Farinelli in Madrid...and an Autograph Document January 20 2021
The Bourbon King, Philip V, wasn't born a Spanish royal at all. He was the younger son of Louis, The Grand Dauphin, who was heir apparent to the French throne, and as he had older brothers who were directly in line, there was little expectation that he would ever rule France.
The Spanish royal line was a catastrophically inbred branch of the infamous
Habsburgs, which died out with Charles II in 1700. There were several blood claimants to the throne; Charles himself had been the product of a marriage between Uncle and Niece, and all eight of his great-grandparents were the descendants of one couple - Joanna and Philip I of Castile. However, Charles himself died young and in poor health. It was likely that he had suffered from rare genetic disorders which are common to inbreeding, and he left no heirs.
Philip's claim to the Spanish throne was not only strong and legitimate, he was also Charles' choice to succeed him. However, to take the Spanish throne, he had to give up all claim to the French crown. Perhaps inevitably, the early years of his reign were marked by war and unrest, as well as personal tragedy. His first wife, Maria Luisa of Savoy - died at the age of 26 in 1714, of tuberculosis, leaving Philip emotionally devastated. He married again later that same year, to the ambitious and pushy Elisabeth of Parma, who so dominated her husband that she effectively became the ruler of Spain.
Plagued by frequent and debilitating bouts of manic depression, Philip abdicated his throne in 1724 in favour of his 17-year-old son Louis. It is also likely that he saw a chance to claim the French throne at this point as a legitimate descendant of Louis XIV, even though the Treaty of Utrecht forbade a union of the French and Spanish thrones. However, just seven months later, Louis died of smallpox without issue, and a profoundly depressed Philip was obliged to rule Spain once again.
In August 1737, the great castrato Carlo Broschi (Farinelli) was invited to the Spanish Court and asked to be the Musico da Camera for the King and Queen, providing music therapy to the King under the instruction of doctor Giuseppe Cervi in the form of eight or nine arias every night (these were thought to always be the same eight or nine arias!), which eased Philip's melancholy.
Born into a family of musicians in Italy in 1705, Carlo Broschi showed promise as a boy singer at a young age, probably studying with the famous Nicola Porpora privately in Naples. His father died when he was only 12, and it's likely that this prompted his older brother, Riccardo, to decide that Carlo should be castrated, to preserve his significant talents as a boy soprano as a source of income for the family.
He quickly became celebrated throughout Europe, including a spell in London where his fans included a titled lady who was moved to exclaim "One God, one Farinelli!", an episode immortalised in Plate II of Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress".
His salary during this period was - including gifts from donors, patrons, and admirers - probably somewhere close to £5,000. A staggering sum for the eighteenth century.
Whilst still under contract in London, he received a summons from the Spanish Embassy via Sir Thomas Fitzgerald.
At the Spanish Court
Farinelli only intended to make a brief visit to Spain, but became a personal chamber musician to the King, and never sang in public again.
His status as a royal favourite led to him giving nightly concerts to the royal couple for the last nine years of Philip's life. Farinelli was initially engaged to sing in a room next to the royal chambers. However, the King was extremely moved by Farinelli's voice, and had him brought into his presence. He also sang for other members of the royal family, and organised private performances by other noted musicians. A year after his arrival, in 1738 he arranged for an Italian opera company to come to Madrid, introducing opera seria to the capital, and leading to the remodelling of part of the royal palace of Buen Retiro to be turned into the only opera house in Madrid.
When Philip V died in 1746, his widow expected Farinelli to accompany her into internal exile. However, Farinelli chose to remain in Madrid at the court of Philip's son, Ferdinand VI. Ferdinand had inherited his father's depressive tendencies and also his love of music, but his wife, Barbara of Portugal, was nothing short of a fanatic when it came to her love of music. She had engaged Domenico Scarlatti as her harpsichord teacher nearly 20 years previously, and it's thanks to Farinelli's correspondence that we have as much information about Scarlatti as we do.
Farinelli's relationship with the Spanish royal family was very close - they would often perform ensembles together, with the King accompanying his wife and Farinelli on the harpsichord as they same duets together. In 1750, Farinelli became part of the nobility himself, when he was made a Knight of the Order of Calatrava.
Around this time, the painter Jacopo Amigoni painted a beautiful group portrait including Farinelli, and his favourite student, Teresa Castellini (prima donna of the Madrid Opera). Also in the portrait are Metastasio, and the painter himself, along with the singer's page boy, and his dog. It's an intimate portrait of friends - all Italian nationals - living and working in Spain at that time, although they were all due soon to part forever. Amigoni identifies each of the sitters by name, conscious of the fact that they might otherwise fade into obscurity.
Death of Ferdinand VI and Retirement
Farinelli's position sadly didn't last forever. Ferdinand's half-brother, Charles III, came to the Spanish throne in 1759 and was no lover of music. His mother, Philip V's second wife Elisabeth, wasted no time in getting her revenge on Farinelli for remaining at court after her husband had died, and not following her retinue.
Farinelli's pension was handsome, but he felt obliged to leave Spain and returned to Bologna, where he had both property and citizenship. Still wealthy and famous, his visitors during this time included Mozart, and even Casanova.
However, Farinelli lived into old age, and outlived most of his friends and contemporaries. He died in 1782, and was buried in the mantle of the Order of Calatrava in the cemetery of Santa Croce in Bologna, and was later moved to La Certosa after he destruction of his original burial place in the Napoleonic wars.
In a ghoulish footnote to Farinelli's life, his remains were disinterred from the grave he shared with his great-niece, Maria Carlotta, in 2006, and examined to learn more about the physiology of the castrato. He was noted to be very tall for the eighteenth century - around 6'3" in height - and to have suffered from a form of osteoporosis more common in menopausal women, both common in castrati due to abnormal hormonal changes.
Autographs and Memorabilia
Examples of Farinelli's autograph are very rare indeed, but very rare examples in relation to property do exist, such as this rare document signed Carlo Broschi Farinelli, dating from 1749, and signed in Madrid, related to the construction of his house in Madrid.
More about Farinelli can be seen in these two movies:
- Heavenly Voices: The Legacy of Farinelli. This is a documentary that looks back at the evolution of the castrati, recommended only if you are new to castrati and curious about them.
- Farinelli, the film - a very famous movie about him, 1994, not historically accurate but entertaining.
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