Moving to the next stall, the warm, crowded scent of fresh baked bread embraces you. And in the back of the stall, on a marble slab, a roly-poly fat-faced man massages a thin sheet of pasta. His fingers mesmerize you as he deftly cuts and molds perfect little shells, dropping them on a baking foil. This is true alchemy, but instead of turning lead into gold, he transforms water, eggs and flour into delicious pearls.
No wonder Bologna is called la grassa, ‘the fat one,’ a term which refers to its cuisine. I can imagine Farinelli striding long-leggedly through a light rain along Via Clavatura, humming a tune as he carries a bag of pasta and a loaf of bread.
Although he never achieved any worthwhile girth, from his journals we know that Farinelli enjoyed bread with a thin, crisp crust surrounding a soft, flaky interior. And even in Farinelli’s day, good bread was hard to find.
In today’s world, people just want their bread to be white. Not Farinelli. Il castrato sought out bakers who used only natural yeast, which makes the best bread. And the dough must have been kneaded at least three times. Farinelli knew that Egyptian bakers of yore, in their quest for perfection, kneaded the dough with their feet.
Another highly desirable adjunct to good bread was the wood-burning oven. The coals imbued the rising dough with a certain taste and a distinctive smell. And the crust firmed up slower, allowing it to be crackley and thin. In that manner, when bitten into, it was like a delicate pastry. If you look hard, you can still find such bread in one or two of the bakeries in Bologna. In these shops they eschew gas or electric ovens, which are popular because wood is difficult to come by. Not only that, it’s expensive because woodcutting is not a popular career track.
Still with patience, you can track it down in la grassa.
I wonder if Farinelli ever relieved his sad, self-imposed confinement to stroll along the Portico of San Luca with its 666 arcades. Perhaps he walked on a sunny afternoon up the Colle della Guardia and stood in front of the Madonna with Child, which, according to tradition, was painted by the Evangelist Luke.
If he were alive today, would Farinelli party with me at Corto Maltese or the Lime Bar? Would he condescend to sing for me? Those astounding epicene tones would soar above the earth, carrying me with them up to heaven. Everyone, all the club-goers attending the ‘Erasmus’ night, would stop and hold their breath, with chills running up their spines, as his voice gathered to them a tantalizing wisp of blessed recollection.
I’d like to think he would.
Or would he feel more comfortable singing in the basilica of San Petronio? For it, too, suffered castration. Originally meant to surpass in size even St. Peter’s in Rome, at the last moment it was downsized per the directive of Pope Pius IV. Farinelli’s voice, shopping for more room, would expand it to its intended size. Together the two castrati, one a man, the other a red church, would fulfill their designed function – the glorification of God.
Because of his castration, Farinelli was viewed as a freak. Talented, charming and wonderful to listen to, but still a freak. He had few real friends. Numerous affairs with women are ascribed to him. We can only hope they were true. Once again, however, if true, I suspect they took place only because he was a sexual oddity.
As far as I can tell, he was never really in love, nor was he anyone’s beloved. Sad.
Like Hans Christian Andersen’s ugly duckling, Farinelli didn’t fit it, and suffered ridicule. Freak!
But Farinelli’s unfolding was the reverse of the ugly duckling.
The ugly duckling evolved into a magnificent swan because that was his nature. Farinelli was reduced from a boy with an angelic voice – a swan – to a eunuch, and enslaved to a musical ideal. His nature was never allowed its natural development.
Once mature, the ugly duckling was “really glad to have been through so much suffering and hardship, because now he could enjoy his own good fortune and the beauty around him all the more.” This luxury of appreciation was denied to Farinelli.
Surrounded by the good fortune and beauty of Spain’s royal court, he suffered the hardship of emotional castration. And he was idolized because physical castration had produced a hybrid voice, not because of who he was. Only because of what he was.
Unlike the ugly duckling, whose final words were: “I never dreamed of so much happiness when I was the ugly duckling,” Farinelli, as far as I can tell, only dreamed of happiness, but never experienced it.
I wonder how his life would have turned out if they had left him his manhood, left him human? If they had not ‘fixed’ him like an animal? Would he have become one of the most famous Italian tenors of the eighteenth century? Would he have married? Had children? Would he have been – just once, for a moment – really happy?
As the experts weigh and measure and fractionate his bones, perhaps they should listen. They might hear a groaning aria sung by a male-soprano still held captive. Castration continues even in death.