Lecture: Martha Feldman – “The Castrato Phantom: Masculinity and the Sacred Vernacular in Twentieth-Century Rome”

Martha Feldman

January 22, 2020 | 4:30PM
Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, 5733 S University Ave

2020 Iris Marion Young Distinguished Faculty Lecture

Martha Feldman
Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Music and the Humanities in the College
“The Castrato Phantom: Masculinity and the Sacred Vernacular in Twentieth-Century Rome”

This paper explores what I call the sacred vernacular to puzzle out the conditions in twentieth-century Rome that mark the uncomfortable anomaly of the castrato, a man castrated for singing, the last of whom, Alessandro Moreschi, died there in 1922. The “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 the castrato’s memory.

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. 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 between Fellini and Moreschi, mediated by Fellini’s brother on one side and Moreschi’s adopted son (a famous singing) and granddaughter on the other, whose families were joined by marriage. 

Outside the circles of the Moreschi and Fellini families, memory of the castrato was suppressed in Roman consciousness until experimental photographer, cineaste, and futurist Anton Giulio Bragaglia published a groundbreaking monograph on castrati in 1959. Two years later, in Divorce Italian Style, Pietro Germi offered a commentary on Moreschi in the form of a castrated chapel singer who sings one of Moreschi’s signature tunes, initiating a spate of facetious filmic references to castrati. 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 had always required a sacrificial condition. If the castrato’s particular loss was unpalatable in fascist Rome, the emplacement of his disfigured body within the church was nevertheless still a sign of the complicity between grace and sacrifice that his renunciation had always made possible.

Free and open to the public.