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