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ho is Farinelli?

Farinelli (January 24, 1705 – September 16, 1782), whose real name was Carlo Broschi, was one of the most famous Italian soprano castrato singers of the 18th century.

Early years

Broschi was born in Andria (now in the Italian region of Puglia) into a family of musicians. His father Salvatore was also governor of Maratea and Cisternino from 1706 to 1709. Broschi was castrated as a boy to preserve his young voice into adulthood.


As was often the case, an excuse had to be found for this always illegal operation, and in Carlo's case it was said to have been necessitated by a fall from a horse. In 1711, Carlo's family moved to Naples, where the young singer later studied with the famous composer and singing-teacher Nicola Porpora. He made his public debut in 1720 in Porpora's Angelica e Medoro, and soon became famous throughout Italy as il ragazzo ("the boy"; the origin of his stage name of Farinelli is unclear, though a possible explanation is that three rich Neapolitan music-loving brothers by name Farina sponsored Carlo in his studies).

In 1722 he made his first appearance at Rome in his master's Eumene and was received with enormous enthusiasm. From about this time there dates an almost legendary story that he had to perform an aria with trumpet obbligato, which evolved into a contest between singer and trumpeter. The latter thought he had achieved prodigies of technique and ornamentation, only for Farinelli to surpass him so much that he "was at last silenced only by the acclamations of the audience" (to quote the music historian Charles Burney — this account cannot be verified one way or the other, since no surviving work which Farinelli is known to have performed at this time contains an aria for soprano with trumpet obbligato). In common with many young castrati, Farinelli, in the early stages of his career frequently sang women's roles, including the title-role in Porpora's Adelaide.


Career in Europe

In 1724, Farinelli first appeared at Vienna, spending the following season in Naples.

In 1726, he also visited Parma and Milan, where Johann Joachim Quantz heard him and commented: "Farinelli had a penetrating, full, rich, bright and well-modulated soprano voice, with a range at that time from the A below middle C to the D two octaves above middle C. ... His intonation was pure, his trill beautiful, his breath control extraordinary and his throat very agile, so that he performed the widest intervals quickly and with the greatest ease and certainty. Passagework and all kinds of melismas were of no difficulty to him. In the invention of free ornamentation in adagio he was very fertile."

Farinelli sang at Bologna in 1727. There he met and acknowledged himself vanquished by the singer Antonio Bernacchi (twenty years Farinelli's senior), to whose instruction in finer points of technique he was much indebted.

With ever-increasing success and fame, Farinelli appeared in nearly all the great cities of Italy. Handel was keen to engage him for his company in London and while in Venice in January 1730, tried unsuccessfully to meet him




Farinelli, by Corrado Giaquinto c1755

In 1731, Farinelli visited Vienna for a third time. There he was received by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, on whose advice, according to the singer's first biographer, Giovenale Sacchi, he modified his style, expanding his affective repertoire to include pathos and simplicity alongside bravura. After further seasons in Italy, and another visit to Vienna, during which he sang in oratorios in the Imperial chapel, Farinelli came to London in 1734. He had been engaged by "The Opera of the Nobility", a company, supported by Frederick, Prince of Wales in opposition to Handel, that had Porpora as its composer and Senesino as principal singer. Farinelli's first appearance, at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, was in Artaserse, a pasticcio opera for which his brother Riccardo Broschi had composed some of the music. Though his success was instantaneous and enormous, neither the Nobility Opera nor Handel's company was able to sustain the public's interest. Farinelli, nonetheless, was still under contract in London in the summer of 1737 when he received a summons, via Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, Secretary of the Spanish Embassy there, to visit the Spanish court.

Farinelli in London

In London the previous year, Senesino, a singer who had been a part of Handel's "Second Academy" which performed at the King's Theatre, Haymarket, quarrelled with Handel and established a rival company, "Opera of the Nobility", operating from a theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. This company had Porpora as composer and Senesino as principal singer, but had not been a success during its first season of 1733-34. Farinelli, Porpora's most famous pupil, joined the company and made it financially solvent.

He first appeared in Artaserse, a pasticcio with music by his brother Riccardo and by Johann Adolph Hasse. He sang the memorable arias "Per questo dolce amplesso" (music by Hasse) and "Son qual nave" (music by Broschi), while Senesino sang "Pallido il sole" (music by Hasse). Of "Per questo dolce amplesso", Charles Burney reports: "Senesino had the part of a furious tyrant, and Farinelli that of an unfortunate hero in chains; but in the course of the first air, the captive so softened the heart of the tyrant, that Senesino, forgetting his stage-character, ran to Farinelli and embraced him in his own." "Son qual nave", on the other hand, was composed by Riccardo Broschi as a special showpiece for his brother's virtuosic skills. Burney described it thus: "The first note he sung was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterwards diminished in the same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for full five minutes. After this he set off with such brilliancy and rapidity of execution, that it was difficult for the violins of those days to keep pace with him."


Both the cognoscenti and the public adored him. The librettist Paolo Rolli, a close friend and supporter of Senesino, commented: "Farinelli has surprised me so much that I feel as though I had hitherto heard only a small part of the human voice, and now have heard it all. He has besides, the most amiable and polite manners ...". Some fans were more unrestrained: one titled lady was so carried away that, from a theatre box, she famously exclaimed: "One God, one Farinelli!" and was immortalised in a detail of Plate II of William Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress" (she may also appear in Plate IV of his series "Marriage à la mode" of 1745).

Though Farinelli's success was enormous, neither the Nobility Opera nor Handel's company was able to sustain the public's interest, which waned rapidly. Though his official salary was £1500 for a season, gifts from admirers probably increased this to something more like £5000, an enormous sum at the time. Farinelli was by no means the only singer to receive such large amounts, which were unsustainable in the long term. As one contemporary observer remarked: "within these two years we have seen even Farinelli sing to an audience of five-and-thirty pounds". Nonetheless, he was still under contract in London in the summer of 1737 when he received a summons, via Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, Secretary of the Spanish Embassy there, to visit the Spanish court.

At the court of Spain

Farinelli, by Jacopo Amigoni c1750-52

Apparently intending to make only a brief visit to the Continent, Farinelli called at Paris on his way to Madrid, singing at Versailles to King Louis XV on 9 July. Louis XV gave him his portrait set in diamonds, and 500 Louis d'or. On 15 July he left for Spain, arriving about a month later. Elisabetta Farnese, the Queen, had come to believe that Farinelli's voice might be able to cure the severe depression of her husband, King Philip V (contemporary physicians, such as the Queen's doctor Giuseppi Cervi, believed in music therapy).

On 25 August 1737, Farinelli was named Chamber Musician to the king, and criado familiar (this translates approximately as "honorary member of the Royal Family"). He never sang again in public.

Farinelli became a royal favourite and very influential at court. For the remaining nine years of Philip's life, Farinelli gave nightly private concerts to the royal couple. He also sang for other members of the royal family and organised private performances by them, and by professional musicians in the royal palaces. In 1738 he arranged for an entire Italian opera company to visit Madrid, beginning a fashion for opera seria in the Spanish capital. The Coliseo of the royal palace of Buen Retiro was remodelled, and became Madrid's only opera house.

On the accession of Philip's son, Ferdinand VI, Farinelli's influence became even greater. Ferdinand was a keen musician, and his wife, Barbara of Portugal, nearly a musical fanatic (in 1728 she had appointed Domenico Scarlatti, as her harpsichord teacher; the musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick acknowledges Farinelli's correspondence as providing "most of the direct information about Scarlatti that has transmitted itself to our day"). The relationship between singer and monarchs was personally close: he and the queen sang duets together, and the king accompanied him on the harpsichord. Farinelli took charge of all spectacles and court entertainments. He was himself also officially received into the ranks of the nobility, being made a Knight of the Order of Calatrava in 1750, an honour of which he was enormously proud. Although much courted by diplomats, Farinelli seems to have managed to keep out of politics.

Retirement and death

In 1759, Ferdinand was succeeded by his half-brother Charles III, who was no lover of music. Charles was the son of Elisabetta Farnese, who had never forgiven Farinelli for his decision to remain at court after Philip V's death, rather than following her into internal exile. It was clear that Farinelli would now have to leave Spain, though he was allowed a generous state pension. He retired to Bologna, where in 1732 he had acquired a property and citizenship. Though rich and still famous, much feted by local notables and visited by such notable figures as Burney, Mozart and Casanova, he was lonely in his old age, having outlived many of his friends and former colleagues. One distinguished friend of his latter years was the music historian, Giovanni Battista (known as "Padre") Martini. He also continued his correspondence with Metastasio, court poet at Vienna, dying a few months after him. In his will, Farinelli asked that he be buried in the mantle of the order of Calatrava, and was interred in the cemetery of the Capuchin monastery of Santa Croce in Bologna. His estate included gifts from royalty, a large collection of paintings including works by Velázquez, Murillo and Jusepe de Ribera, as well as portraits of his royal patrons, and several of himself, one by his friend Jacopo Amigoni. He also had a collection of keyboard instruments in which he took great delight, especially a piano made at Florence in 1730 (called in the will cembalo a martellini), and violins by Stradivarius and Amati.

His original place of burial was destroyed during the Napoleonic wars, and in 1810 Farinelli's great-niece Maria Carlotta Pisani had his remains transferred to the cemetery of La Certosa in Bologna. Farinelli's immediate heir, his nephew Matteo Pisani, sold Farinelli's house in 1798. (It later became the headquarters of a sugar factory, and was demolished in 1949, having been much damaged by bombardment during the second World War.) Maria Carlotta bequeathed many of Farinelli's letters to Bologna's University Library and was buried in the same grave as Farinelli in 1850..

Farinelli's other musical activities

Farinelli not only sang, but like most musicians of his time, was a competent harpsichordist. In old age, he learned to play the viola d'amore. He occasionally composed, writing a cantata of farewell to London (entitled Ossequiosissimo ringraziamento, for which he also wrote the text), and a few songs and arias, including one dedicated to Ferdinand VI.

Farinelli Study Centre

Farinelli lived in Bologna from 1761 until his death. The Farinelli Study Centre (Centro Studi Farinelli) was opened in Bologna in 1998. Major events and achievements include:

The restoration of Farinelli's grave in the Certosa of Bologna (2000)
An historical exhibition Farinelli a Bologna (2001 and 2005)
The inauguration of a City Park in the name of Farinelli, near the site where the singer lived in Bologna (2002)
An international symposium Il Farinelli e gli evirati cantori on the occasion of Farinelli's 300th anniversary of his birth (2005)
An official publication Il fantasma del Farinelli (2005)
The disinterment of Farinelli at the Certosa of Bologna (2006)


Farinelli's remains were disinterred from the Certosa cemetery on 12 July 2006. The stacking of the bones had degraded the condition of Farinelli's remains, but these included his jawbone, several teeth, parts of his skull and almost all of the major bones. Florentine antiquarian Alberto Bruschi and Luigi Verdi, Secretary of the Farinelli Study Centre, co-ordinator and general manager of the project, promoted the exhumation. The next day Carlo Vitali of the Farinelli Study Centre stated that the major bones were "long and sturdy, which would correspond with Farinelli's official portraits, as well as the castrati's reputation for being unusually tall." Maria Giovanna Belcastro of the Anthropology Institute of Bologna University, Gino Fornaciari, paleoanthropologist of the University of Pisa and engineer David Howard of York University are charged with deriving such new data on Farinelli and his lifestyle, habits and possible diseases, as well as the physiology of a castrato, as can be retrieved from these remains. Their research methods will include X-rays, CAT scans and DNA sampling.


"Reincarnations" of Farinelli

A film, Farinelli, directed by Gérard Corbiau, was made about Farinelli's life in 1994. This takes considerable dramatic licence with history, emphasising the importance of Farinelli's brother and reducing Porpora's role, while Handel becomes an antagonist; the singer's time in Spain is ignored almost entirely. Farinelli's supposed sexual exploits are a major element of the film's plot. Though cinematically effective, they have no basis in reality.

The film is not the first dramatic work to take Farinelli's life as its source material. He appears as a character in the opera La Part du Diable, composed by Daniel Auber to a libretto by Eugène Scribe, and has the title-role in an opera by the English composer John Barnett, first performed at Drury Lane in 1839, where his part is, oddly, written for a tenor (this work is itself an adaptation of the anonymous Farinelli, ou le Bouffe du Roi, premiered in Paris in 1835). More recent operas include Matteo d'Amico's Farinelli, la voce perduta (1996) and Farinelli, oder die Macht des Gesanges by Siegfried Matthus (1998).


Ellen T. Harris. "Farinelli", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 07 November 2007), grovemusic.com (subscription access).
Heriot, A: The castrati in Opera (London, 1956), pp 95–110
Cappelletto, S: La voce perduta (Turin, 1995); the most recent biography of the singer
Pérez Samper, M A: Isabel de Farnesio (Barcelona, 2003), pp 387–397
Farinelli (British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies; vol 28, no 3 (Oxford, 2005); the most recent collection of articles about the singer
Crow, C: Orchestration… Or Castration (History Today, September 2006; vol 56, no 9, pp 4–5)


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