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three pairs of lovers with space



Castrati were boys in Italy who had been castrated well before puberty so that they could sing and act as females on the stage, which was long forbidden to women in the Papal States. Their heyday was the eighteenth century, when the most successful of them had star status in fashionable society, and it was not only as performers on the stage that their much prolonged resemblance to boys attracted men.

The following observations on them in 1761 comes from the memoir of the Venetian adventurer Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (1725-98) in the seventh volume of his memoir translated from the original French by Willard R. Trask as History of My Life, Volumes VII and VIII (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), pp. 250-2.


Casanova, History of My Life, Volume VII, Chapter Eleven

Borghese Cardinal Francesco
Cardinal Francesco Borghese

After the Barbary horse race, which I attended with Mengs’s family[1] who amused themselves throwing sweetmeats from a bag I had filled for them into the landaus we overtook, we went to the Teatro Aliberti, to which the castrato[2] who was playing the leading woman’s part was drawing the entire city. He was the favorite of Cardinal Borghese[3], with whom he was invited to sup alone every evening.

The virtuoso sang very well, but his principal attraction was his beauty. I had seen him strolling at the Villa Medici; dressed in men’s clothes, and though his face was handsome enough he had not made an impression on me, for one saw at once that he was not a whole man; but on the stage, dressed as a woman, he was a firebrand.

It would seem that a man dressed as a woman could not but be known for what he was if he let too much of his chest be seen; but it was precisely by so doing that the little monster bewitched everyone in the audience. Tightly laced in a very well-fitting corset, he had the figure of a nymph, and few women could show a firmer and more enticing bosom than his. The illusion he created was such that it was impossible to resist it. One looked, the spell acted, and one had either to fall in love or be the most stolid of all Germans. When he walked across the stage waiting for the ritornello of the aria he was singing his gait was imposing, and when he swept his gaze over the boxes his black eyes revolved so tenderly and modestly that they ravished the soul. It was obvious that, as a man, he meant to foster the love of those who loved him as such and who would not have loved him if he had not been a man; but that he also meant to inspire love in those who, to love him, had to think of him as really a woman. Yet Rome, the Holy City, which thus drives the whole human race to become pederasts, refuses to admit it as she refuses to admit the existence of an illusion which she does everything possible to foster in the minds of audiences.

“You are right,” replied a celebrated Monsignore of the wristband game[4] to put me off; “yes, you reason very soundly. Why do they allow this castrato to exhibit his beautiful breasts and at the same time insist that he be known to be a man and not a woman? And if women are forbidden to appear on the stage[5] so that the senses shall not be excited into becoming the victims of their charms, why seek out men endowed with the same attractions who deceive and seduce the senses and give rise to desires far more sinful than the senses and give rise to desires far more sinful than the natural desire aroused by real women? It is stubbornly maintained that to suppose pederasty so easy and so common is to malign the human race, and even that falling in love with these artificial creatures is matter for laughter, because those who do so are all bound to find they have been hoodwinked when it comes to conclusions; but would to God that it were so! Far from feeling hoodwinked, they throw themselves into the thing with gusto and even come to take such pleasure in the subterfuge that a great many people who are lacking neither in intellect nor in common sense prefer these gentlemen to all the prettiest girls in Rome.”

Farinelli aged ca. 48 in 1753 famous castrato
Farinelli, most famous of the castrati, aged about 48, 1753

“The Pope would do well to put a stop to this practice.”

“I say on. One could not have a beautiful actress to supper alone without causing a scandal; and one can have a castrato to supper. It is true that afterward one goes to bed with him; but no one is supposed to know that; and if it becomes known no one can swear that there has been any wrongdoing, for after all he is a man, whereas one cannot go to bed with a woman except to enjoy her.”

“True, Monsignore. The chief thing is to make certainty impossible, for well-bred people never pass judgment on uncertain grounds.”



[1] The day after Casanova arrived in Rome, his brother Giovanni took him to stay in the home of the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79), long resident in Rome and where he himself had long been lodging. [Website footnote]

[2] Probably Giovanni Osti, nicknamed Giovannino di Borghese. [Translator’s note 36].

[3] Francesco Borghese (1697-1759) is the only Cardinal who can have been meant, though he had died two years earlier. There was not another Borghese Cardinal until 1770. [Website footnote]

[4] [French] text, le manège de la manchette = pederasty [Translator’s note 19 to Chapter VIII].

[5] The prohibition was issued by Pope Sixtus V in 1587. In 1686 it was modified to apply only to theaters in Rome and the Ecclesiastical State [Translator’s note 39].