First Advisor

Richard Beyler

Date of Publication

Fall 12-6-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History






Castrati -- 18th century, Enlightenment, Opera -- Italy -- 18th century



Physical Description

1 online resource (iii, 145 pages)


The castrati--Italian men castrated before puberty in order to retain their high singing voice--were Europe's first superstars, reaching the height of their popularity in the first few decades of the eighteenth century. While only a tiny percentage of the European population, the castrati embodied many of the significant medical and philosophical questions of the Enlightenment that aimed to understand humanity: human emotion, physiology, sexuality, and culture. As a part of the ongoing debate over what was "natural," the castrati hold an interesting place. At the broadest level, the very existence of the castrati asked what it was to be a human being, being a human.

Created purely for the sake of making beautiful music, the castrati were not only abnormal but unnatural in the strictest sense of the word. That said, each castrato as part of his species had a particular set of characteristics that were natural to him. Because of this ontological ambiguity, references to the castrated body appeared in many Enlightenment texts concerning human generation, sexuality, and the nature of vital fluids as a counterexample to the natural male body.

As their own "monstrous" species, the castrati shed light on racial taxonomization and dis/ability classifications. Their role in one of the great art forms of the eighteenth century, opera, placed the castrati at the center of moral debates surrounding verisimilitude and artificiality in aesthetics, and the corruptions and pleasures of sensibility. Lastly, the castrati were intimately connected to medico-moral texts on human sexuality as embodiments of the physical and social dangers associated with sexual deviance. By closely examining the controversy that often surrounded the castrati, historians can explore the attitudes towards this "unnatural" human body within the context of broader socio-scientific debates over racial and cultural variety, sensibility, aesthetics, and the roles of pleasure and utility in Enlightenment discourse.


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