“Castration for music” was practiced primarily by the Italians. Under the Roman Catholic Church’s Canon Law castration was prohibited; it was considered to be mutilation and its practice resulted in ex-communication. Unofficially, however, the Church supported “castration for music.” For one simple reason: it made their choirs better, especially since women were banned from choirs.
The choirs were important, for they sang the music that praised and glorified God.
So the practice continued, with as many as 4000 to 5000 boys per year undergoing the bloody ministrations of the knife. Most of these were from destitute families, and were sold by their parents to a singing master. In most cases, they were not asked if they desired to be castrated. There was no choice. They just were.
At the end of the eighteenth century, castrati lost their appeal to the masses. Musical tastes were changing, and mutilation by castration came to be considered obscene as well as cruel. In 1870 the Italian government outlawed deliberate mutilation of another human being. And Pope Leo the XIII banned the use of castrati in church choirs.
Farinelli, aka Carlo Boschi, the exception to the rule in many ways, was not poor. He was born into a musical Italian family; his father was the governor of Maratea and Cisternino. His father decided the boy’s voice was too pure and precious to suffer the stain of hormones, so a plan was concocted. Supposedly Carlo fell while riding his horse. His testicles were crushed in the fall, and castration had to be performed for medical reasons.
Lies told for the glory of God.
Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Naples, Italy. There, Carlo tutored under Nicola Popora, the internationally famous composer and singing-master. At the age of fifteen Carlo made his debut. And the operatic world swooned at the high-pitched purity of his voice. His successes throughout Europe swelled.
In 1737 he visited Madrid, Spain, to perform for King Philip V. King Philip V and his Queen, Elisabetta Farnese, were so charmed and enraptured by his vocal offering that they appointed Farinelli Chamber Musician to their Majesties. Farinelli accepted the position. He stayed in Spain for twenty-two years and never again performed publicly.
After King Philip V’s death, his son, Ferdinand VI, became King of Spain. The new King and his Queen also found Farinelli to be indispensable. It was King Ferdinand who bestowed the honor of Knight of the Order of Calatrava upon Farinelli.
Within a few years, though, things began to fall apart. Ferdinand VI died, and was succeeded by his half-brother, Charles III. Charles III did not like music and despised Farinelli personally.
Quietly, Farinelli was retired to Bologna, where, although visited by such renowned figures as Mozart and Casanova, he lived out of the limelight. Alone and lonely he died, probably from apathy and a lack of love, although no doctor would admit it.
In retirement, the only thing Farinelli took any interest in was food. It was the only physical sensation that gave him pleasure. Under the circumstances, he could have retired to worse places than Bologna, whose specialties include handmade egg pasta, stuffed pasta like tortellini, and the famous spaghetti alla bolognese with long-simmered meat sauce. The key, of course, is the handmade egg pasta. Machine extruded pasta is an abomination when compared with the real thing.
To see it made, you must walk to Via Clavatura, east of the main squares. There, lined up like shrines for gourmets, sit the food stalls. In the first stall, rows of sausages repose in neat rows, such as prosciutto, mortadella and salame. Above them, from large shiny fish-hooks, dangle white-wrapped poultry. The battling piquant aromas tickle your nose, making it wrinkle as you ward off a sneeze. On the ledge of the counter stands a bottle of Lambrusco di Modena, its quixotic attitude arousing your thirst.