In Bologna, Remains of Legendary Castrato Farinelli Are Exhumed for Study

Classic Arts News   In Bologna, Remains of Legendary Castrato Farinelli Are Exhumed for Study
"The divine Farinelli," once the most popular and best-paid opera singer in all Europe, has emerged from the grave to reveal his secrets.

Not by himself, of course — his remains were taken from his tomb in Bologna yesterday by a team of scientists, historians and music scholars.

Farinelli, n_ Carlo Broschi in Puglia in 1705, was considered in his day (and perhaps ever since) the greatest of the castrati, male singers who were neutered as children in order to preserve their "angelic" high voices, so that they could sing with the purity, sweetness and high range of a woman and the power of a full-grown man.

Though the practice seems to have begun in Spain in the late 1500s, castrati were largely an Italian phenomenon. During their vogue, roughly 1600-1760, the greatest castrati were wildly popular and well-paid, in demand not only for opera but also for the treble parts in sacred music, which women were generally not allowed to sing. Handel and Vivaldi are the best-known opera composers to have used star castrati, though Rossini, a century later, wrote a few starring roles for them. (In some countries, castrati were always shunned as the products of barbaric cruelty — notably France, which preferred its operatic heroes to be high and light tenors.) Castrating young boys was always nominally illegal, even in Italy — its victims were always said to have been injured in accidents — but the Vatican only stamped out the practice in 1878, and continued to employ castrati in its own choirs into the early 20th century.

Farinelli was educated in the conservatories of Naples and began his wildly successful stage career — historians often compare his popularity (and income) to that of a modern-day rock star — in 1720. Contrary to myth, he never sang for Handel; much of the time he performed operas specially composed for him by his brother Riccardo. He gave up the stage entirely in 1737 and became a private musician to King Philip V of Spain, for whose melancholia Farinelli's singing was said to be the only cure. He eventually retired to an estate near Bologna, where he died in 1782. His life was depicted (none too accurately) in G_rard Corbiau's popular 1994 film Farinelli.

The singer's grave had been thought destroyed and was only rediscovered in 1995; the exhumation and examination of the remains are being carried out by the Centro Studi Farinelli, an independent scholarly society based in Bologna. The plan is to take DNA samples, X-rays and CAT-scans of the skeleton to see what can be learned about the physique and physiology of a castrato. Castrati were known to grow unusually tall and have very large chest cavities; they also tended to be on the roly-poly side, and some were reputed to have grown pendulous breasts.

"This is the only skeleton of them we have," Nicholas Clapton said. Himself a countertenor as well as an expert on the castrati, the British professor told Reuters that "We want to know if they were like the cartoons at the time depicted them, tall and dangly, or with women's breasts and large buttocks, or like the grand gentleman in Farinelli's official portraits."

Musicologist Carlo Vitali, a co-founder of the Centro Studi Farinelli (and a friend and colleague of this writer), said to Reuters that the remains "are in a middling state of preservation but the scientists say there is something to work on."

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