This study suggests that, against the background of early modern views of sexuality, the castrato appears not as the asexual creature sometimes implied today, but as a super-natural manifestation of a widely-held erotic ideal. Recent work in the history of sexuality has shown the prevalence in the early modern period of the "one-sex" model, in which the distinction between male and female is quantitative (with respect to "vital heat") rather than qualitative. This model provides for a large middle ground, encompassing prepubescent children, castrati, and other unusual figures. And that middle ground, in fact, seems to have been a prime locus of sexual desire: the art, literature, and historical accounts of the period argue that boys especially were often viewed -perhaps by both sexes-as erotic objects. Further evidence suggests that this sexual charge also applied to castrati. The plausibility of such an erotic image is strengthened by investigation into the actual sexual function of these singers, which seems to have fallen somewhere between historical legend and modern skepticism. Finally, a survey of castrato roles in opera, from Monteverdi to Handel, shows how these singers were deployed and suggests that their popularity could not have depended entirely on vocal skills. Instead, I argue that castrati were prized at least in part for their unique physicality, their spectacularly exaggerated embodiment of the ideal lover.
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