Castrati Sing in the Sistine Chapel Choir

Papal registers identified two castrati, or eunuchs, as new singers in the choir of the Sistine Chapel, marking what many consider the first documented, official acknowledgment of castrati in Church choirs.

Summary of Event

The identification of femininity with sexuality and carnal temptation prompted early Christian thinkers to exclude women from formal worship and ceremonies, leaving Christian liturgy a mostly male province for centuries. With the expansion of polyphonic music and its need for a broad vocal range, certain boys were castrated so that their prepubescent, feminine voices could be preserved and even enhanced. The papal court in Rome became the pioneering force in this direction, though castrato singing soon was extended into the sensational new idiom of opera. Castrati
Sistine Chapel;choir
Clement VIII
Sixtus V
Sixtus V
Clement VIII
Lasso, Orlando di

The historical record is unclear as to when castrati were first acknowledged as Church choristers. Though documented as a falsettist (or countertenor), Padre Soto, who began singing at the Vatican in the early 1560’, was a castrato, and, likewise, castrato Giacomo Spagnoletto was hired for the Sistine Choir in 1588. According to composer and music historian Anthony Milner, Pope Sixtus V issued a bull in 1589 that reorganized the choir at St. Peter’s Basilica, considered Christianity’s primary cathedral. In the bull, Sixtus set forth the makeup of the choir, including four eunuchs. The bull has never been challenged.

In 1599, however, papal registers (the Sistine Diary) explicitly identify two new singers, Pietro Paolo Folignato and Girolamo Rossini, as castrati. Pope Clement VIII found their voices preferable, because of their “natural” sweetness, to the shrill straining of the falsettists. With papal recognition, castrato singers quickly took over soprano parts in choirs, restricting falsettists to contralto functions only; within a century even the contralto parts were given to castrati.

The discovery of the musical range of castrated boys was apparently a by-product of the age-old creation of eunuchs for employment in certain court traditions. Such was true of the Chinese imperial court and of courts in ancient Mesopotamia, culminating in Persia. This created troupes of court functionaries used in palace harems, representing no sexual threat to the sovereign. From Persia, such practices worked their way into the Roman world by the late third century and continued for a millennium in the Byzantine court. The Romans and Byzantines were concerned less with the sexual implications for palace life and more with the nourishing of a cadre of officials whose loyalty would not be compromised by family and hereditary self-interests.

Early Christian society by no means felt abhorrence for eunuchs, who were able to rise to important ranks not only in government but also in the Church and in the military. Indeed, some Christian theologians believed the wound of castration to be a symbolic counterpart to the pious suffering of martyrs and the Savior. Martyrdom;eunuchs Deliberate castration as an act of religious fervor was common to some early religious cults and even found some endorsement by the early Christian Church. The early Church father Origen (c. 185-c. 254) and, later, Saint Benedict (c. 480-c. 547), pioneer of Western monasticism, are said to have made themselves eunuchs because of such fervor.

Musical effects of castration depended both on the degree of the operation and on its timing. It involved not the total excision of the male genitalia, as in some court practices, but the removal of the testicles (scrotum with testes) only. The operation had to be performed before the onset of puberty, when the juvenile voice would normally “break” to the lower male ranges. (The “ideal” age later became those boys eight to ten years old.) Assuming the boy already had a pleasing voice, the operation would prevent the descent and expansion of the larynx that is normal in male development, preserving for it instead the range of a soprano (or high alto) that would flourish in some female voices naturally. By hindering the development of testosterone, castration resulted in hormonal processes causing bodily development partly along female lines, but with some exaggerations. Castratos often became unusually tall and burly; above all, enlargement of the thorax gave them expanded lung capacity. Thus, a boy who started with a good voice grew into a singer who combined female tonal range with exceptional masculine strength of projection. Such singers produced sounds of unearthly beauty and compelling power.

It is not clear exactly when the consequences of castration were understood, but they certainly were known by Roman times, and they fitted the misogynist mentality of early Christian thought. The exclusion of women from Christian liturgical worship was founded in part on the oft-quoted dictum of Saint Paul, mulier taceat in ecclesia. The full wording and context of his dictum show that it extended Hebrew attitudes about the subjection of wives to husbands, even in religious matters. Catholicism;subjection of women[women]

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

The prohibition was really against speaking (indeed, against asking questions) rather than against singing. Still, the dictum justified the male monopoly in Church affairs.

The role of eunuchs in Church singing seems to have been limited and perhaps sporadic in the west, but it flourished in the East Roman and Byzantine traditions of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). A liturgical chorister who was also a eunuch was first identified around the late fourth and early fifth centuries. How extensively or consistently eunuchs were used in Byzantine worship remains unsettled, though it is becoming clear that through the centuries eunuchs had a larger place than previously thought. There is clear evidence of their importance by the twelfth century. Ecclesiastical scholar Theodore Balsamon (who, it is said, was also a eunuch) wrote of the extensive use of eunuchs. It is also known that a Byzantine eunuch named Manuel had traveled to distant Smolensk (now in western Russia) in 1137 and had sung there, and Odo of Deuil, while stopping at Constantinople in 1147 during the Second Crusade, admired the singing eunuchs (along with their hand-clapping and graceful movements) mingling with “manly” male choristers.

The Byzantine use of castrati had little influence in Western Europe, where the employment of eunuchs in court functions likewise found little currency. The normal ranges of the male voice sufficed for singing Latin plainchant in formal worship (nuns, too, sang the plainchant, but while isolated in their convents). When a wider range was needed, especially for special feast celebrations, the voices of children, especially boys, could be used. In addition, “normal” masculine ranges were extended by the cultivation of falsetto singing by adult males.

The steady evolution of polyphonic music, from the eleventh century onward, encouraged greater experimentation with vocal ranges. By the fifteenth century, these experiments had led to the development of elaborate and complex writing in four or more parts, often straining falsetto capacities in the upper ranges. Still, the male falsettist remained a necessary part of any liturgical choir or ensemble into the final golden age of sixteenth century polyphony. Carefully trained boys would take the highest part or parts in larger church choirs regularly, though they lacked the stability of adult singers.

A sixteenth century school of outstanding falsetto singing developed in Spain, and a number of Spanish falsettists found employment in the papal choir of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The phenomenal range and strength of these Spanish singers raised suspicions that their talents might have been enhanced surgically. Castration as a medical strategy was unusual but not unknown in European medicine, and either by accident or design it may have been discovered to enhance the potentials of talented choirboys. The great composer Orlando di Lasso had six acknowledged castrati, of Spanish origins, in his Munich chapel during the mid-sixteenth century. By the end of the century, the famous Spanish singers in Rome were identified as falsettists to cloak anatomical changes.


Having triumphed in church singing, the castrati almost immediately found new and better employment, and they turned the castration of choirboys for art and profit into a widespread practice. In the early years of the sixteenth century, the bold new idiom of opera was coming into being, and brilliant singing was at a new premium. Again, the papal court set a precedent by forbidding the participation of female singers in dramatic presentations, opening the field to castrati. Beyond that, however, the combination of commanding physical presence with vocal power made the castrato the preferred singer in not just male roles but also roles as heroic male leads (such as those given to tenors in later years).

Castrati were drawn into the new world of theaters and opera houses—although reluctantly at first—to become by the eighteenth century the commanding stars and celebrities of the musical world; their popularity faded only in the early years of the 1800’. Their role in church singing remained paramount in Italy, however, and lasted at the Vatican until the death in 1922 of its last castrati, Alessandro Moreschi.

Further Reading

  • Barbier, Patrick. The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon. London: Souvenir Press, 1996. Excellent overview of the castrati in their operatic heyday.
  • Bergeron, Katherine. “The Castrato as History.” Cambridge Opera Journal 8, no. 2 (1996): 167-184. Examines castrati as lost figures, part of an unrecoverable history.
  • Heriot, Angus. The Castrati in Opera. London: Secker & Warburg, 1956. Classic, if flawed, predecessor to Barbier, with more emphasis on individual singers’ careers.
  • Milner, Anthony. “The Sacred Capons.” Musical Times 114, no. 1561 (1973): 250-252. A brief but detailed examination of the uncertain history of castrati and eunuchs in choirs of the Church.
  • Rosselli, John. “The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550-1850,” Acta Musicologica 60 (1988): 143-179. Also in a revised abridgment in Rosselli’s Singers of Italian Opera: The History of a Profession. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. An important study of the profession in economic and religious contexts.
  • Taylor, Gary. Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood. New York: Routledge, 2002. Wide-ranging contemplation of the practice, including the musical dimensions.
  • Tougher, Shaun F. “Byzantine Eunuchs: An Overview, with Special Reference to Their Creation and Origin.” In Women, Men, and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium, edited by Liz James. New York: Routledge, 1997. Good introduction to a still-understudied topic.

1590’s: Birth of Opera