Thursday Lecture Series: Altered States

The Castrato Phantom: Moreschi, Fellini, and the Sacred Vernacular in Rome

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

This talk explores what Professor Feldman calls the "sacred vernacular" to puzzle out the conditions in twentieth-century Rome that mark the uncomfortable anomaly of the castrato, the last of whom, Alessandro Moreschi, died there in 1922. The term "sacred vernacular" refers to the peculiar Italian and especially Roman tendency to domesticate the sacred by means of the everyday. Among the consequences of this cultural formation is the figure of the sacred monster; the castrato is a marked instance of it, but Moreschi’s death, coincident with the rise of fascism, initiates a decades-long period of masculinist tropes and obliteration of historical memory of the castrato.

The most iconic elaborator of the sacred vernacular in mid-twentieth-century Rome was Federico Fellini whose films teem with boundary figures (hermaphrodites, giantesses, dwarves, and clowns) and references to the sacred in homespun contexts. Remarkably, a new corpus of evidence, supplied by the Moreschi family in oral interviews and family documents and borne out by archival documents, reveals a nexus of relationships, genealogical, biographical, and thematic, between Fellini and Moreschi, mediated by Fellini’s brother on one side and Moreschi’s adopted son and granddaughter on the other, whose families were joined by marriage. Moreschi’s son was a famous singing teacher in Rome and was cast in Fellini’s first feature film as a hotel clerk. But the Moreschi family had its own relationship to new media, first through Moreschi’s remarkable flat-record recordings in 1902 and 1904 with the eminent Gramophone & Typewriter Company and later through a prominent movie house managed first by his live-in nephew and later by his son and daughter-in-law (1917-1930).

Outside the circle of the Moreschi and Fellini, the castrato as a cultural figure came to be almost wholly suppressed in Roman consciousness for much of the twentieth century until Anton Giulio Bragaglia (1890-1960) published his groundbreaking monograph “On Castrated Singers” (Degli evirati cantanti, Florence, 1959). A famous experimental photographer and cineaste and a key architect of cinematic futurism dating back to the 1910s, Bragaglia was also a scholar of all forms of spectacle and deeply curious about the altered states of seers, magicians, and spiritualists. The moment of Bragaglia’s text is fateful. Two years later in Divorce Italian Style (1961) Pietro Germi offered a commentary on Moreschi in the form of a castrated chapel singer who sings one of Moreschi’s signature tunes, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria. Thereafter other filmic references to castrati begin to appear, but rather than being framed within the sacred vernacular, they become part of a joking recollection.

In Germi’s joke the castrato is the seat of an angelic voice imprisoned in a deficient body, an unsettling figure who nonetheless invites desire. The paradoxical dynamic he mobilizes in others is the very one that allows Fellini’s own boundary figures to mediate between worlds sacred and everyday, human and transhuman, and to serve as figures of grace. But the capacity to mediate thus always requires a sacrificial condition. If the castrato’s particular sacrifice was unpalatable in the twentieth century, the emplacement of his disfigured body within the church was nevertheless an old, even enduring sign of the complicity between grace and sacrifice that his renunciation made possible.