The Deepest Cut
The horrifying mutilation of males by way of castration is centuries old.
Its first use was to humiliate captured enemies.
What better way to negate and diminish any man by removing his outward symbols of “manhood”? In most cultures, this meant the testicles, the source of the fluid by which children are begat, and therefore, terribly important in some societies. [Though the penis itself, as the “begatting” delivery method of said precious liquid, and the means of male sexual satisfaction, could certainly be construed as more important than mere testicles.]
Other reasons for castration over the millennia have been for criminal punishment, for vengeance, or to create an underclass of female protectors known as “eunuchs”.
Perhaps the most facile and shallow reason for castrating any male, however, had to be for entertainment purposes.
A strange group of operatic singers and entertainers were created purposefully by both the Catholic Church and others for one aim: to make sure the highest vocal ranges could be met on stage by male
The best known of these castrati (castrated males whose primary reason for castration was maintaining clear falsetto and soprano vocal ranges throughout their lives) was an interesting 18th Century specimen known as “Farinelli”.
“Off With His . . . ”
Male castration as a punishment or as a way toward occupational security is a very old practice.
The procedure took many forms, from partial to complete.
Partial castration involved crushing the testicles with a mallet or vise. This damaged them irreparably and effectively cut off testosterone production, causing the male to lose any sexual urges.
Another common method was slicing off the entire scrotum, leaving only the penis. The net result was the same—with no testosterone there was no natural sexual desire.
The final castration method was the most involved. The testicles and penis were completely severed as close to the body as possible, and a hollow reed or a silver tube was inserted in the urethra to allow for urination. Many males died from infections or from a urethra that would heal closed (cutting off the ability to urinate).
A castrated male, if altered before puberty, can readily develop secondary female physical characteristics such as breasts (though smallish), rounder hips, and beardlessness. Some eunuchs, however, were obese (weight gain is another trait) with pendulous breasts.
Many castrated males were subjected to this procedure for jobs, usually involving guardianship of women.
In ancient China eunuchs were respected members of the court. Often they gained political power; their place in society was somewhat “mysterious”, and often they were invested with imagined psychic or magical powers.
Chinese court eunuchs were often the first to know of court intrigues, and they ably worked both sides of the yin-yang fence, hearing what the Khan said and then absorbing what the Empress might say. Many eunuchs became wealthy through extortion based on their intelligence gathering.
The very word “harem” is derived from the Arabic word, harÄ«m, which means “forbidden”. The image of the harem as a pleasure palace within a palace is false.
These women lived lonely and miserable lives as chattel, and they were sequestered and cloistered. On the rare occasions they left the royal grounds they were chaperoned by the eunuchs and every square inch of their skin was covered.
They lived in fear and at the sultan’s pleasure as well: one notorious ruler, in a fit of pique, had every woman in his harem wrestled into individual cloth sacks and then tossed into a nearby river where they drowned like so many unwanted kittens.
Sometimes in the harems the eunuchs had their play. Not all eunuchs were incapable of sexual performance. Some, who had retained their penises, could get erections and were highly sought by the harem women regularly. One such affair was discovered by a sultan; both the eunuch and the woman were put to death, not because of the infidelity, but because of the perceived outrage of her congress with “half a man”.
The harems were abolished in 1909. The eunuchs who served up till then had no livelihood of which to speak. Many turned to prostitution, assuming a female role in liaisons. Others held themselves forth as side-show attractions, and sold postcards and photos of themselves as souvenirs.
Ars Gratia Artis
The world of art has its eccentrics, men and women, many of whom who suffered tremendously and sacrificed for their art. The world of chorale music was “enhanced” by taking a cue from the ancients: if a boy was castrated or sexually damaged before puberty, his body would never develop the secondary male characteristics of men, most notably the deepening voice.
Among entertainers the male singing voice was significantly altered by castration. It retained its youthful soprano because a castrato’s voice box did not grow and mature.
Other unusual characteristics of the castrati were physiological. Because they did not mature with the hormonal surge expected at puberty, the ends of their long bones did not harden as in a normal adult male. Thus, many castrati continued to grow and were very tall for their times. Furthermore, the same held true of their ribcages—the constant inspiration and exhalation of vigorous vocal exercise, in the days before microphones, allowed their softer ribs to grow, greatly expanding their ribcages.
The Byzantine Empire as early as 400 AD had a castrated choir-master operating in Constantinople under the patronage of the Empress Aelia Eudoxia. About three hundred years later the practice developed in Italy. Castrati were popular all over Europe—the Sistine Chapel choir in 1558 featured a Spanish castrato.
The practice was prevalent in France as well. The Catholic Church (most notoriously through its legendary Vienna Boys Choir) accepted boys who, through parental influence, were castrated to preserve their natural soprano voices. This meant in a choral setting the voices were all clear, and high, and uniform.
Being so engaged in a well-known choir was an honor for both the boy and his family. This practice gradually diminished and was outlawed in 1870.
At the height of this fad in the 1720s and 1730s upwards of 4,000 boys annually were castrated for the sake of art. Most came from poor homes; their parents often castrated them hoping the son would be successful and lift them from poverty. [This is what happened to Senesino, born Francesco Bernardi.]
In their heyday, however, operatic castrati enjoyed an international celebrity. Just as ancient eunuchs were credited with mystical or ethereal traits so, too, the castrati were considered enigmatic and exotic. Carlo Scalzi and Senesino (Francesco Bernardi) were major celebrities in the mid to late 18th Century. The last known castrato was an Italian boy named Alessandro Moreschi (fl. mid 1870s).
But in the obscura of castrati there is one who was the most famous and celebrated: Carlo Broschi, better known by his stage name, Farinelli.
Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi was born January 24, 1705, in Andria on the southeastern coast of Italy (on the line with the “heel” of the peninsula). He had an older brother, Riccardo. The family was well off, and they were related to minor nobility through both the mother and the father.
Carlo’s father, Salvatore, was a composer and choir master of the town’s cathedral. His mother, Caterina, was a Neapolitan of an upper-class background. Family connections meant the Duke of Andria, a very powerful magistrate of Neapolitan origin, honored the Broschis by not only attending Carlo’s baptism, but also holding the baby as he was baptized at the font.
Salvatore took the job of governor for the town of Matera (near the Gulf of Taranto, about 20 miles—roughly 33 km—southeast of Andria). In 1709 the family moved again when Salvatore accepted a similar post in Terlizzi. By 1711, the family had moved to the west-coast city of Naples. In 1712, Carlo’s older brother, Riccardo, entered the local conservatory to learn musical composition.
Carlo had already shown talent as a boy singer, and he was placed under the tutelage of Nicola Porpora, the most famous voice instructor in Naples. Porpora was a renowned operatic composer; in 1715, he was appointed maestro at the conservatory where Riccardo Broschi studied. His students included three well-known castrati of the time, and Carlo certainly was exposed to them through his association with his teacher, Porpora.
Salvatore Broschi died unexpectedly at the age of 36 on November 4, 1717. Any economic security and prestige the family had died with him. Riccardo, as the older son, took charge: he made the decision for Carlo to be castrated. [There are disputed indications that Carlo’s father had already decided, when Carlo was ten, for him to become one of the castrati because of his excellent singing voice. In the belief the older son Riccardo could carry on the family line Salvatore was willing to sacrifice Carlo’s sexual functioning in exchange for his certain fame on the theater stage.]
The decision really was predicated upon economics—Carlo, unlike most castrati, came from privilege. But that might soon be gone, and he could make a relative fortune by submitting to castration. He agreed, but, legally, the operation was verboten. Anyone undergoing this procedure had to come up with a legitimate excuse for having his testicles removed (other than wanting to sing opera).
Carlo, it was claimed, had been damaged by a fall from a horse.
Thus, at twelve years old he lost his source of testosterone.
He Was a Beautiful Lady
Carlo continued studying with Porpora.
Although most castrati did not make their stage debuts until they were between eighteen and twenty years old, his rapid progress meant an early blooming.
He had a 3½-octave range (with his normal performance range running about 2½ octaves). He could sing up to 250 notes with a single breath, and could hold a single note for over a minute.
When he was fifteen he made his first appearance with an original serenade written by his teacher. His stage name of “Farinelli” was adopted, but its origins are unclear. It was perhaps a nod to two influential, and wealthy, Neapolitan lawyers named Farina who were also patrons of opera.
Farinelli quickly became famous throughout Italy—he was at first generally known by the sobriquet “The Boy”, however.
He traveled to Rome in 1722 and appeared on stage there in female drag. This was common as women sometimes were prohibited from public appearances, and the castrati’s voice was
All of Farinelli’s performances dressed in women’s garb were well received, and his fame grew.
Farinelli was feted everywhere; he drew women to like a magnet (as any rock star today would).
Part of that attraction was morbid curiosity—fawning and frustrated women wanted to see if he could “perform” in other areas off-stage.
He likely could, within reason. [Though the mid 1990s’ film about him makes him out to be a satyr, we can only presume today that his sexual activities, if any, with respect to women may have been through gently coerced oral and/or manual means. There seems to be no indication he was able to engage in intercourse despite some eunuchs’ ability to do so.]
He was also cultured, witty, and charismatic, so he did not lack for female company. And he was also surprisingly polite (as reported by contemporaries); he did not display much in the way of pique as would be expected of a preening prima donna in his glory.
In 1724, he appeared for the first time in Vienna, Austria (where he would sing many more times). He sang in Milan and Parma in 1726. While performing in Bologna, Italy, in 1727, he met another famous castrato who was twenty years his senior, Antonio Bernacchi. He and Farinelli ended up in a vocal duel on-stage, with Farinelli setting the pace and Bernacchi following. Bernacchi bested Farinelli in this sing-off; Farinelli graciously conceded defeat, and even asked the more experienced singer for lessons. Bernacchi, equally gracious, agreed.
Farinelli played for the Munich court, and moved on to perform in Venice in 1729. Handel, the composer, caught up to him, and in 1730 he tried to woo Farinelli into coming to London to perform for his opera company.
Handel, however, could never set up a meeting with him—Farinelli was far too busy. He was back in Vienna in 1732 where he had an audience with the Holy Roman Emperor; amusingly, the Emperor gave Farinelli advice about his singing style!
Farinelli went to London in 1734. Senesino, another famous castrato, had a falling out with Handel the previous year and had stormed off and started his own competing performance group. Senesino’s theater employed Farinelli’s former teacher, Porpora, as a composer. The new group was not flourishing however, but Farinelli joined them; they became famous almost overnight.
Senesino and Farinelli appeared on-stage together many times, but it was Farinelli who was the toast of London. One critic gushed:
“The first note he sung was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterwards diminished in the same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for full five minutes. After this he set off with such brilliancy and rapidity of execution, that it was difficult for the violins of those days to keep pace with him.”
The paying public adored him as well, as did some well-heeled female admirers. One noblewoman, enthralled by one of his performances, shouted, “One God, one Farinelli!”, from her theater box.
It wasn’t always roses for Farinelli, however. The slightly freakish appearance of the castrati (gangly, feminized, but not female) led one London reviewer to praise Farinelli’s singing while lambasting his strange physical appearance on-stage and his bad acting:
“Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy [sic] to the Ear! But, Heavens! What Clumsiness! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye! Reader, if of the City, thou mayest probably have seen in the Fields of Islington or Mile-End or, If thou art in the environs of St James’, thou must have observed in the Park with what Ease and Agility a cow, heavy with calf, has rose up at the command of the milkwoman’s foot: thus from the mossy bank sprang the DIVINE FARINELLI.”
Farinelli was paid £1500 for the opera season. [This is well north of a few hundred thousand dollars US today.] Gifts from admirers increased his coffers dramatically (to an estimated £5000, a tremendous sum at the time; he was not the only singer to reap such wealth then). While still under contract in London, Farinelli received a royal summons from the court of Spain. He was to appear before the king.
Farinelli intended to only visit Spain briefly. He stopped in Paris en route to Madrid and sang for King Louis XV on July 9, 1737. The king presented Farinelli with his portrait set in diamonds as a parting gift and
Farinelli made it to Spain in August 1737. Philip V, King of Spain, was in a state of severe depression. The Queen, Elisabetta Farnese, thought Farinelli’s singing might cure her husband of the blues. His intended “brief visit” lasted many years. On August 25, 1737, Philip made him the chamber musician to the king. He thus became a servant to the royal family.
He never sang publicly again.
Farinelli was a great court favorite, and he was very influential (after the traditions of powerful eunuchs throughout history). For the remaining nine years of King Philip’s life Farinelli sang nightly in private performances for the royal couple. He also sang for other members of the royal family. He arranged for professional musicians to play at court. In 1738 he sent for an entire Italian opera company to visit Madrid. A palace pavilion was remodeled into Madrid’s only opera house.
Once King Philip’s son, Ferdinand VI, assumed the throne, Farinelli’s political influence increased greatly. Ferdinand was not only a music lover, as was his wife, Barbara of Portugal, he was also a musician himself. He, the queen, and Farinelli often played together for hours, with Farinelli and the queen singing duets while the king played the harpsichord.
The Queen is Dead
Farinelli made himself indispensable in the Spanish court. He handled every extravaganza personally, and supervised all court entertainments. He finagled some patronage from the royals on behalf of his brother Riccardo.
Riccardo was placed as head of the Spanish navies (quite an honor considering Spain’s dominance of the seas at the time). Riccardo did not live long, however—he died at the age of 53, leaving a widow and his children under Farinelli’s fiscal care.
Farinelli was made a noble in 1750 when the title of Knight of the Order of Calatrava was conferred upon him. He was very proud of this honor; many of his portraits after this time show the jeweled crest of his
When Philip V had died leaving his son king, Elisabetta Farnese, the former queen, had gone into seclusion, making herself an exile. She had invited Farinelli to come away and retire with her, but he elected to stay at court instead. When Ferdinand died, his half-brother Charles III took the Spanish throne in 1759.
Charles did not love music. And he was suspicious of Farinelli’s courtly influence.
Farinelli was no longer welcome in the palace; Elisabetta, carrying her grudge for Farinelli’s slighting her, refused to put in a good word for him with her son, Charles. In effect, Charles III fired Farinelli—he was granted a state pension for his past service, was advised to leave Spain, and was shown the door.
Farinelli retreated to Italy and settled in Bologna in 1761. [In 1732 he had acquired property and citizenship of that city-state.] He fell into an uneasy retirement.
In his early fifties, Farinelli was still famous and very wealthy. He ranked many great artists and personages among his friends, including Mozart and Casanova. He outlived most of his close companions, though, and instead struck up long-distance, platonic relationships, via correspondence, with men of letters (one of whom was a Viennese court poet; another, a music historian).
Farinelli died alone on September 16, 1782, at age 77, just a few months after his friend the Viennese court poet had died. He left an extravagant estate for disbursement. In addition to personal largesse he had many gifts from Europe’s royal houses, a collection of over 300 paintings (that included works by Velázquez), and many portraits of his royal patrons. He also collected musical instruments: he owned a piano made in Florence in 1730 as well as violins crafted by Stradivari and Amati.
His will decreed he be buried in the mantle of his noble title. He was interred in a monastic cemetery in Bologna, but his original burial site was demolished during the Napoleonic wars. In 1810, a great-niece of his, Maria Carlotta Pisani, saw to the removal and transfer of his remains to another Bolognese cemetery.
Farinelli’s immediate heir was a nephew named Matteo Pisani. In 1798, Pisani sold Farinelli’s house. This residence was later converted to a sugar factory that, because of damage received in World War II, was demolished in 1949.
His grand-niece, Maria, later gave many of Farinelli’s letters (and he corresponded with some of the most enlightened people of his time) to the library at Bologna University. When she died in 1850, she was buried in the same grave as Farinelli.
His remains were disinterred in July 2006 for scientific study (specifically about Farinelli himself, more generally concerning the physiology of the castrati). Importantly, his long bones were discovered to support the contemporary descriptions of his greater-than-average height, and he exhibited the expected enlarged ribcage. Secondary testing determined he had no diseases or
A movie was made about Farinelli in 1994 (highly fictionalized but watchable) in which Farinelli is portrayed as more sexually voracious than he really was.
He presumably had his “affairs” (or at least, those which could be expected but not as common as popularly believed). Any attempts to make him out as a leaping sexual goat are not borne out by facts. He was also portrayed in the film as a boorish egomaniac given to diva pretensions. He was not that either. The real Farinelli was well-mannered.
It is more poignant to think of Carlo Broschi, the boy, who (out of loyalty to his family) allowed his future to be so drastically altered by letting himself be maimed in such a personal and permanent manner. In an age with no anesthetics, this could only have been excruciating.
That is not just a sacrifice for art, it is also a heroic act of altruism. Not many people would go to such extremes.
Hitting the high notes in history...
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