Thursday, 4 August 2016


Gaspare Pacchierotti: skull (L) and portrait (R)

The results of extensive research concerning the remains of famed 18th century castrato Gaspare Pacchierotti of Fabriano, Italy, unearthed in July of 2013, were officially released to the public Thursday (July 28th, 2016), and reveal for the first time[1] the biological profile of perhaps one of the most famous practitioners of the now extinct vocal class of male singers.

The remains of Pacchierotti, a child soprano and later adult mezzo-soprano, hold the distinction of being the world’s foremost intact skeletal subject of a castrato made available for scientific research. Prior to the landmark study, which was promoted by the Medical Humanities’ Research Group at the University of Padua, Italy, the only attempt made at discovering the biological profile of a castrato using modern techniques was performed on the remains of infamous 18th century singer Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi (otherwise known as the Italian phenomenon “Farinelli”) in 2006, however analysis of Broshi's skeletal remains proved the existence of several bones of a separate biological origin – making the remains of Pacchierotti the first ever complete skeleton of a castrato ever studied.

The skeletal remains of Pacchierotti
What resulted from the analysis of his bones was a profile consistent with what has long been known about the occupational markers of opera singers, and beliefs long held about the biological structure of men post-castration, which have been known since antiquity.[2]

The sopranists Farinelli and Pacchierotti, vocalists of the grandest stature, nonetheless lived and flourished in a place and time of great artistic refrain. It was the tail end of admonishment by the Catholic Church regarding the presence of females on the Italian stage, a ban enforced nearly a century and a half earlier by then-ruling Pontiff Pope Sixtus V, which effectively prohibited the presence of females – and therefore the soprano voice – from appearing on any public stage for purposes of singing and/or acting.[3] The ban, officially issued as a Papal Bull in 1588, would persist, with periodic – and remarkably brief – episodes of abatement and re-instatements until the mid 18th century.[4] 

Following the advancements of Caccini and Monteverdi on Peri’s model of the art form of Opera,[5] which increasingly drew demands for solo vocal parts to perform both recitatives and arias, the necessity for a male substitute to sing the soprano role became of tantamount importance to both composers and audiences alike. It was a desire that showed no hint of yielding to the passage of time, with megalithic composers of the ilk of Bach and Händel[6] creating roles in their respective works specifically for that of the castrati.

The pressure felt by the paternal figures of high ranking choir boys must have been tremendous: in an age where public performance - even by that of males - was viewed by the higher classes as unsavory and unbecoming of a proper gentleman, the singer, and his family - often paupers - would rely on an exhaustive effort of touring and pandering to world leaders and the nobility in order to eke out a livable existence. The birth of the castrato – where opera is concerned – however, was something otherworldly to audiences of high art and to music aficionados: the castrati exuded a sort of freak-show status – and, whether admired or reviled, the ‘new’ vocal type, and peculiar physical stature of the performers themselves – was a subject on the lips of every Italian, and stories of the grand spectacle would soon spread rapidly across Europe. Public curiosity alone would have been a major motivating factor for the parents of a gifted son – for where there lies curiosity, there lies controversy – and controversy – it seemed, could be very profitable.

A caricature of equally renowned castrato Farinelli in
female garb, c. 1724
The skilled boy soprano therefore, would be of utmost importance to the Church choirmaster, who would keep a close eye on the pre-pubescent student. Before the age of 12 (usually at a median age of nine years), with parental consent – almost always the fathers sole consent[7] - the boy, selected for castration, would be led by an elder into a motley brew of scalding hot water, herbs and spices, in which his nether region would be immersed, before being forcibly ‘manipulated’ in the hands of the choirmaster (or other ’practitioner’), who would break down the delicate structure of the testes through a series of pinching and rolling - this before severing the spermatic cord with a rustic pair of clippers. Whether the child remained conscious throughout the procedure, and by what method – if any- he may have been anesthetized is uncertain, however there has been some suggestion made toward the compression of the carotid artery to induce syncope in the victim.

The physical results of pre-pubescent castration were catastrophic, as Pacchierotti’s skeletal remains confirm. Extensive testing showed the presence of advanced Osteoporosis, a bone-degenerating disease highly responsive to fluctuating levels of sex hormones. The report, found here, cites a ten-fold increase in bone loss following castration in men – equivalent to that of a post-menopausal woman. The resulting levels of bone degeneration would have undoubtedly proved problematic for Pacchierotti - tests showed a significant amount of erosion to the cervical vertebrae and other areas of the spine, which would have left the singer in an almost constant state of (possibly excruciating) pain resulting from the compression of the sciatic nerve.

*CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE* "Persistence of Epiphyseal Line" in the Iliac Crest;
Pacchierotti remains (L), Diagram (R)
Aberrations of significance involved the pelvic region of Pacchierotti, and confirmed the long held belief of delayed epiphyseal fusion of the Iliac crest (presenting itself with a tell-tale "epiphyseal line:" see diagram above), a process usually completed by the age of 23 – with “no traces” of the epiphyseal line found in “90-100 percent of males over the age of 35.” Pacchierotti was 81 at the time of death.

In contrast to such developmental delays were aberrations of the upper torso, highlighted by the “insertion of three important respiratory muscles on the second ribs, the scalenus posterior, which elevates the second rib, the serratus anterior, which can lift the ribs and assist in respiration, and the serratus posterior superior, that elevates second to fifth ribs and aids deep inspiration..."  
and that "...both scapulae had a marked infraglenoid tubercle due to a strong insertion of the long head of the triceps brachii muscle, which acts on the shoulder joint and is involved in retroversion and adduction of the arm. Probably Pacchierotti was using a lot his arms to act during his performances.”  Such aberrations previously existed as speculative occupational markers known to that of castrati, who have long been noted to possess “a large barrel-shaped chest..."  this, in addition to an "infantile larynx [and] long, spindly legs.” 

*CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE* Anatomy - Skeletal, Muscular - Male
It had been observed for some time by both contemporary intelligentsia and their predecessors that the limbs of a castrato, which suffer from the delay/absence of fusion and/or hardening at the joints due to lack of testosterone (a direct result of pre-pubescent castration) experience a growth markedly longer than that of a pubescent male. This aberration, quite fortunately for the adult male soprano, included the ribs. The evidentiary findings of highly developed muscles supporting the ribcage as found in the remains of Pacchierotti, are therefore significant for the anatomist/musicologist seeking to understand the lung power and breath capacity of an adult male versus an adult female singing in a soprano’s vocal range. The two appear incomparable – from Wikipedia: 
“...thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice. Their vocal range was higher than that of the uncastrated adult male...”
Whilst one cannot duplicate the physical stature and biological makeup of a true castrato in the present era, perhaps the closest known example of the timbre of the castrato voice lay in the performances of 20th/21st century Romanian/Moldavian sopranist Radu Marian, a so-called "endocrinological castrato" or "natural castrato" - a male vocalist who has never experienced the onset of puberty or the so-called “broken” voice caused by the release of sex hormones by the testes during reproductive age:

Radu Marian, a endocrinological castrato, performs the soprano aria “Lascia, Ch’io Pianga” (Allow me to Weep) from Händel’s 1711 Opera Rinaldo:

Compare Radu’s rendition with that of a ‘natural-born female’ soprano voice (in Cecilia Bartoli, who, like Pacchierotti before her, is classified as a “mezzo-soprano”:

..and that of the modern era’s answer to the castrato: the countertenor (who sings in a mixture of a falsetto and "chest voice" in the ranges of female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice. Sung here by Philippe Jaroussky):

Highlighted among these, and other notable findings on the remains of Pacchierotti, is a glimpse into the psychological profile of the singer: tests showed a high level of hygienic observance by the castrato, particularly where the mouth is concerned. Evidence of “abrasive brushing” and the use of some early form of dental floss have been linked to the relatively well preserved condition of the subject’s teeth (although, the report also notes the presence of dental erosion due to a chronic case of bruxism (grinding of the teeth), that researchers liken to a habitual response to early childhood trauma – the castration itself.

The "well preserved" teeth of
Gaspare Pacchierotti
The researchers compare the “compulsion” of teeth grinding to the “psychic distress…as it happens in prisoners or people forced to do something.” The observance of hygiene by Pacchierotti in 18th century Europe is significant in and of itself: conceivably the celebrated vocalist may have taken cue from one of his royal patrons – perhaps the French Queen Marie Antoinette – just one of the elite faction of musical society in whom Pacchierotti found himself rubbing shoulders. The Queen was a notorious outcast from the marginalized Parisian public, not only for her Austrian heritage and seemingly endless spending - she indulged in what was then viewed as the most peculiar, highly unnecessary extravagance: spending hours immersed in the bath. In an age where even the glorious Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at the Palace of Versailles, where she and reigning King Louis XVI held court functioned as meeting ground, zoo, and open latrine – the concept and practice of cleanliness was considered a strange taboo – the connection between poor hygiene and disease still decades away (see germ-disease connection: Louis Pasteur here at unravelingmusicalmyths). 

In some ways, we can consider Pacchierotti’s conscious effort to preserve his most valuable asset (or at least part of it) an early foray into the realm of germ theory.

In many ways, this ancient, now extinct art form, much like the late Pacchierotti, existed in an era centuries ahead of it's time. 

External Links:

Footnotes / Internal Links:
[1] in the body of a castrato; full remains of

[2] It has for many centuries been observed that the elongated limbs of Eunuchs were part and parcel of castration – and existed as a direct result of the primitive “operation.”

[3] It is believed the motivating factors for the Pope lay in Scripture. Discover which passages influenced the Papal Bull here at unravelingmusicalmyths

[4] Although this era effectively saw the ban of the archaic practice of castration for purposes of preserving the treble (or, boy soprano) voice, the “operation” continued to exist in occulto across Italy, with the last known castrato, one Alessandro Moreschi, even surviving into the dawn of the recording age. While certainly not considered pleasing to the modern ear, his rendition of Bach’s setting of Ave Maria is nonetheless legendary. View it here at unravelingmusicalmyths

[5] Explore the birth of modern opera at unravelingmusicalmyths
[6] Händel would later prove to be instrumental in the quest to seek for the Italian stage female performers, creating roles in later operatic compositions officially scored for castrati, yet sneaking onto the stage females in drag for the performance. See: “trouser roles" (footnotes)  here at unravelingmusicalmyths

[7] Parental consent was not always required for the galling choirmaster: Prolific composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) narrowly escaped the clippers as a young star soprano when his father caught wind of the offer of castration made to his young son by the Church in the early 18th century. Read more about it here at unravelingmusicalmyths


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