Eviva il Coltello!

Long have people sought to push the boundaries and redefine art, causing no little uproar and controversy wherever they spring up. What would people not do to further the cause of art? How about the castration of boys before puberty to preserve their “voices of angels”? This article will examine the tradition of the castrati of classical Europe.

Rise of the Castrati
The apostle Paul proclaimed “Let your women keep silence in the churches”. In the tradition of the Catholic Church, women’s active involvement in the church was strictly forbidden, a rule that was strongly enforced until only recently. They at in the galleries, kept their silence, and were disallowed from participating in speech, singing or theater. Brought in to substitute female voices were young boys and Spanish falsettists (non-castrated men who sang using their falsetto register). When it became apparent that the boys were too ill-disciplined and the falsettists were of inferior quality, Pope Clement VIII endorsed the castrati at the end of the 16th century.

Eviva il Coltello!
The castrati rose to prominence, with many composers of the Renaissance and Baroque period eager to compose operas for their wondrous voice which were unparalleled by any in pitch and strength. At the height of the castrati’s popularity in the 18th century, they were the prima donna superstars of their day, rich and famous, and travelled frequently around Europe’s courts and capitals. Notoriously temperamental and volatile, they had big personalities to match their voices and widely adored by their hysterical female fans who screamed “Eviva il Coltello! (Long live the knife!)” after performances, a reference to the instrument used to remove their testes.

What Price Glory?
In the basketball courts of the impoverished suburbs of America today, we find hundreds and thousands of Black teens putting themselves through grueling physical training, shooting hoops and practicing their dribbling all for one reason – to break out of the entrapment of poverty which they were born into.
If we cast our imagination back to medieval Europe, a very similar picture emerges of young promising boys hoping to escape the cycle of poverty undergoing intensive vocal training, musical education and of course, castration. At between the ages of 8 and 10, the young boy was half submerged in a warm bath and rendered unconscious (hopefully) by a narcotic such as opium before the act was carried out. Castration, which violated canon laws, was often secretly operated under pretenses of illness, injury or accidents. At its height, as many as 4,000 boys were castrated annually in Italy in hope of being the next breakthrough. A small price to pay, seemingly for these boys and their families, in hope of success and glory.

Sexual Ambiguity – Male? Female? In Between?
What is the sexual identity of the castrati? Should we perhaps call them ‘boys’, since they never reached puberty? Many interesting differences have been documented of the castrati in both their physical and personality attributes.
Beside completely erasing or lowering their sex drive to the point of negligibility, they also had unusually long limbs due to elongated bones, which coupled with rigorous training, also attributes to their extraordinary lung capacity. As mentioned above, they were extremely volatile and notoriously difficult personalities, a possible byproduct of the emotional scars and sexual frustration resulting from their ordeals of castration.

Societal Role of the Castrati
As singers, the castrati were highly sought after. But as is mirrored in the population of basketball hopefuls in America today, reality seldom paints a rosy picture. The successful castrati were wildly popular, but only a hand few amongst each cohort ever achieved success.
Unlike the Thai social system, medieval Europe had no place for Gender pluralism in their society. Conceived to sing, they were rejected outside their art. The “also-rans” managed to make careers singing in church choirs and cathedrals, and the remaining majority were left suspended in anonymity, shunned and forgotten.
By the late 18th century, audiences were beginning to tire of their style of music, and their numbers started diminishing. By 1870, the Italian government had banned castration for the purpose of singing, and the last Castrati died in 1922, along with him, a fascinating tradition of the past.

Additional readings:
Sean Coughlan (2006). Singing in the Pain. BBC News Magazine.

Elsa Scamell (2003). Who were the Castrati?.

Castrati History. Essortment.

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