The great decomposers

08May09

Carlo_BroschiHe was the most adored singer of his time, his vocal brilliance bringing him fame and wealth beyond comparison. Before the age of 10, Carlo ‘Farinelli’ Broschi (1705-1782) had joined countless other young boys subjected to that barbaric snip that kept their voices high-pitched, pure, and flexible. As women were barred from taking part in Roman Catholic services, “castrati” became commonplace from the 16th century onwards. Their lucrative careers – boosted by starring roles in Handel and Vivaldi operas – inspired thousands of poor families to offer up their sons for castration. But of all of them, it was Farinelli who hit all the right notes with the public. Now, more than two centuries later, I am interested to learn that researchers examining his exhumed remains are finding out much more about this extraordinary musical legend.

I called up Luigi Verdi, Secretary of Bologna’s Farinelli Study Centre, to find out a bit more. “Farinelli’s bones were chosen because, as a castrato, he might have physical features completely unknown to scientists,” Luigi told me. “We’ve already noted interesting things about their dimensions and structure, which seem to relate to his being a castrato.” Castrated boys’ vocal cords were smaller and softer than an adult male’s. Their bones – including the ribs – kept growing, allowing for phenomenal lung power. Contemporary images of Farinelli depict a slender man with an unusually small head and extended limbs.  “We have this abnormally thick skull, the dental arch, the legs and ribs,” he says. “We are learning what effects castration had on the bone structure, the metabolism, and the diseases that castrati were particularly prone to. We hope to discover more about his diet and habits. It may even be possible to reconstruct his face.”

The Farinelli project is the latest in a series of experiments being carried out on the remains of classical music’s greatest geniuses. Poor Beethoven has not had much undisturbed rest since his death in 1827. He was first exhumed in 1863, then again 25 years later. In recent years, scientists have confirmed the presence of large amounts of lead in Beethoven’s hair and bones, bona fide samples of which have popped up from time to time at auction and among family heirlooms. A significant portion of his genetic make-up has been identified using DNA analysis and it’s now thought lead poisoning may well have caused the composer’s illnesses and legendary irascibility. Late in 2005, when some thirteen fragments of Beethoven’s skull came to light among the inheritance of a Californian businessman whose family in Europe had possessed the relics for generations, an American Beethoven scholar enthused, “It puts you in the physical presence of Beethoven’s body and if Beethoven’s music means a great deal to you, that is a very powerful thing and has a lot of meaning.”

When Mozart’s 250th birthday celebrations got underway in January 2006, there was much media interest when researchers tried to establish whether a skull kept in a Salzburg museum since 1902 was Mozart’s. Staff claimed musical notes, even screams, were heard to emanate from it at night. However DNA analysis of the skull alongside bones from a Mozart family grave proved inconclusive and the mystery continues.

This fascination with the physical remains of extraordinary people may well be traced back to the Middle Ages cult of the saints. “A relic – some bodily reminder of a saint – gave people access to the divine and served a very personal need,” my old schoolfriend Dr.Michael Spitzer, now lecturing at Durham University, tells me, “But as religion’s influence declined, so composers and other great heroes of romanticism took the place of religious figures. The remains of a composer are deeply affecting because they communicated with a ‘divine voice’ that is all-embracing and, at the same time, personal.”

Several composers’ skulls were stolen from tombs during the 19th century as the science of phrenology tried to prove that a genius could be identified by the bumps on his head. Haydn’s was removed by a group of phrenologists in 1809. Police failed to find the skull which, it later transpired, was hidden up the nightdress of one of the grave-robbers’ wives. Haydn’s head and body were only reunited in 1954. J.S. Bach was also exhumed, 144 years after his burial in Leipzig. A scientist who analysed his remains concluded that his ears were “exceptionally suited to music.”

While phrenology and its more sinister offspring eugenics have now long been discredited, our interest in manufacturing human perfection remains. “Today’s fascination is cloning,” says Michael, “We love to imagine what would happen if we could somehow bring Mozart back using his DNA and hear how he would finish his Requiem.”

As the research continues into the bones of Farinelli, I wonder if this obsession with the remains of great musical geniuses ultimately reveal to us anything more about their talents, or increase our appreciation of their music? Michael thinks not. But Luigi Verdi at the Farinelli Study Centre is more open-minded: “We don’t know yet whether studying Farinelli’s corpse will help us to understand better the features of his voice and of his art,” he says. “I personally think that some of the analysis may change the image that we have of castratos – but we will need to wait a little longer to see the results.”

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One Response to “The great decomposers”

  1. 1 laura

    Rob, such an interesting article! thank you.


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