The way we spend our time and energy changes our bodies. Hunching over a keyboard all day can cause neck and eye strain. Standing on a factory floor may lead to foot and back problems. And getting your testicles cut off at a young age? Yeah, that’ll make a long-term impression. Researchers say the childhood castration and subsequent opera career of 19th-century singer Gaspare Pacchierotti left permanent marks on his skeleton. They published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
Modern opera first appeared in Italy during the 1600s. At the time, strict religious rules barred women from singing in church and other locations. In order to round out a choir or cast, therefore, somebody had to sing the high notes. Young boys could do it. But as soon as those boys hit puberty, they lost the ability to reach those high notes. To preserve the boys’ angelic soprano voices, they were castrated at a young age, thereby snatching them from the ravages of testosterone.
This was a grotesque and predatory practice, one that small children and their often-poor families were powerless to refuse. But while castration-for-entertainment’s-sake seems barbaric today, it was quite commonplace at the time, and its victims were celebrated. Even after women were permitted to sing, audiences overwhelmingly preferred sweet castrati voices for female roles. Many of these men became quite famous.
One of the most renowned was Gaspare Pacchierotti. The mezzo-soprano was born in Italy in 1740 and castrated before he turned 12. From his first performance at age 19 to his last at 53, Pacchierotti was a fan favorite. After retiring, the singer moved to the countryside of Padua, where he lived for another 28 years. He was buried in a local chapel, and there he stayed for almost two centuries, until local scientists decided to dig him up in 2013.
Researchers from the University of Padua were curious about the local legend’s remains. Previous studies have shown that opera singers’ bodies adapt to give them improved lung capacity and a broader vocal range. Surely, they felt, castration would have a substantial effect, too; after all, testosterone isn’t just for deepening voices. It affects all sorts of bodily processes.
Image credit: Zanatta et al. 2016 in Nature Scientific Reports
So the scientists exhumed Pacchierotti and brought his skeletal remains to the university. There they took careful measurements of the singer’s bones and examined them with computed tomography (CT) and x-ray microtomography scanners.
They found that the star’s early castration and later musical success had indeed left traces on his body. First, like many castrati, the 6’3” Pacchierotti had been quite tall for his time. Researchers believe the unusual height seen in castrati is the result of a delayed fusion of leg bones, which is typically triggered by puberty; a theory borne out by the singer’s hip bones, which also showed signs of late fusion.
The testosterone deficit also took its toll on Pacchierotti’s bones in the form of osteoporosis. The researchers found numerous fractures on the singer’s spine and low bone density in his arms and legs.
The first signs of decades of singing—so-called occupational markers—appeared on his chest: abnormalities at three points where breathing-related muscles attached to his ribs. These abnormalities are not harmful and are similar to those found in singers today; they aid in lifting the ribs for deeper respiration. Next, they spotted marks on Pacchierotti’s shoulder joints that indicated that he’d had extremely strong muscles there—an indication that the performer likely gestured a lot with his arms while he sang.
Lastly, they saw damage to the singer’s neck likely caused by the unnatural and bone-eroding neck positions required by opera singing.
Considered all at once, these issues sound pretty unpleasant. But keep in mind that, after what was likely a pretty horrific childhood, Pacchierotti went on to succeed, retire, and live to a ripe old age.
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