Castrato Singer's Treasured Meissen at Bonhams

A rare Meissen Böttger stoneware teapot and cover, once owned by the 18th century singing star 'Il Senesino', is one of the leading pieces in the sale of a private collection of important Meissen Porcelain (Part II) at Bonhams in London on Tuesday 2 July. It is estimated at £30,000-50,000.

Francesco Bernardi (1686-1758), known as 'il Senesino', was one of the leading castrati of 18th century Europe, second only in reputation to Farinelli. The castrato voice – achieved by castrating trebles before they reached puberty – was highly prized and popular with audiences. The greatest opera and church music composers of the day wrote parts specifically for castrati, and the best singers became immensely wealthy. (Castrati roles are now taken either by sopranos or countertenors).

Born in Siena, Senesino first made his name in the opera houses of the Italian and German states, singing in Dresden. In 1717, for example, he performed in Dresden where it is likely he acquired the Böttger stoneware teapot either by purchase or as a gift. He arrived in London in 1720 at the invitation of Handel, who engaged the star to sing for his company, the Royal Academy of Music (not to be confused with the London conservatoire of the same name which was founded in the 19th century).

Senesino premiered 17 of Handel's leading roles, including Giulio Cesare and Orlando, and Bertarido in Rodelinda. His annual earnings of between 2,000 and 3,000 guineas a year – a sum equivalent to £250,000 – 400,000 today – had vast purchasing power in the economy of the time, and he amassed a fine collection of paintings and rare books as well as high society friends.

Temperamental by nature, Senesino frequently clashed with Handel, who could also be difficult to work with, and when their artistic differences eventually became unresolvable, the singer returned to Italy in 1736. His departure was accompanied by huge crowds of disappointed largely female fans who tearfully crammed into the streets to bid him farewell. A popular song of the time was called, The Ladies Lamentation for the loss of Senesino. He eventually retired to Siena where he ran his fine town-house along English lines, with a particular fondness for tea.

Bonhams Head of European Ceramics, Nette Megens said, "This wonderful piece of very early Meissen is a rare and important survivor from the period before the factory's leading alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger discovered the secret of manufacturing white porcelain. It also, of course, had a fascinating owner in the shape of Sensenino, whose fame in his own time was as great as a global pop star's might be today. Amazingly, the teapot and cover has been in his family ever since he acquired it in Dresden around 1717."


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