Farinelli dug up for Castrato secrets
The famed Italian Baroque'castrato' singer Farinelli has been dug up again so experts can try to find out what made these vanished virtuosi so special.
Scientists from Bologna's Farinelli Centre and the universities of Bologna, Pisa, Florence and York - including renowned bio-engineer David Howard - began looking at the first parts of Farinelli on Wednesday.
So far jaw bones, bits of his skull and badly decayed parts of his lower limbs have come up from the Bologna grave. As well as trying to figure out the sound castrati could have made - the only known recording reportedly sounds like "Pavarotti on helium" - the teams will be trying to see whether castrati had normal bodies or grew out of proportion,
becoming over-tall and developing abnormally large chests and breasts.
The only known painting of Carlo Broschi aka Farinelli (1705-1782) shows him as a handsome if somewhat plump figure, more virile than camp. But some suspect Farinelli commissioned the portrait to show him not as he really was but as he wished to be.
As for his remarkable singing voice - able to scale more than three and a half octaves, some evidence of the physical machinery that produced it "should come from the softer parts of the mouth, if they're still there," said Bologna
University's Maria Giovanna Belcastro.
"But even if they have been destroyed, we should be able to get some idea of what made castrati tick from the size of the chest cavity. That should have been preserved". The project aims to put together a post-mortem identikit of the legendary singer over the next year.
Called "the divine Farinelli" by contemporaries, Broschi became famous throughout Europe, and travelled extensively, from his home town Naples to London, where Handel was composing, to the court of King Philip V of Spain. The monarch was reportedly only able to be lifted from the depths of a severe depression by Farinelli's soothing tones.
A well-received film was made about Farinelli in 1994 starring the pin-up actor Stefano Dionisi as the singer. It "recreated" Farinelli's voice using a computer mix of a woman and a man's voice.
The Baroque period (1600-1750) was the golden age for the castrato voice - although many castrati, if they strayed outside their adoring circles, were mocked for their effeminacy, for sexual and emotional problems, and for being overweight.
The voice officially died out in Europe in the early years of this century, although some early recordings of the castrato singer Alessandro Moreschi, who ran the Sistine Chapel choir in Rome until his death in 1922, give a vague impression of what it sounded like.
Throughout the Baroque age, and probably long before, boys aged 8-10 with good singing voices were castrated so that they could become professional singers. It was often seen as a way out of poverty. Castration preserved their voices from lowering during puberty, a procedure often covered up as an "accident". It also kept growth hormones on tap - leading to some of the castratis' physical problems.
Not only opera houses but also the papal choirs in the 16th century admitted castrati, although the Catholic Church finally condemned the practice in an 1878 decree - while keeping one in its own employ.
Changing musical and moral tastes wrote castrati out of roles, with few parts for castrati appearing after 1760. The last castrato opera performance took place in London in 1825, by Giovanni Battista Velluti.
In the Baroque period castrati and countertenors were in high demand as they sang both male and female roles, while women were often not allowed to sing on stage. Composers such as Handel, Rossini and Mozart were inspired by castrato singers, and wrote works specifically for them, making some roles very difficult for modern singers to achieve. For some, the music is transposed down to allow men to sing the roles, for others women sing the parts.
One of these is Handel's Orlando (1733) which was written for the castrato Francesco Bernardi, called Il Senesino, who he got to know during travels in Italy. These days the role of Orlando is usually sung by a woman.