The castrati of 16th-century Rome – singers known for their angelic, falsetto voices equivalent to those of sopranos – were often the most celebrated in the chorus. While their voices were beautiful, the male singers designated as castrati earned their title through a disturbing ritual; these chosen young men were castrated before puberty so they would never reach sexual maturity.
When the Pope banned women from public singing in the mid-16th century, opera itself was seemingly threatened. Young boys filled in for a time, but boys' voices naturally dropped when they reached puberty. To remedy this alleged issue, the Romans resorted to body modification. These Italian singers left a dark legacy in their wake: adults trapped in prepubescent bodies. While castrati singers no longer exist, the disturbing tale of their origin – as well as the late date at which the practice was still enforced – remains.
Castrated Boys Replaced Female Singers
Virtuoso singing has been celebrated throughout history, particularly by Romans in the Renaissance. A pivotal feature of the nascent art form that would become opera was female singers capable of hitting notes at high registers. At this point in history, however, the Catholic Church forbade women from singing in any religious setting.
In 1588, Pope Sixtus V furthered the female-singer ban by restricting them from singing on any kind of stage whatsoever. This posed a major problem for the musical world, as sopranos were particularly essential to the art. Young male singers were capable of hitting the same notes as adult female sopranos, but their immature voices would break and lower as they approached manhood. In response to this perceived problem, man manipulated nature through a deviant process of castrating young boys at just the proper time to stunt their vocal cords and capture their high, youthful voices.
Thousands Of Boys Were Castrated, But Only Some Survived
Creating young eunuchs was the ideal – and only –method with which to harness the pitch and power of an adult voice without compromising the light, ethereal timbre of a youth.
Italian boys with gifted voices were taken to back-alley surgeons who would heavily sedate their subjects with opium before placing them in a hot bath. The surgeon would then snip the ducts leading to the testicles, leaving them to wither over time, and leaving the subjected children in a state of perpetual boyhood.
By the early 1700s, an estimated 4,000 young men received the operation each year, but only 80 percent of them survived. The average age of a castration subject was eight, and while the practice was extremely common, it was technically illegal.
Castrati Were Extremely Sexualized And Desired By Both Men And Women
As Casanova once claimed, "Rome forces every man to become a pederast." This was never more true than in the case of the castrati. In his memoirs, he recounted an orgy during which women and castrati stood in a line and attendants were made to determine the males from the females.
Castrati were biological men who appeared female and often acted like as such. They lived outside the scope of normal gender, much to the sexual confusion of those around them; castrati, seen as neither female nor male, were a sexual temptation for both men and women who fantasized about unconventional ways to find pleasure.
In fact, castrato singers' reputations were perpetually salacious, and their sexual exploits could be compared to those of modern-day celebrities.
A Castrato's Body Developed Abnormally
As a castrato's body grew, a lack of testosterone restricted his bone joints from hardening in the typical way. The limbs of a castrato often grew unusually long, making them seraphic in appearance. This anomaly, combined with intensive vocal training, gave them unrivaled lung power, breath capacity, and large chests. Singing through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible and quite different from the equivalent voice of an adult female.
But while the form of the castrato was seen as elegant, the repercussions of the surgery were often suffered later in life when their large bones developed osteoporosis and their organs began to struggle beneath the weight of their extremely tall bodies. Depression was also common among castrati as they aged – many felt extreme mental anguish and sensitivity in tandem with an erratic mental state.
Mysteriously, research of castrati bones show that many of the singers developed hypertosis frontalis interna. This rare disease occurs when the front bone of the skull thickens, causing seizures and headaches and affecting the sex glands.