The most intriguing figure in “Eyewitness Views” isn’t a king or a pope: it’s a singer

Among the scenes of royal pageantry and natural disaster in Mia’s colorful look at history painting in the 1700s, “Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th-Century Europe,” is a wide, detailed view of the Spanish palace at Aranjuez, south of Madrid, in 1756. Red paper lanterns line the gardens and palace walls, and a fleet of pleasure barges for the royal family cruises a canal. It is the feast day of Saint Ferdinand, namesake of the king, and at the center of the festivities is a minute figure in a long blue cloak: Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli, the most famous singer of the castrato era.

A nearby painting also features Farinelli, riding on the Spanish royal longboat beside the king and queen. No other historical person, aside from royalty, figures so prominently in the show.

A detail of Francesco Battaglioi's "King Ferdinand VI and Queen Maria Barbara of Braganza in the Gardens at Aranjuez on the Feast of Saint Ferdinand," showing Farinelli in a blue coat at center-left.

A detail of Francesco Battaglioi’s “King Ferdinand VI and Queen Maria Barbara of Braganza in the Gardens at Aranjuez on the Feast of Saint Ferdinand,” showing Farinelli in a blue coat at center-left.

Broschi was born in Italy in 1705. His father was a composer, and by the time Broschi was 7 his elder brother was studying composition at a top music conservatory, in Naples. Broschi, who showed promise as a boy singer, soon met the city’s most famous voice teacher, whose pupils included some of Italy’s best-known castrati—singers who were castrated as boys to preserve their juvenile singing voice into adulthood.

Castrati had been a musical phenomenon since the 1550s, largely in the choirs of Roman Catholic churches (where women were forbidden to sing by the Biblical dictum “let women keep silent in church”) but also in opera. They sang both men’s and women’s parts in a uniquely high and supple voice—a soprano with an ethereal twist. The most famous castrati performed as solo acts, sometimes dueling on stage against each other in contests of high-pitched musical prowess. By the 1700s, thousands of boys were being castrated in hopes that their stunted vocal cords would make them employable for life, if not rich and famous.

When Broschi’s father died unexpectedly in 1717, leaving the family in dire straits, the decision to castrate Broschi was made—presumably by his brother. The clandestine and excruciating operation (without anesthetic) required some official rationale, which was the norm; in this case, Broschi was said to have fallen from a horse.

Broschi emerged on the opera stage at 15, with a remarkable voice capable of hitting the highest note then employed in vocal music, and he quickly became famous as “il ragazzo” (the boy). He eventually took the stage name Farinelli. In an era of extreme entertainment, Farinelli excelled at frilly ornamentation, at vocal acrobatics that mesmerized his audiences.

He toured the continent throughout the 1720s and ’30s as a well-compensated celebrity, until he landed at the court of Spain in 1737 as a chamber musician to the king. Ferdinand believed the beloved castrato’s singing would cure him of his depression. Farinelli never sang in public again.

Master of Spectacles

Farinelli depicted by Jacopo Amigoni around 1750-52, wearing the knightly Order of Calatrava of which he was so proud he asked to be buried in it.

Farinelli depicted by Jacopo Amigoni around 1750-52, wearing the knightly Order of Calatrava of which he was so proud he asked to be buried in it.

In the paintings at Mia, Farinelli is seen in his latter-day role as royal entertainment director, planning the kind of excessive spectacles that by the end of the century would cost European royalty their heads. Some were so memorable that they were preserved in oil. Indeed, it was Farinelli who commissioned Francesco Battaglioli’s painting of the palace grounds filled with red lanterns, in which he is at the center of the action. During the sort of pleasure-boat trips captured in Antonio Joli’s 1752 painting King Ferdinand VI and Queen Maria Barbara of Braganza on the Royal Longboat at Aranjuez, Farinelli usually provided the entertainment himself, singing two arias, often accompanied by the royal couple.

Farinelli was a noble himself then, having been knighted in 1750, and when his royal patrons were succeeded by a king more interested in science than baroque fripperies, Farinelli retired to Italy with a generous pension. When he died, his estate contained a large collection of paintings by Spanish masters like Velazquez and Murillo, and an array of fine instruments including violins by Stradivarius.

His earthly presence soon disappeared. His house became the headquarters of a sugar factory, and was bombarded during World War II to the point that it was demolished in 1949. His burial site was destroyed almost immediately, in the Napoleonic wars, and his remains were moved to his great-niece’s grave. When they were exhumed in 2006, there was little left —only enough to know that Farinelli was unusually tall and his lower jaw was underdeveloped, probably the result of castration.

His teeth, however, were relatively unscathed. He was very young when he became rich and famous, after all, and spent the rest of his life favoring “mortadella, macaroni with courgettes, quince jelly, and chocolate,” according to his diary—the soft, luxurious diet of the aristocracy who accepted him only after his operation.

Top image: A portrait of Farinelli, painted by Corrado Giaquinto around 1755.