Balzac’s Sarrasine tells the story of a young woman’s wonder at the strange appearance of an old man at a party in Paris. Balzac has tremendous fun describing the man. First his clothes: he is wearing ‘a white waistcoat embroidered with gold’ and ‘a shirt-frill of English lace, yellow with age, the magnificence of which a queen might have envied’. Then the face: ‘That dark face was full of angles and furrowed deep in every direction; the chin was furrowed; there were great hollows at the temples; the eyes were sunken in yellow orbits. The maxillary bones, which his indescribable gauntness caused to protrude, formed deep cavities in the centre of both cheeks.’ And it was not just his furrows and hollows, it was his make-up: ‘We often see more hideous old men; but what contributed more than aught else to give to the spectre that rose before us the aspect of an artificial creation was the red and white paint with which he glistened.’ The man also wore a light wig, ‘with innumerable curls which indicated extraordinary pretensions to elegance’. He wore gold earrings and ‘a fixed, unchanging smile, the shadow of an implacable and sneering laugh, like that of a death’s head’. The smell he exuded added to the sport; it was ‘a musk-like odour of the old dresses which a duchess’s heirs exhume from her wardrobe during the inventory’.
Who could the man be?
The story cuts to an earlier time when the sculptor Sarrasine, who had gone to live in Italy in 1758, fell in love with a singer, La Zambinella, who is described in as much luscious detail as the old man is rendered with horror. She was ‘intensely alive and delicate beyond words’. Her eyes, her mouth, her flesh were all perfect:
The artist did not tire of admiring the inimitable grace with which the arms were attached to the body, the wonderful roundness of the throat, the graceful curves described by the eyebrows and the nose, and the perfect oval of the face, the purity of its clean-cut lines, and the effect of the thick drooping lashes which bordered the large and voluptuous eyelids. She was more than a woman; she was a masterpiece.
Imagine Sarrasine’s surprise when he found out that La Zambinella was a bloke who had been castrated. And imagine also the surprise of the listener to the story when she found out that the hideous old man had once been La Zambinella, and that the fortune of the household in which the party was held came from La Zambinella’s earnings as a castrato much in demand.
Martha Feldman’s The Castrato, rich in scholarship and filled with subtle analysis, is one of several books that have appeared on the subject of castrati in recent years. In The Queen’s Throat, published in 1993, Wayne Koestenbaum offers an ingenious clue as to why we might have a great interest in the voices of the castrati. He makes a connection between modern psychoanalysis and a study of the sound the castrato made when he sang, lost to us now, sadly. ‘Both discourses take castration seriously: voice culture wants to recapture the castrato’s scandalous vocal plenitude, while psychoanalysis imagines castration as identity’s foundation – star player in the psyche’s interminable opera.’
It began, it seems, because women were not allowed to sing in church, and, in the Papal States, were banned from singing at all. ‘It is important to bear in mind,’ Feldman writes, ‘that castrations for singing, beginning well before 1600, took place only in Italy, geographic heartland of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.’ While London warmed to castrati, and paid them fortunes, the English did not castrate their own. One contemporary of Handel’s commented on this: ‘You Englishmen complain that castrati are too costly, so that too much money ends up in Italian lands, but if you want to make all this use of them and [still] make savings, it’s amazing that for such a profit you still can’t castrate there.’
Castrati, for Feldman, can be understood as the second sons of Italian families who, instead of going into the military or the church, took up singing, and in order to excel had to make a sacrifice. She notes that castration arose at a time in Italy when the eldest son got most or all of the inheritance. For one of the others, getting castrated was a way to deal with the problem of making a living. She writes rather well about this notion of sacrifice, quoting Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, two late 19th-century writers on the general subject of sacrifice. They wrote, according to Feldman, that the victim ‘somehow has to be ravaged in a solemn but devastating way … The end goal is to sanction the victim so as to authorise him for a special purpose, removing him … from ordinary life … by radical alteration that leads to a kind of rebirth. Thereafter the victim, now improved, mediates between sacred and profane worlds.’
This liminal position came not only after an operation but after the many years of gruelling training that followed it. The castrato Cafarelli, for example, reports that his teacher made the students work from a single sheet of exercises for five years before letting them do anything else. They were not encouraged, or so it appears, to put emotion into their voices. One writer described their ‘faultless singing … Obviously, the castrato was considered a sort of virtuoso instrumentalist of the larynx, rather than a singer in the sense we understand the term; he was an infallible singing machine.’ But nothing is fixed in this shadowy world. Stendhal, in his Life of Rossini, favoured castrati who valued ‘spontaneity, improvisation, originality’; he enjoyed ‘the native quality of each individual voice, including its timbre and its distinct registers’. He devoted a short chapter to a rapturous description of the quality of emotion in the singing of the castrato Velluti.
In Feldman’s version of things, the castrato had no interest in being figuratively or really female, but rather was ‘decidedly male’. In a rather wonderful sentence, she questions the very idea of maleness. ‘Maleness was a zone of ambiguity only if we presuppose it as a category of sexual identity in the first place.’ Instead, she sees maleness in Italy in the period when the castrati flourished as a political category that involved having personal access to power and wealth, and to easy autonomy. Castrati, as she points out, managed their estates, decided on heirs and bequests; they also had an international network of friends, patrons and associates. They went where they liked, they did what they liked, some of them even married women. That might be a useful definition, indeed, for a man, and not only in the 18th century.
In fact, some of the best-known roles for castrati were the alpha males Alexander the Great, Richard I, Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar. Boys were castrated to make them better and stronger singers, not to make them girls. On the other hand, while living in the house of a Russian prince the castrato Balatri ‘gained unheard of access to the sexually segregated, staunchly Orthodox female quarters of the household, where he spent many an hour by the embroidery frames, and he was even dressed up in drag by the princess and her girls for fun’.
In Portrait of a Castrato, Roger Freitas writes that ‘contemporaries frequently regarded castrati as analogues to boys … The castrato does seem frequently to have taken the boy’s role in sodomitical sex.’ Thus castrati could shift and transform themselves. Everybody, it seemed, wanted them, but for different things. Girls wanted to dress them up; men wanted to fuck them. When composers needed them to sound like angels rather than play the parts of big strong men, they merely wrote different music, making castrati sound sweet, maybe even divine. They sang over the bodies of dead children as much as they sang the big warrior roles. ‘As angel guardians of the dead,’ Feldman writes, ‘young castrati were assimilated to other androgynous beings of long ancestry, giving them special mimetic flexibility as intercessories with the divine.’
In the middle of all of this flexibility lay the gap between the act of mutilation, which became increasingly apparent in the way the body formed as the boy grew up, and the beauty of the voice. Casanova, who knew something about bodies and beauty, said of the castrato Salimbeni: ‘Mutilation had turned him into a monster, but all the qualities that embellished him made him an angel.’
Besides the complexes that blokes in the 21st century may have about castration and the shivering joy many take in explaining all this to a psychoanalyst, there is another reason the castrato may continue to fascinate us. It is the old idea that while heard melodies are sweet, those unheard are haunting. Feldman writes that castrato voices had ‘strong resonance … understood as relative loudness and intensity, with timbral richness’. If we want to imagine what a castrato sounded like perhaps it would help to listen to a recording by a deep and powerful contralto – Hilde Rössel-Majdan, for example, or Maureen Forrester – and then follow this by listening to a countertenor, David Daniels, for example, or Andreas Scholl, or Iestyn Davies (or go on YouTube and listen to a recording of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, who died in 1922, singing the Bach-Gounod ‘Ave Maria’, with what Feldman called a vibrato that is ‘often lush and plentiful’, and the ‘Crucifixus’ from Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle). But all of these offer merely clues.
Some of the clues are fascinating, however, perhaps because the language used to describe a castrato singing has its own luscious, plaintive sound. The French soprano Emma Calvé wrote in her autobiography about hearing the castrato Domenico Mustafà in 1891: ‘He had an exquisite high tenor voice, truly angelic, neither masculine nor yet feminine in type – deep, subtle, poignant in its vibrant intensity … He had certain curious notes which he called his fourth voice – strange, sexless tones, superhuman, uncanny!’ Another writer wrote of a castrato voice that it was ‘so soft, and ravishingly mellow, that nothing can better represent it than the Flute-stops of some Organs’, which themselves were ‘not unlike the gentle Fallings of Water’.
Nonetheless, as Feldman writes, ‘we still lack access to the sound of the castrato’s voice, save some early recordings of the last castrato.’ It is as though we had the letters of Wordsworth and Coleridge and some reviews of their work, or some wonderful descriptions of Impressionist painting, but not the things themselves – the poems or the paintings. ‘If there is,’ Feldman writes,
payoff in the very struggle into that void, however fitful the process and bracketed the results, above all it lies in the exercise itself, in asking the central unanswerable question of what would happen were we to try with all the faculties and resources we can muster to imagine the very thing that we can never locate, much less experience. What spectrum of possibilities might we hear in our mind’s ear?
In other words, since this sound was once made, it belongs to us, or almost does, or – perhaps more correctly – we know that it existed, but it is gone now, it is lost sound, and all we can do is imagine it. We can imagine it powerfully since we still have much of the music castrati sang. We just do not have their voices. Other singers – contraltos and countertenors – sing the music now, but it is not the same.
The earliest castrati began to flourish in the 1550s in the north of Italy and in the chapels of Rome. The glory years of castrato singing, however, lasted from the early 17th to the late 18th century. Feldman writes with an admirable precision about the actual procedure, which was carried out on boys before puberty:
The testicles were eliminated by crushing them, squeezing them to cause them to atrophy, or, more commonly, excising them. Much less often the testicles were removed by resection of the entire scrotum … The procedure seems not to have been far removed from that of castrating livestock and other domestic animals … Before surgery began, boys seem typically to have been given opium or had their carotid artery compressed to induce a coma (or a coma-like state), after which they were immersed in milk baths or cold baths as a form of anaesthesia before the cut.
The operation affected the voice. ‘Their resonating chambers,’ Feldman continues, ‘were thus larger than normal in proportion to the vocal emission equipment (the larynx), so much so that we can suppose that with the right training some castrato voices could deliver a sound of greater punch and more powerful resonance than those typical of trained women and uncastrated men.’ While castration did wonders for the voice, it caused problems in the rest of the body – larger ribcages, extended jaws – and medical problems in middle and old age such as osteoporosis. Castrati could, in their younger years, pass for women. They didn’t grow beards and they often were shaped like women, developing the ‘secondary sexual characteristics of women’.
While the practice of castration for the purpose of creating great singers was common, the details of who performed the operation and where remains difficult to ascertain. No one was proud of performing a castration and no place wished to be associated with it. In 1770 the music historian Charles Burney tried to discover where these operations were conducted, but failed:
I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice, that it was at Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples. The operation most certainly is against the law in all these places, as well as against nature; and all the Italians are so much ashamed of it, that in every province they transferred it to some other.
Thus the creation of these singers was filled with mystery and ambiguity. It was both forbidden by the Catholic Church and fundamental to church music. The figures who were castrated could make what Feldman calls ‘the audible approximation of a wailing Christ’ and they could also make a lot of money and receive lavish gifts. (A castrato could earn £700 a year in London in the 1750s, ten times what a middle-class family needed to live on.) They created an aura of awe and wonder when they sang, and many superlative descriptions survive, but they also caused laughter and mockery, especially in London. They sang in the great operas of the age, but many in England considered them secret Jesuits. While they could not have what we might call ‘full sex’, some remained attracted to women.
The best account we have of this arises from the marriage of the castrato Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci (1735-90) to Dorothea Maunsell, the teenage daughter of a prominent Anglo-Irish family. Since the Maunsells later wanted a divorce for their daughter, much evidence had to be given about Tenducci’s sexual nature, including from a servant quoted by Helen Berry in The Castrato and His Wife (2012). He was a witness as the surgeon Pietro Massi castrated Tenducci:
I clearly saw that … [the surgeon] made two Incisions between the Thighs, and the Body next the Groin, and when these two Incisions were made I saw the said Mr Massi take out the testicles one at the time, and which I clearly and without a possibility of being deceived saw them in the Hands of the said Mr Massi who afterwards put them in a plate.
Evidence was also given by a man called Charles Baroe, who had shared a room with Tenducci in Dublin. He had noticed, he said, the singer taking ‘a red velvet purse out of one pair of his breeches to put into another’. When he asked what was in the purse, Tenducci said: ‘I have got my testicles preserved in this purse, and have had them there since my castration.’ Their presence in the purse did not prevent Tenducci, when he arrived in London, from receiving love letters in 1759 from Lady Lyttelton, whose husband wrote to his brother: ‘She has again made herself the talk of the Town by writing Love letters to Signor Tanduchi [sic] a Eunuch, one of which has been shown to several people.’
Dorothea Maunsell fell in love with Tenducci when he arrived in Dublin. ‘Music, that had always been before my greatest pleasure, was now become insipid, unless when accompanied by Tenducci’s voice,’ she later wrote; ‘neither did the conversation of my friends please me half as much as his.’ Soon afterwards the pair eloped, and not long after that Tenducci was imprisoned for his impertinence and Dorothea sent away. They were reunited when Tenducci returned to London, where, in August 1770, he did a royal command performance to celebrate the birthday of Queen Charlotte’s brother, having been asked by George III to sing some favourite pieces, including songs from Handel’s oratorios.
Dorothea, it seems, was with him all the time. When they arrived in Winchester, for example, a lady wrote to her brother: ‘Had he come alone we could have made some use of him in having him here to sing, but as he has brought Mrs Tenducci I can have but little to do with him.’ Later correspondence makes it clear that the lady eventually relented and Dorothea was received as Tenducci’s wife. Some time afterwards, Tenducci met Casanova and surprised him
by introducing his wife to me … I thought he was joking, but it was true. He had married her and having already had two children he laughed at those who said that being a castrato, he could not have any. He said that a third testicular gland which had been left him, was enough to prove his virility, and that the children could not but be legitimate since he recognised them as such.
It is unlikely, as Berry points out, that Dorothea had had two children at this time. More interesting is Tenducci’s confidence and his playing, as Berry writes, ‘upon widespread suspicions that castrati had hidden powers’.
Castrati like Tenducci could move easily and regularly between Italy and England and make and spend legendary amounts of money. They could move close to power. Farinelli, for example, was enticed to Madrid in 1737 ‘to sing away the psychotic melancholy of Philip V’.He would sing every night to cheer up the poor monarch, who had been staying in bed and biting himself. ‘The queen asked Farinelli,’ Patrick Barbier writes in The World of the Castrati (1996),
to sing from a room adjoining the king’s bedroom. The effect was startling. Philip, who previously could find no diversion in anything, now appeared radiant. His face regained its composure, his smile returned … Gradually Farinelli became the sovereign’s indispensable ‘drug’ … during these daily meetings the king was seeking not merely a singer but also a friend, a confidant, someone who could listen to him and understand him.
Napoleon, in turn, despite banning castrati from the Italian stage in the last years of the 18th century, was ‘ravished’ by the voice of the castrato Crescentini and arranged for him to come and live at his court in 1806. He made him a knight of the Order of the Iron Crown, which Stendhal viewed as ‘the only major blunder of which that great man was ever guilty in respect of his civil administration’.
The very in-betweenness of castrati, their being neither women nor complete men, neither peasants nor aristocrats, having access to kings’ ears and girls’ bedrooms, allowed them to move into positions of easy privilege and influence. The best instance of this is Atto Melani (1626-1714), the subject of Roger Freitas’s remarkable Portrait of a Castrato. Melani was the second of seven brothers, the first of four to be castrated. By the age of 15 he was working for a brother of the grand duke of Tuscany, and in the 1640s moved to the French court, where his singing won him the favour of the queen regent and his skill at diplomacy ‘attracted the attention of Cardinal Mazarin, the queen’s formidable first minister,’ Freitas writes. ‘The blend of music and politics set the tone for much of Atto’s career.’ He was
involved in many of the important political events of his day: he carried on clandestine negotiations in Bavaria preceding the 1657 Diet of Frankfurt; he accompanied Mazarin to the final conference and ceremonies for the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659); he assisted in the marriage arrangements between Grand Prince Cosimo III of Tuscany and Princess Marguerite-Louise d’Orléans (1661); and he even contributed to the election of his concittadino and friend Giulio Rospigliosi as Pope Clement IX (1667). Such endeavours boosted Atto’s reputation on the European political scene, and he became a genuine resource for a number of leaders.
One interesting aspect of Freitas’s book is his study of Melani’s sexuality, how he became ‘a genuine resource for a number of leaders’ in the sexual realm as much as in the world of espionage and diplomacy. Freitas begins by outlining a version of gender politics in the second half of the 17th and the early 18th century, taking some of his bearings from Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.‘The most fundamental, and radically unfamiliar, element of the [early modern] viewpoint is its premise of a one-sex system,’ Freitas writes.
That is to say, instead of explaining male and female bodies as the two distinct forms of the human species, the early modern tradition considered man to be the more perfect manifestation of the single body that both men and women shared … The differences between the sexes lay not in the flesh, which was thought to be identical, but in the higher phenomenon of vital heat.
This means, of course, that castrating a boy, in the years when it began, didn’t have the same implications as it did, say, in the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Castrating a boy before puberty,’ Freitas writes, ‘did not throw his sex, in the modern sense, into question. It merely froze him within the middle ground of the sexual hierarchy.’ From this middle ground he could have a great deal of fun and wield a good deal of influence. It is also important to remember, in this context, that same-sex relations did not have the same meaning as they would later come to have. Feldman stresses the fact that ‘evidence gathered by early modern historians makes it look more and more as if same-sex relations among men were almost as prevalent in early modern Italy as what James Davidson … calls “inter-sex relations”.’
Freitas’s portrait of Melani and Berry’s of Tenducci, covering between them one hundred and fifty years of castrato life, confirm in minute and personal detail the conclusions Feldman draws. Rather than being undermined, damaged or shamed by castration, it seems, singers who underwent the operation in the years between 1640 and 1789 could move in many different worlds and take on many different guises. Being a castrato freed them, not only to sing lead roles with force and beauty and to have many followers, but also to live in some sweet indeterminate sexual space. They could move from country to country, and from one class to another, often ending their lives in comfortable retirement. They could be, as in Balzac’s story, the hideous old man at the party who once upon a time had been the most desired creature, pursued hotly. They could be the subject of much discussion all of their lives.
Sarrasine was written in 1830, when, as Feldman writes, ‘older Frenchmen still harboured memories of Crescentini, whom Alfred de Vigny recalled in 1835 as having had a “seraphic voice coming from a worn and wrinkled face”.’ Crescentini (1762-1846) makes a brief appearance in The Charterhouse of Parma; his singing style is also analysed in Stendhal’s Life of Rossini. Balzac’s story, Feldman writes, is ‘entirely prompted by the castrato’s legacy’. The heightened tone of the story may arise from the fact that while castrati were welcome in Italy until the practice was no longer in vogue and were enjoyed in England too, they were frowned on by progressive opinion in France once the Enlightenment began. Rousseau, for example, blamed the fathers of the castrati, who were ‘so cruel as to sacrifice nature to fortune, and … submit their children to this operation, that they might gratify the pleasure of the voluptuous and the inhuman’. He viewed castrati as ‘the most gloomy actors in the world’, who sing ‘without warmth or passion’. A senator in Candide scoffs about ‘swooning with pleasure if you want or can at the sight of a eunuch chirruping the roles of Caesar and Cato’. In 1775 the Marquis de Sade, Feldman writes, ‘sat through a Florentine production of Perseus and Andromeda in horror, above all because of the “half-man” on stage from whose “large, fatty, somewhat ill-formed body” came a “high, clear voice”’. Berry writes that, in the Enlightenment, ‘for some critics, castrati continued to represent the kind of absolutist political system and high Baroque fashion that was now highly outdated.’ Feldman agrees: ‘for the cosmopolitan intelligentsia of the time, castration had a specific political valence, signifying the depravity of the old regime … The imagination that had once permitted wonders to flourish became prey to suspicions of unreason or pathology.’
Stendhal was having none of it:
As for the beautiful voices of Italy, the stupid attitude of our little philosophes will probably diminish our pleasures for a long time to come. These gentlemen have been preaching the message that a little operation performed on a few choirboys was going to turn Italy into a desert: the population would die out, the grass was already growing in the via Toledo; and what of the sacred rights of humanity!
He claimed to have learned more about music ‘in six conversations’ with the septuagenarian castrato Pacchiarotti ‘than through any book; it was soul speaking to soul.’ ‘In the flower of his youth and talent,’ Stendhal wrote, ‘the castrato Velluti was one of the best-looking men of his century.’
What is fascinating also, and a good example of the strange ways history works, is that a style of singing which began in the 1550s because women were not allowed to sing in churches made its way more than four hundred years later into the creation of one of the seminal texts of French criticism, Roland Barthes’s S/Z. The intensity of the text that Barthes’s book seeks to interrogate in minute and forensic detail – Balzac’s Sarrasine – and the intensity of Barthes’s own tone in S/Z may arise from the fact that the notion of the castrato was hotly contested in France. Attitudes towards these singers became a way of signalling prejudices and beliefs. How you felt about the castrato was a badge, a sign.
Not only did the castrato give rise to a pivotal moment in French literary criticism, but he haunted the couch where the patient lay to be psychoanalysed. ‘Barthes’s analysis,’ Feldman writes,
has produced ex post facto a kind of psychoanalytical roadmap of the castrato, a figure who for some virtually condenses the central project of psychoanalysis. Those enthusiasts who have made of it a small industry suggest that sex in the castrato absents the hollowed-out body and settles in the voice, causing erotic ecstasy in listeners for whom it becomes the object of an immoderate desire.
This may explain the fervid tone of Stendhal’s writings about the castrati Crescentini and Velluti in his Life of Rossini; it may also explain why Philip V of Spain stopped biting himself and got out of bed; and why Dorothea Maunsell wanted to marry Tenducci and why the duke (and perhaps the page) wanted to fuck Melani. It will also help us understand why the appearance of castrati on stage was often enough to make women swoon. The women of Vienna wore five medallions with a portrait of the castrato Marchesi, ‘one round their necks, one on each arm, and two others sewn onto their shoes’. At the last performance Crescentini gave, Madame Vigée-Lebrun reported, the women of Rome ‘made no attempt to hide their grief: several even wept bitterly, a sight that many people found as entertaining as the actual performance’. They all, it seemed, loved a castrato.