updated Jul 5, 2006 11:58:53 PM
of Famed Castrato to Be Disinterred
by Carlo Vitali
July 5, 2006
BOLOGNA - On July 12 at 8:30 a.m., a small host of sextons, researchers and selected media will gather at La Certosa, the city's main cemetery, for an unusual event: the disinterment of Carlo Broschi, nicknamed Farinelli, the legendary castrato who spent the last two decades of his relatively long life (1705-1782) in this old university town. The Apulia-born singer found a second fatherland here, officially gaining citizenship in 1732 and using it as a comfortable haven for his retirement years.
Such writers as Charles Burney and Giacomo Casanova have left lively accounts of his lavish, occasionally melancholy lifestyle in his suburban villa, where he was visited frequently by friends, family and admirers. Soon after his death, the greed of his heirs and the radical social changes prompted by the French revolution and Napoleon's regime scattered the bulk of his estate, notably his impressive collection of artworks, instruments and musical papers.
Even his mortal remains were presumed lost in the destruction, back in 1796, of the Capuchin monastery and church of Santa Croce, on the hills south of downtown. Much later, on March 30, 1995, journalist Claudio Santini wrote an article for the local paper "Il Resto del Carlino," announcing the discovery of Farinelli's second grave, sitting completely unnoticed in La Certosa (for images, click here.)
The Latin inscription on the classic-looking tombstone states that his corpse was relocated there in 1810, care of his loving grand-niece Carlotta Pisani Broschi who, surviving her grand-uncle until 1850, disposed by testament to rejoin him in the same grave. A restoration of the dilapidated monument ensued in 2000, thanks to the joint efforts of various organizations led by Centro Studi Farinelli, the independent learned society founded in 1998 by a group of Bologna-based scholars, and presently including members from France, Germany, Spain, Australia and the USA.
The same Centro Studi, with financial support from the Florentine publisher Alberto Bruschi, is now sponsoring a further step, that's to say exploring the cavity at the foot of said tombstone to perform bio-medical research on the remains, if any are left, of the famed singer. The scientific management of the project is entrusted to the Universities of Pisa and Bologna, more exactly to teams led by Prof. Gino Fornaciari and Prof. Maria Giovanna Belcastro, respectively. Fornaciari, professor of pathology and history of medicine at Pisa, is also heading the group that has been granted permission to exhume 47 members of the Medici ruling family in Florence and is an international authority in the field. Belcastro, a professor of physical anthropology, is superintendent of the University Laboratory of Bioarchaeology and Forensic Osteology at Bologna.
Asked what they are expecting to find, Belcastro responded, "Anything, from an empty hole to the full skeleton of Farinelli attired in the majestic white cloak of the knightly Spanish order of Calatrava and sundry paraphernalia, such as sword and jeweled star." As a specialist in a specialist in osteology, Belcastro's main interest is, so to say, close to the bone. Even after several centuries, bones can tell much about the lives of the deceased. "We want to see what did they eat, what kind of diseases they had. The skull, if decently preserved, can help us to reconstruct what their faces looked like."
That may prove of crucial importance in assessing the authenticity and/or actual likeness of the many Farinelli portraits. Belcastro will also be looking for ways to explain the singer's vocal type. "Removal of the testicles results in the absence of male-type growth of the larynx, which may appear very small, with the vocal cords as short as in a female soprano. Yet, despite that, the resonating chambers provided by the pharynx and oral cavity, as well as a fully adult chest capacity, were probably responsible for the unique vocal prowess of some castrati." Besides natural talent and hard training, one might add.
Following photography and measurements at the site, the grave's contents will go through an array of lab investigations -- X-rays, CAT scans, DNA sampling and the like - during the next year, first in Bologna, then in Pisa. Access to the materials has been granted to a number of foreign specialists, including Prof. David M. Howard, an acoustic engineer based at the University of York often involved in both forensic and music analysis. His most recent feat was the electronic recreation of the sound of a castrato singing "Ombra mai fu" by Handel, as will be shown in the Francesca Kemp documentary film "The Castrati," which next runs on BBC4 July 9th. All that combined competence is obviously fostering great expectations. Provided, of course, that the bones of the self-styled "tall Farinelli" are still there.
updated Jul 13, 2006 03:07:38
Discuss Findings in Farinelli's Grave
An unusual confluence: A press conference at a grave site...
by Carlo Vitali
-- At 6 a.m. yesterday, Don Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of anthropology at
the University of Bologna and a Roman Catholic priest, delivered a concise
prayer on the subterranean vault thought to be hosting the mortal remains of
Farinelli, perhaps the most famed singer in history. Then, as two sextons
carefully proceeded to dismantling the brick roof, two skeletons were clearly to
be seen: one completely stretched at the Eastern end of the pit, Farinelli's
grand-niece Carlotta Pisani Broschi, holding a silver rosary between her crossed
hands. The other, stacked up at her feet, was the legendary castrato, whose
bones looked tall and sturdy, quite matching the impression collected from
several contemporary portraits and caricatures of him.
After both corpses and surrounding materials were photographed, filmed,
inventoried and stored bit by bit, the leading experts in the inter-university
reseach team, professors Facchini and Maria Giovanna Belcastro (Bologna) and
Gino Fornaciari (Pisa) presided over an on-site press conference. Their main
conclusions were: Farinelliís skeleton is not in optimal condition. However, a
part of his jaw-bone, a couple of teeth and a few fragments of the skull have
been identified so far, and more may emerge after a closer scrutiny. This
circumstance, added to the fairly good preservation of the major bones, seems
enough to perform most of the projected bio-medical tests about the singerís
height, bodily countenance, life-style, nutrition habits, diseases, traumas and
No traces of textile have been detected, yet different artifacts such as the
aforementioned rosary, plus wooden pieces and nails from a coffin, may prove of
interest to archaeologists. As to the hottest issue, i.e. hints at a
reconstruction of Farinelliís physionogmy and mechanism of voice production,
prospects are less likely but not yet ruled out. Lab examinations, first at
Bologna and later at Pisa, are expected to take months, if not a whole year.
Regular progress reports will be submitted to the scientific community and the
Luigi Verdi, secretary to the Bologna-based learned society Centro Studi
Farinelli, is understandably happy with the outcome of this first field survey.
He chose MusicalAmerica.com to announce one more sensational discovery at La
Certosa cemetery: the resurfacing of the grave-stone for Antonio Bernacchi
(Bologna 1685- Bologna 1756), another outstanding castrato whose career in
Handelís opera company, and the London stage at large, is well known. The
Latin inscription conveys the loving tribute of some among his many
distinguished pupils, including the German Anton Raaf, the highly virtuosic
tenor for whom Mozart tailored the role of Idomeneo and other minor works. Thus
Bernacchi is probably the next target for DNA hunters. Credit for this recent
discovery is due both to Verdi himself and his close collaborator Roberto
Martorelli, a staffer at the Bologna City Council.