The twelfth of September, 2011: Professor David Starkey wielding castration shears

Chief among the pressing subjects of debate that arose this weekend: castration, and whether, you know , afterwards, the, you know, stuff still, um, works, sort of, if you see what I mean.

The film Farinelli: Il Castrato (Gérard Corbiau, 1994) suggests that having no functioning testicles didn’t prevent the castrati – that is, opera singers castrated before puberty – from “leading lives of great eroticism and romance”.

This is probably not true of Farinelli (stage name of Carlo Broschi (1705-1782)). He was the greatest of all the castrati (and there were more castrati than you might imagine: in eighteenth-century Italian opera, “almost all” the men had been castrated, the Britannica asserts, and the practice did not end until 1878) – but, contra posthumous gossip and Corbiau’s film, there’s no evidence that he was anything other than a decent, god-fearing, upstanding (ahem) fellow:

Of almost all other great singers, we hear of their intoxication by praise and prosperity, and of their caprice, insolence, and absurdities, at some time or other; but of Farinelli, superior to them all in talents, fame, and fortune, the records of folly among the spoilt children of Apollo, furnish not one disgraceful anecdote.

So said the musician and historian Charles Burney (1726-1814).

Taking a more clinical approach, here’s Anthony Smith in The Body (Penguin, 1968):

If the testicles are cut off before puberty the boy is never affected at all by the changes of puberty…. His pubic hair grows in a feminine fashion… His skin will always be pallid… Despute all this, despite the absence of the hormone testosterone which is produced in the testicles, claims have been made that some early castrates have been able to produce erections, some even to copulate. They are the exceptions. Most pre-pubertal castrations are not followed by any form of sexual competence.

‘Competence’ sounds sort of judgmental, don’t you think? Anyway, there it is.

There’s obviously a lot more to be said about castrati. Some of it is said here. More is said here (don’t look at the picture of Professor David Starkey wielding castration shears, though, it’ll haunt your dreams).

And here’s Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) – the last castrato, and the only one ever recorded performing solo.



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