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Preci’s Curious Fame

Date: July 27, 2012 - categories: , , - 3 Comments

A friend joined me for the adventure: we took a curvy wooded road into the Valnerina and then up into the Sibiliine mountains in southern Umbria, until we came to tiny Preci (population: about 200). Born as a medieval rural village near a Benedictine oratory (now the Abbey of Sant’Eutizio) time seems to have stood still in Preci. The serenity of this picturesque mountain village of warm Mediterranean colors belies its bellicose past: in the thirteenth century, feudal overlords battled Papal authority for dominance. After decades of conflict, the town was sacked in the early sixteenth century by nearby Norcia and then later rebuilt by Paul III.
His mid-sixteenth century reign coincides with the diffusion of the fame of the medical skills of Preci doctors throughout Europe. Preci’s sought-after surgeons constructed noble palaces and the town soon became an elegant fortified village.

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Preci in the Sibilline mountains

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Preci today hides a curiosity tied to its “medical heritage”: il Museo della Chirurgia, a small museum, housed behind il municipio (“city hall”) in a deconsecrated church, is inextricably linked to the area’s rural traditions. Since reading about it, I had wanted to visit Preci.

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Dissertation on a surgical specialty of Preci surgeons

The museum’s few medical texts and 17th-century surgical instruments once belonged to Preci’s famous surgeons, descended from a rural mountain people, experts in the butchering – and castration – of pigs and sheep (castration of the males attenuated the meat’s gamey tang, enhancing flavor). By the sixteenth century Preci chirughi were famous all over Europe for hernia and cataract operations – and for castration. Castration became diffuse in Europe after Pope Sixtus V in 1588 banned women from performing or singing in theaters. After the Papal edict, castration took off in Europe, no longer the unfortunate surgical resolution of another illness, but as an end in itself. Preciani surgeons had noted that after a young boy’s hernia operation, his voice became sopranile, holding all the delicacy of a woman’s voice yet enhanced with the force of a man’s.

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During the 17th and 18th centuries, the modulated yet forceful and high-reaching voice of the castrati - now wealthy and adored – enthused composers, musicians and music-lovers all over Europe.

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Many of the celebres castratores performed clandestine operations at the request of avaricious parents hoping to launch their sons into musical careers with la Cappella Sistina or with a great European court.

At the beginning of the 19th-century, a final chapter closed on this immoral use of medicine: one of the last of the famous castrati, Domenica Mustafa’, composer and musical director of la Cappella Sistina, was born in the Valnerina in 1829, just a few kilometers from Preci, town of famed surgeons…

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Ancient surgical instruments – used by farmed Preci surgeons

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(Note: Mustafa’ died in 1912 in his home in Montefalco, Umbria and is buried in the Montefalco cemetery).

Click here to read more on natural splendors of the area
Read more on another mountain town, Visso

3 Comments

  • jmac says:

    Amazing. Truly amazing that you’ve lived there for so long, yet continue to explore and learn. Your stories and pics are a happy site for my ol’ tired eyes tonight!! cannot wait to experience some umbrian fun with you!!

  • Nina Sgriccia says:

    Anne,
    When I discovered blogs, yours was the first. I love reading about all of your adventures, past and present. My husband’s family is from Preci so I was stunned to read about your visit. There are so many interesting villages in Umbria, but one never hears the name Preci. The family eventually relocated to Livorno after WWII for better opportunities. Many are in the building trades now and recently restored the old family home in a tiny hamlet near Preci. We were fortunate to spend Easter with them there and it was wonderful. Preci is a beautiful little village and although we knew it was home of some of the early surgeons, I was unaware of the type of surgery! Thanks again Anne for your always interesting and informative stories.

  • Thanks to all for your much-appreciated comments.
    Mille grazie

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Agenzia Viaggi Stoppini in Assisi handles all technical support for my guided visits (bus transportation, organization of meals, etc)