Eunuchs had sung for centuries in the Byzantine church, but it isn’t until the 1550s that records of castrati begin to appear in western Europe. The first known to enter the Sistine Chapel choir was a Spaniard in 1562; Sixtus V authorised their recruitment for St Peter’s in a bull of 1589.
By the end of the 17th century castrati had come to dominate opera, typically taking the lead male role. They were international stars: Farinelli – pictured above – the leading castrato of the early 18th century, was earning £5,000 a year in England alone by 1737, the same year he began receiving an annual salary of 1,500 guineas from Philip V of Spain.
But the practice of castrating young boys who might or might not become successful singers – always theologically dubious – became increasingly frowned on. By 1770, the English musicologist Charles Burney was noting that Italians “are so much ashamed of the practice of making them that every single city says it is not there, but names some other place”.
Fashions changed too. Stendahl, visiting St Peter’s in August 1817, dismissed the castrati he heard as “a flock of sacred capons screeching their heads off in some hidden hen-house”.
Pope Pius X, in a bull promulgated on 22 November 1903, ended the use of castrati in the Sistine Chapel.
Allessandro Moreschi, known as last of the castrati, died in April 1921. He is the only castrato singer known to have been recorded, although those recordings, made in 1902 and 1904, are not thought to capture the quality of voice that so captivated Europe for centuries.
This piece first appeared in the November 2021 issue of History Today.
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Image: detail from Bartolomeo Nazari’s portrait of Farinelli in the Royal College of Music, London. © Didier Descouens CC BY-SA 4.0.