The Strange Beauty of the Castrati

Jacopo Amigoni – Ritratto di Farinelli.jpg
a painting by Jacopo Amigoni  (1682–1752)   portraying famous castrato singer Carlo Broschi, better known by his artist name Farinelli, crowned by the muses.   

When Farinelli, the most famous castrato of his time, sang in London, one woman squealed “One God, one Farinelli!”. “Long live the knife, the blessed knife!” screamed other estatic female fans at opera houses as the craze for Italian castrati reached its peak in the 18th century.  Farinelli was later summoned by the Queen of Spain to sing her husband, Philip V, out of his depression, and went on to become the most potent politician in Spain as well as owner of his own opera house.

A castrato was a male singer with a vocal classification of a female or a child’s voice—a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or alto. From about 1550 CE to the late 19th century, those voices were created by castrating boys before they reach puberty, thereby preventing their voices from deepening. A castrato, then, would have the lung capacity and muscular strength of an adult male, and the vocal range of a prepubescent boy. The only difference between a castrato (collectively known as castrati) and a eunuch is that historically most eunuchs were castrated after puberty, therefore the castration had no impact on their voices.

The Grand White Eunuch by Jean-Léon Gérôme.jpg
The Grand White Eunuch by Jean-Léon Gérôme

A nineteenth century surgeon Benedetto Mojon, in a treatise on the physiological effects of castration published in 1804, explained that a castrato who was neutered at around six years of age would retain, at eighteen, the penis of a six-year-old. But when the operation had been performed closer to the age of puberty, his penis—or what was left of it—would more nearly resemble that of a normal man, with the notable exception that “erection takes place much more frequently than in the case of non-castrated men.”

This piece of information was meant to serve as partial explanation for tales of sexual promiscuity, which Mojon went on to provide: from Juvenal, who criticized the excesses of the Roman eunuchs in his satire, to an account by the forensic doctor Johann Peter Frank in 1779, in which four castrati managed to “know” all the women in a single small town, causing such a scandal that police intervention was required.

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