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The Castrato Meets the Cyborg

The Castrato Meets the Cyborg

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Published by: Stemna Asemi on Apr 21, 2013
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The Castrato Meets the Cyborg
Bonnie Gordon
The Opera Quarterly, Volume 27, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 94-121(Article)
Published by Oxford University Press
For additional information about this article
Access Provided by your local institution at 05/18/12 11:27AM GMT
The Castrato Meets the Cyborg
bonnie gordonuniversity of virginia
The beginning of the 1630s did not go well for the Barberinis. They sufferedthrough a plague, a war, and a lot of bad press generated by their successful pros-ecution of Galileo as a heretic. When Prince Alexander Charles Vasa of Polandcame to visit in early 1634, they took the opportunity to engage in some early-modern damage control. The grand procession, an opera, and a theatrical joust left no room to question their greatness. One evening, as part of these events, thesoprano castrato Marc Antonio Pasqualini entered the house of a Barberini rela-tion on a chariot that was drawn by a giant metallic eagle and
moved above fourgolden wheels.
Dressed as Fame, he wore an elaborate costume of gold threadand sang to the audience with a voice created by surgery and years of training(fig.1).Pasqualini
s entrance serves as my point of departure for exploring the boun-dary between humans and machines in early modern Italy. I will argue for a reso-nance between castrati and machines
a resonance that insists that boundariesbetween humans and machines have always been porous. The altered bodies of the castrati existed within a long-standing tension between the organic and thehuman made. In the seventeenth century that tension created a ripe climate formanufactured singers, one that is still relevant today. Admitting that relevanceshould teach us something about the dangers of reading the past in terms of ourown historical period. It can also reveal the productively defamiliarizing possibil-ities of reading the castrato as an early hallmark of, and indeed entirely related to,our current experience of (post)modernity.Focusing on Pasqualini and his chariot helps us see castrati outside the oper-atic and ecclesiastical contexts in which scholars most often consider them. To besure, at their height they existed within the operatic world and were products of that potent institution. But, considering them in spectacles like the Barberinis
and alongside early modern technologies allows for new understandings of thepeculiar reasons why these altered men played such an important role in musicmaking for nearly two hundred years, and why, in particular, this was so inseventeenth-century Rome when the Barberini family dominated cultural life.
The Opera Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 94
122; doi: 10.1093/oq/kbr015Advance Access publication on September 7, 2011© The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
To judge from the descriptions in primary sources, as well as the invaluablearchival work of Margaret Murata and Frederick Hammond on Barberini Rome,baroque Rome was a space of barely controlled chaos.
A variety of events
fromfireworks to operas with onstage fountains and flying clouds
mixed illusion,machinery, magic, and music. There were animate and inanimate objects; actorsand animals; clamorous events with trumpets, drums, screaming, shooting, andother noises. Within this environment of sensory overload, at certain momentsthe visual and the aural coalesced, and the castrato
s voice acted not just as amusical effect, but also as a special effect.Spectators of these events lived in a world in which mechanical philosophy was emerging, but earlier magical sensibilities still echoed. They experienced thecastrato as a kind of human machine, a variation among other wondrous objectscreated by technological attempts to manipulate and supplement natural materi-als. Castrati were
to produce sounds in ways that 
bodies could not. If, as Jonathan Sawday and others claim, anatomy theaters andpublic autopsies played on the conceit of the body as a machine, then operas andspectacles used the castrato as both a machine and a malleable object.
Castratiand machines did not register as identical; everyone could tell the differencebetween a mechanical singing bird and an altered man singing an aria. Likewise,we in the twenty-first century can distinguish between the Terminator and theformer governor of California. But the distinction between constructed singersand machines was by no means absolute in the seventeenth century. The shared
Figure 1 Pasqualini as Fame, engraving by Francois Colllignon
, Festa, fatta in Roma(
Rome, 1635 
This image is only available in print due to restrictions from the rights
the castrato meets the cyborg95

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