(Gugliemo is pronounced “Willemo” / Gugli is pronounced “Willy”)
Most of the town of Fiesole, Italy remembers the first time they heard young Guglielmo sing. Every Sunday without fail, little Gugli, as he was known to his family, would sit dutifully on his mother’s lap. During the chants, and sermon of Father Chiltone, and even the procession of the Grand Duchy, the governing council of Florence; which his Father headed, Gugli nearly fell asleep in her arms. But, as soon as Deacon Pazzi plucked the first note of the harpsichord and the choir would stand in formation; he would come alive with a wide grin, excitedly reaching towards the choir, as if he could capture the magical sounds with his hands. His mother always tightened her grip, but smiled sweetly at her adorable child, delighted in his enthusiasm.
On this day, his mother’s grip somehow faltered, and Gugli saw his chance. He ran as fast as he could on tiny legs, nearly tripping over his frock. He didn’t stop until he stood triumphantly in front of the choir. The choir immediately ceased singing, and dissolved into joyous laughter at their new energetic companion. Confused, as to why the music stopped, he frowned at the choir and the Deacon, who’d stopped his harpsichord; waving his hands, imploring them to continue. This bought more laughter from the congregation as his mother and nurses stood to retrieve him. But Gugli was undeterred. Perhaps they’d forgotten the song? He opened his mouth and sung the last few lines he’d heard, hoping to remind them so they would sing again. The laughter died quickly and turned to silent gasps, as a sound as beautiful as the church bells themselves emanated from his small form.
The silence was finally broken with a shout of “Bravissimo!” from the choral director, who immediately swept the boy up into his arms, amazed at how such depth could come from the throat of a child barely four. Father Chiltone beamed at him, then directed his attention to his mother.
“Signora Graeme! You have been hiding a treasure!”
There were murmurs of agreement all around, and the Father indicated the choir should resume their positions. The choir director returned Gugli to his mother’s arms, and leaned in to tell her “Please Signora, see me after service.”
Signora Graeme hugged her boy close, showering him with kisses as he squealed with delight. All those years she’d thought herself and her family cursed until this beautiful child entered their lives, filling every moment with pure light. She kissed his dark curls, and settled him on her lap as the choir began to sing again, listening to the soft, lilting sound as he quietly sang along.
The older boy sitting solemnly to her left went ignored as always. She barely spared a glance for him; focusing all her attention on what she often told people was ‘the love of her life.’ Francis could only sit dutifully as the world seemed to conspire to give this precocious brat everything, leaving him with nothing—not even the warm embrace of his own mother.
Seven years later
Gugli raced down the hill of his family’s estate, ignoring the exasperated tutor behind him imploring him to “please slow down!” He was late, but he was always late and it seemed no amount of lashes on the back of his hand could ever make him remember the time. A stable-hand stood waiting at the bottom of the hill, holding the reigns of his horse. He quickly mounted it, wishing he didn’t have to wait for the slow old eunuch, so maybe he could avoid the ire of Signore Gideon.
“James! It’s not your hands he will whip if I’m late! He promised to make me drop my breeches in front of the entire choir next time!”
James finally caught up to his young charge, not amused by the use of his Christian name. “He’ll do no such thing. Your father is a member of the Grand Duchy Council and would have his job if he dared....and its Signore.”
Gugli rolled his eyes as his tutor and former nurse settled in behind him on the saddle. “Father wouldn’t have his job if he agreed with him.”
“Then I suggest you learn to be on time. You’ve only yourself to blame.”
James kicked the horse into a gallop towards the center of town where the choir practiced every evening at the Cathedral San Romolo. Gugli had been singing in the choir since the age of five, though he’d been allowed to watch them practice since the day he defied his mother and sang in front of the whole congregation. He couldn’t imagine being so bold now; he’d never been anything but obedient away from home. At home was another matter, but he wouldn’t dare embarrass his family in front of the town.
They were among a handful of noble families with direct ties to the Grand Duchy of Florence and its governing council. Most of the Council lived in the villas dotting the hillside high above town, with a sprawling view of Florence just to the east. Gugli could see the great orange dome of the Duomo from his rooms. His father served on the Duke’s council, and there’d been a Graeme on the council for over a century dating back to Austria. His mother said the Austrian ancestry was where his blue eyes and fair skin came from, but the dark curls and tendency to blush came directly from her. She always said this with a smile as she tousled his hair and kissed his cheeks, and habit he often tried to discourage as he neared his twelfth birthday. True he passed her shoulder now, but his face was still that of a cherub—a fact she teased him with often. Francis always scowled when she teased him, but then Francis always scowled. He wished he knew what would make his brother happy, but even James told him, someone with his affliction from such a prominent family would never truly be happy.
As they neared the entrance to the Cathedral, Gugli put all thoughts of his brother out of his head. The same excitement he felt drumming in his chest never wavered, even though he visited almost daily to practice. It wasn’t just the singing, though he loved to sing more than anything. It was the only place he had the chance to converse with boys his own age. Most of his day was taken up with tutors and his mother, and the ever-present James. He rarely saw his father except during the evening meal, where he’d recount his day and his lessons. His father seemed proud of his accomplishments in the choir, but he worried he wouldn’t be allowed to study at the Conservatorio in Naples once he came of age. Instructors were already attending their rehearsals, looking for boys who were nearing the age of twelve to accept. He knew at most he’d have two more years before his voice changed, but he could still learn an instrument, or composition, even if such skills had no use on the Council as his father reminded him often.
He rushed ahead of James as soon as the horse came to a stop, wondering for the hundredth time why he should be expected to be on the council when his brother was ten years his senior and already working in Florence.
“Gugli, if you don’t wait for me, I’ll bend you over my knee, myself. I doubt your father would object at all.”
Gugli stopped at the entrance to allow James to catch up, shooting him a pointed look, as they walked into the Cathedral together for his lessons.
Gugli ran out of the Cathedral, bursting with excitement and still hadn’t calmed down as James tried to steady his limbs enough to get him ready for bed.
“The Duomo! I can’t believe I’m actually going to sing in the Duomo! I’ve only even been there once!”
James tried to pull his shirt over his head amidst all the writhing and chatter. “Yes, it is an incredible honor, and if you don’t hold still, your bath will be cold by the time I get you in it, and I will not have Mateo bring you fresh hot water.”
Gugli tried to steady his limbs and control his excitement, but it was no use. He gazed at the Duomo every morning from his bed, and it seemed impossible he was going to sing his first complete solo under its beauty. He didn’t let the looks of pure envy from the other boys dampen his excitement when Signore announced they were to perform for the Duke’s son’s baptism and that Gugli would have the honor of singing the only solo after the baptism was performed. He remembered when his Father had taken him there in celebration of the first time he was allowed breeches on his eighth birthday. He could still imagine all the incredible art and dizzying array of colors that covered every surface of its walls. His father had let him explore the grand hall on his own, taken with how enthralled he seemed with its beauty. And now, boring old James had the nerve to expect him to be calm at the notion of his own voice filling that very hall.
Once completely disrobed, James wrapped him in a warm bath cloak and steered him towards the bath chamber, where a steaming bath awaited him. He climbed into the tub, inhaling the soothing scents of lavender and oils, trying his best to relax, but his brain refused to turn off.
“Do you think Father will come?”
James pushed the boy’s head back to wet his unruly curls. “Of course, your father will be there, he is cousin to the Duke, and will be named Godfather of the young Marquees.”
“Yes, your mother. Please hold still, you have your Latin lessons just after breakfast and you need to be in bed soon.”
Gugli paused, frowning slightly. “What about Francis?”
James paused in his scrubbing, but nodded. “Of course, he is a member of this family.”
Gugli grew quiet after that, wondering if James could answer why Francis seemed to be treated like an outcast, even by their mother.
“James? Why does…”
His mother chose that moment to burst into his bath chamber, beaming at her son. “My sweet boy! I just heard!”
Gugli immediately brought his knees up in a vain attempt to cover himself. “Mother! I’m not a baby any more, you shouldn’t be in here!”
His mother laughed and laid a kiss on his wet head. “Nonsense, you’ll always be a baby to me. But I don’t wish to embarrass you any further, your cheeks are positively inflamed!”
She laughed and laid another kiss to his flushed cheeks, and headed towards the door. “I will come kiss you goodnight before I retire. She blew him another kiss from the door.”
James smiled, because the intrusion finally dampened his mood. “Now quickly so you will be dry in time for bed.”
The morning sun streamed through the tall stained glass window creating a beautiful pattern across the floor. It was a perfect spring day, and the church pews were full of invited guests of the Duke and Duchess, along with other dignitaries. Gugli failed to understand before entering the cathedral how very important this occasion was, but seeing everyone sitting there with austere grace in their finest silks and velvets made him tremble with nervousness. His family sat in the front pew, next to Father Chiltone, the Bishop and a rather severe looking man with hair the color of wet straw and dark eyes. He didn’t look Italian at all, and Gugli wondered if he was some distant relative of the Duchess from Austria. The first swell of the organ sounded, pulling him out of his thoughts, and he swallowed thickly trying to quell the nerves that threatened to overtake him. A dampness began to seep beneath the collar of his white cassock as he took a deep breath, training his eyes only on Maestro Gideon, and the wave of the baton signaling the first notes of the song.
As he began the chosen song, Faure’s Pie Jesu, the entire church fell silent. His voice lilted and soared through the halls with unwavering clarity, moving everyone to tears. His mother was beside herself with tearful joy, and his father, ever stoic, but kind, watched him with rapt attention. But his gaze was drawn to the strange man with the sharp features sitting beside Father Chiltone. His face betrayed no emotion except for the glistening tears in the corner of his eyes that remained trained on Gugli with an unblinking intensity.
This Maestro had come all the way from Naples to hear the wonder the choir director had written him about. Usually, such words of fancy were nothing but an exaggeration, but for once they rang true. Never had he heard anything so beautiful; not even out of the mouths of Farenelli or Pacchierotti, the most famous singers of their time. People often spoke of angels regarding children’s voices, but this was the first time he’d heard anything this close to divinity. It helped that he was also a beautiful child; thick dark curls and pale flushed skin, with clear blue eyes, a rarity in these parts. But he had the healthy glow of a well-kept child, which meant that incredible gift would soon be lost. He abhorred the practice to preserve such voices, but it did give hope and possible prosperity to many desperate families. He watched as the boy went to greet what must be his parents, and The Maestro knew for certain this boy would not have a career in music. He’d no doubt join his Father as soon as he was of age in politics and take the rightful place of a Patrician’s son.
Gugli felt like his heart would burst out of his chest. He felt completely euphoric, surrounded by just his voice and the music. The audience didn’t even matter, for him they didn’t exist as he lost himself entirely in the music. He couldn’t imagine anything else in his life being that fulfilling.
That night as James tucked him into bed, he felt wonderfully exhausted, and for the first time in a long time, James gave him a kiss on his forehead.
“Bravo, my little prince, you made us all so proud.” He smoothed his hair back off his forehead. “But please calm down, you’re still warm from all the excitement.”
He left a small candle alight in the window as he did every night and quietly left Gugli to dreams of commanding the royal family in the best opera houses of Italy.
That was the last time Gugli remembered ever feeling joy.
Three Years Later
Gugli rose early just before the first rays of sun touched the Neapolitan sky as he had every morning for the past three years. His status and temperament afforded him the luxury of one of the few private rooms in the conservatory. It set nestled under the gabled roof of the buildings top floor, away from all the noise of the younger boys below. Given his privacy he always slept completely in the nude if the weather allowed, even though he hated his body. He walked past the full-length mirror towards the water basin, avoiding it as always. He didn’t need the sight of his own reflection to tell him he was long, thin and unremarkable.
He washed quickly, slipped his black tunic over his head, then pulled on his black tights and breeches, saving the sash that went around his waist for last. The bold red of its satin reminded him of a bloody gash, which on some level felt appropriate. Wasn’t red the color of blood? And wasn’t the fact that he was cut, bled and somehow survived the very reason he was there? All the boys in his group wore red sashes, while the other boys all wore white. Maybe it was to symbolize their purity and wholeness, unlike the abomination of himself and the others like him. Still they were treated far better; always given the best rooms, the best food and the warmest blankets when Naples’ air chilled every winter. Gugli was the undisputable best among them, but every morning when he rose, he still felt like a monster.
There is a barely contained excitement amongst the pupils in chapel that morning. Though they are dutifully quiet with heads down, saying their morning prayers softly; Gugli notices the quick lifts of heads to glance at the chapel doors to see if their impending visitor had yet arrived.
They were expecting the famous Maestro Lecter from Vienna, where all the best composers of the day resided. The maestro had launched the careers of many of the most famous singers currently selling out opera halls all over Italy and even France. He’d graciously taken a temporary teaching position in the hopes of finding the next great Farinelli and training him. He only committed to taking on four vocal, and a handful of composition pupils. If one proved truly promising, they’d get more extensive lessons at his private residence.
Only thirty students or fugluioli* of age currently resided at the Conservatorio di Santa Maria di Napoli, and out of them only seven bore the red sashes of their status. The rest were boys of various ages, studying instruments, composition and singing. Of course, most expected the coveted vocal positions to go to the red-sashed castrati students, as they were pampered and coddled since they kept the school financially afloat with the abundance of coin they brought in from their performances. But hope is always present in youth, so even the older tenors hoped for a shot.
Gugli rarely considered his future; he only existed one day to the next, so he had little thought for this maestro everyone was so excited about. If he wanted him as a pupil, he’d have little choice but to accept. There would be little joy in his acceptance, but he’d study as told, his passion for his singing dying three years earlier when his life was irrevocably altered by the vicious deeds of his brother.
After morning prayers, they were rushed through breakfast then ushered out into the Great Hall—a massive room reserved only for special occasions, and told to line up by status. Maestro Pazzo silenced the boys and proceeded to introduce their newest edition to the school. Gugli, standing at the front with four other boys, recognized him immediately, though it had been several years since he’d laid eyes on the sharp-featured man with hair the color of wet straw.
Maestro Lecter immediately sees who he has come for, though he was just a boy when he saw him last. He wasn’t much more than a boy now, only his height betrayed his age. He wondered if he’d always have the angelic appearance of youth as many castrati did; suspended eternally between adolescence and adulthood, never reaching either end. It shocked the maestro greatly when he visited one of the school’s recitals in the hopes of finding a new pupil, and heard the voice he assumed he’d never hear again. It's been more than three years since he last saw him, and he was nearing twelve then. There was only one way such voices were preserved, and he wondered what tragedy had befallen him. He doubted it’d be carried out with his father’s approval—perhaps his father died and left the family no choice. Whatever the reason, Maestro Lecter knew who would become his new prodigy as soon as he became old enough for rigorous training.
So now here he was, ready to claim his bel canto. Maestro Lecter gave a short speech of introduction, being a man only a few well-chosen words, then handed over the proceedings to the school’s head master. Each boy was to sing a short piece acapella, and the Maestro would make his decision. The Maestro listened politely as each boy sang, his stoic face never betraying any true feelings, waiting patiently for the only voice he cared to hear. Finally, Gugli stepped forward, and with barely a breath beautiful, crisp notes flowed from his mouth; every note perfect, every treble held with perfection. His voice had matured, and he could see he had more control now, but Maestro knew there was still more work to be done. The Gugli he saw before him was all technical, and lacked the emotion and passion he saw the first time. At first he assumed it was nerves, but looking closely at his dispassionate face, he saw a pain and bitterness that seemed nested into his very soul. Perhaps training this boy would not be as easy as he thought.