What a Queer Institution Was the Castrati
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Published in: July-August 2024 issue.


HE STARES dreamily at someone over your shoulder, his mouth open and poised to sing. In his hands he strums the lute that gives him his name. Flowers decorate the desk before him. The flowing white blouse he wears is open, displaying an unusually broad rib cage and rounded shoulders. His too-boyish face and luscious curls give him a feminine appearance, making his gender and age ambiguous. He’s beautiful and mesmerizing yet somehow haunting or, perhaps, haunted.

            He’s the musician in Caravaggio’s The Lute Player, suggested by some to be the Spanish castrato Pietro Montoya. No other known depictions survive of this man, who would have been in his early twenties at the time the painting was created. He probably lived in the household of the Cardinal del Monte, a patron of Caravaggio’s, while singing with the papal choir between 1592 and 1600. This period coincides with Caravaggio’s own residence within the household of del Monte. Caravaggio’s musical paintings, including The Musicians and multiple versions of The Lute Player, were all painted there.

Caravaggio. The Lute Player, 1596.

            The idea of a castrated musician sponsored by a cardinal might seem strange or even perverse to a modern reader. Yet many high-ranking figures within the church financed the training of castrati and gave them housing. The cultural phenomenon of the castrato is inextricably connected to the Catholic Church. During the European Renaissance, women were forbidden from performing on stage or singing in church. Within the Papal States, women couldn’t even sing in public. This prohibition, combined with the need for singers with high-pitched, angelic voices, led to a practice that we may regard as barbaric: the making of castrati through the destruction of a prepubescent boy’s testicles, usually by crushing, in an operation performed by specialists from Norcia, a town in central Italy.

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Lee Lanzilotta, a transmasculine writer originally from Virginia, is currently based in Rome, Italy, where he studies Classics and archæology. 


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