Then Luigi said “It’s nearly dark, we’d better get the goats settled for the night.”
“Will you be here tomorrow?” I asked.
“Yes. Let’s meet again then… for lunch.” He said eagerly.
With that we went home, our separate ways, to our evening meal and bed. For me, with pure and pleasant thoughts of Luigi… I hoped he would have pure thoughts about me.
We met next day as agreed. We held hands, hugged and cuddled. We were still at a bit of a loss as to where all this should lead. We found that kissing and especially cuddling made us both feel happy and contented. Our problem was not the Don’s words that had given us the freedom to do these things… It was what he had said about doing it only to give the other person pleasure, or if alone, in contemplation of the other’s pleasure. What we found was that the more excited we got, the less we were able to think about the other person’s feelings.
Faced with the risk of impurity… we stopped short of full… well we stopped short!
As it turned out we needn’t have worried. The Don explained it further when I went to Confession later in the week. Luigi got much the same message later that day. We compared notes when we met on the mountain.
The Don had asked me if I had sinned since my last confession and I admitted the theft of some cheese, and also that I had been tempted to a sip of the wine in the sacristy cupboard. For some reason the Don seemed a lot more concerned about the cheese at home than he was about the wine in the sacristy. On the other hand he seemed keen to get on to matters of purity, so questions of cheese and wine were quickly dealt with, to my great relief.
“Now then my son, have you maintained purity in bodily matters, since we discussed such things?” The Don cut straight to the heart of my worries.
“I think so Don... Luigi and I have been very careful. We’ve tried to follow your advice.”
“In what ways have you been careful?”
“We tried to only think about each other Don. When we found ourselves thinking about how nice it was for ourselves then we stopped until we could concentrate on the other again. We worried that during that short time we sinned… but honestly it was as short as possible, just until we realised.”
“Maybe you sinned a little… but perhaps you didn’t. Tell me, was the pleasure you felt entirely of your own body or was it pleasure at the joy that you were creating in Luigi’s body? When you stopped were you sad for yourself or was it for the loss of Luigi’s joy?”
“Oh for Luigi… I felt such love for him… I so wanted him to explode with joy, but… I knew I was close to that myself… that was wrong I know… I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”
“Of course you felt his pleasure my son. If you create enough pleasure for him to explode as you call it, then you too must feel his pleasure, and… if it’s sufficient then you too will experience the same joy. The test is… Will you ensure that his joy is more important than your own? If you can do that, then it doesn’t matter if you too experience the full joy that’s possible.”
Then he asked me if I would still prefer a lesson in giving pleasure or would I prefer three Hail Mary’s. I said “A lesson please!”
“First. How far have you progressed with Luigi? Have either of you exploded as you call it?”
“No Father, when together we always held back.”
“Did you only touch through your clothes?” He asked “Yes Father.”
“Were you touching bare flesh?” I said no. He seemed pleased.
Then he asked me to join him in his side of the confessional. It seemed strange, but he said that it was necessary if he was to teach me. So I did.
When I joined him he drew me to him and kissed me gently. Then he... Then he… But he made me promise… What he did and said… it’s a terrible sin to reveal secrets of what happens in the confessional. He told me that later… so I won’t, but it was wonderful!