Cry to heaven
GUIDO MAFFEO was castrated when he was six years old and sent to study with the finest singing masters in Naples.
He had known only routine hunger and cruelty among the large peasant brood to which he was born the eleventh child. And all of his life, Guido remembered he was given his first good meal and soft bed by those who made him a eunuch.
It was a beautiful room to which he was taken in the mountain town of Caracena. It had a real floor of smooth stone tiles, and on the wall Guido saw a ticking clock for the first time in his life and was frightened of it. The soft-spoken men who had taken him from his mother’s hands asked him to sing for them. And afterwards rewarded him with a red wine full of honey.
These men took off his clothes and put him in a warm bath, but he was so sweetly drowsy by that time he was not afraid of anything. Gentle hands massaged his neck. And slipping back into the water, Guido sensed something marvelous and important was happening to him. Never had anyone paid him so much attention.
He was almost asleep when they lifted him out and strapped him to a table. He felt he was falling for an instant. His head had been placed lower than his feet. But then he was sleeping again, firmly held, and stroked by those silken hands that moved between his legs to give him a wicked little pleasure. When the knife came he opened his eyes, screaming.
He arched his back. He struggled with the straps. But a voice beside him came soft, comforting in his ear, scolding him gently: “Ah, Guido, Guido.”
The memory of all this never left him.
That night he awoke on snow white sheets that smelled of crushed green leaves. And climbing out of bed in spite of the small bandaged soreness between his legs, he came up short before a little boy in a mirror. In an instant he realized it was his own reflection, which he had never seen before save in still water. He saw his curly dark hair, and touched his face all over, particularly his flat little nose which seemed to him like a piece of moist clay rather than the noses of other people.
The man who found him did not punish him, but fed him soup with a silver spoon, and spoke to him in a strange tongue, reassuring him. There were little pictures on the walls, brightly colored, full of faces. They came clear with the rising sun, and Guido saw on the floor a pair of fine leather shoes, shiny and black, and small enough that they would fit on his feet. He knew they would be given to him.
It was the year 1715. Louis XIV, le roi soleil of France, had just died. Peter the Great was the czar of Russia.
In the far-off North American colony of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin was nine years old. George I had just taken the throne of England.
African slaves tilled the fields of the New World on both sides of the equator. A man could be hanged in London for the theft of a loaf of bread. He could be burned alive in Portugal for heresy.
Gentlemen covered their heads with great white wigs when they went out; they carried swords, and pinched snuff from small jeweled boxes. They wore breeches buckled at the knee, stockings, shoes with high heels; their coats had enormous pockets. Ladies in ruffled corsets fixed beauty marks to their cheeks. They danced the minuet in hooped skirts; they held salons, fell in love, committed adultery.
Mozart’s father had not yet been born. Johann Sebastian Bach was thirty. Galileo had been dead for seventy-three years; Isaac Newton was an old man. Jean Jacques Rousseau was an infant.
Italian opera had conquered the world. The year would see Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Tigrane in Naples, Vivaldi’s Narone fatta Cesare in Venice. George Frederick Handel was the most celebrated composer in London.
On the sunny Italian peninsula, foreign domination had made great inroads. The Archduke of Austria ruled the northern city of Milan and the southern Kingdom of Naples.
But Guido knew nothing of the world. He did not even speak the language of his native country.
The city of Naples was more wondrous than anything he had ever beheld, and the conservatorio to which he was brought, overlooking town and sea, seemed as magnificent as a palazzo.
The black dress with its red sash he was