In 2006, archaeologists exhumed the remains of the legendary 18th century castrato, Carlo Maria Broschi, better known as Farinelli. As a boy, Farinelli showed talent as an opera singer and, when their father died young, his elder brother Riccardo made the decision to have Farinelli castrated, an illegal operation at the time, in order to preserve his voice. Farinelli became quite famous by the 1720s and sang daily until his death at the age of 78. An analysis of the bones has just been published in the Journal of Anatomy by Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti, with the most salient finding being that Farinelli's castration led to hormonal changes that likely caused him to develop internal frontal hyperostosis (or hyperostosis frontalis interna, depending on what side of the Atlantic you're from), a thickening of the frontal bone in the cranial vault that is found almost exclusively in postmenopausal women.
|Farinelli's bones, circled|
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 1)
|Crush fraction of an L vert|
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 5)
|Thickening of Farinelli's frontal bone|
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 8)
It's no secret that I am not a fan of digging up famous dead Italians, but in this case, Belcastro and colleagues have published the only osteological analysis of a castrato or eunuch. Granted, the identification of this skeleton with Farinelli is not 100% clear because of the condition of the remains, but it's reasonable to assume that they did indeed find the man.
|Portrait of Farinelli|
(credit: Wikimedia commons)
I'll have to look into the claim that IFH does produce symptoms like headaches, though, as I'm quite interested in the pathology. IFH is often not noticed in a bioarchaeological population unless the skulls are broken in just the right places. Bioarchaeologists don't tend to have enough money to xray or CT hundreds of individuals as we collect data, so I suspect that we miss quite a few ancient cases of this condition. I looked at a couple hundred skeletons from Imperial Rome and found one case of IFH (below), and I looked at a couple dozen skeletons from Gabii and found another case.
|IFH in an Imperial Roman woman in her early 40s|
(credit: Killgrove 2010)
Since I'm gearing up to teach a palaeopathology class in the fall, I'm thinking of making internal frontal hyperostosis a topic of an assignment, to see what the students can find out about the pathology. I'm particularly interested in whether anyone's looked at a large population for frequency of IFH, or if the reported cases from archaeological sites are just individuals whose skulls happened to be broken in just the right way.
UPDATE (7/25/11) - Past Horizons is carrying this essay, which I modified slightly for them, so do click through.
UPDATE (9/1/11) - Rossella Lorenzi wrote up this story for Discovery News. A French news site also has a summary of the piece.
MG Belcastro, G Fornaciari, & V Mariotti (2011). Hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) and castration: the case of the famous singer Farinelli (1705-1782). Journal of Anatomy PMID: 21740437.
K Killgrove (2010). Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome. PhD Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.