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Tenducci: The Italian Castrato & His Irish Wife

From the ‘Past Tracks’ panel that Turtle installed in Limerick railway station in 2020, illustrated by Derry Dillon.

Cork City, August 1766. The Italian opera singer awoke with a start to find his 15-year-old Irish wife sitting upright in their bed, ashen-faced and trembling in her nightgown.

She had been the first to hear them coming. He hastily leapt from the bed, desperate to find some form of defence. But the familiar roar was already bellowing, louder and louder.

And in mere moments, their bedroom door was thrown open. The Italian’s purple-faced father-in-law stood silhouetted in its frame, his pistol cocked. Beside him stood another man, another gun loaded and ready to fire. Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci closed his eyes and waited.


The extraordinary story of young Dorothea Maunsell’s elopement with the 18th century opera star Tenducci has got it all. True love, abduction, betrayal, attempted murder, a wrathful father, an illegitimate child. With backdrops like Georgian Dublin, the craggy shores of County Clare and the remote hills of Tuscany, it plays out like a readymade movie. And to cap it all, the handsome Italian at the centre of it all is a eunuch or, in operatic terminology, a castrato.

This is opera but not as you know it. The story was powerfully told in Helen Berry’s delightful 2011 book, ‘The Castrato & His Wife’.

Dorothea was 14 when she first met Tenducci at a friend’s house just south of Dublin. Possessed of a fine singing voice in her own right, the two quickly established a rapport, though the Italian was twice her age. When she introduced him to her parents, both were ‘very favourably disposed’. As such, they were delighted to hear the celebrated star was prepared to give Dorothea singing lessons at their home. Tenducci insisted there would be no fee. He would simply teach her as his friend.

 Thomas Maunsell had little reason to suspect these lessons would do anything other than strengthen his youngest child’s singing abilities. Although some considered him ‘an honest but a very dull man’, he was already a barrister of considerable renown, heading up the court in County Cork when the assizes were on.

The Maunsells were one of the more powerful gentry families in 18th century Ireland. An ancestor had settled at Mocollop Castle on the banks of the River Blackwater in County Waterford in the late 16th century, having helped defeating the Spanish Armada. Subsequent generations acquired vast tracts of Counties Cork and Limerick, and Thomas’s father served as both Mayor and MP of Limerick City.

In short, Counsellor Maunsell, as he was known, was a man whose daughters were not to be trifled with. Besides which, it was commonly known that Tenducci was a castrato and who ever had heard of a eunuch that fancied women?

Tenducci had indeed been castrated as a boy. The brutal operation was carried out by a barber surgeon on the winding streets of Monte San Savino, the bustling Tuscan hill-town where he was born in 1736. His father was a lowly household servant to the town’s Commisario, or police chief. Young Giusto’s unbroken voice was so clear and faultless that his father had his testicles surgically removed in order to preserve its purity. Although illegal – excommunication being the penalty – this practice was widespread in the mid-18th century, much to the detriment of several thousand young Italian boys.

Giusto was then enrolled in a musical conservatory in Naples where he perfected his voice and mastered the harpsichord. By 1750, he was singing at the Duke of Savoy’s wedding and three years later, the 14-year-old castrato made his professional debut in Venice.

However, while Italy was renowned for the best opera singers, England was the country where such stars were decently paid. And so, in 1758, young Tenducci made his way to London where he quickly became a leading light at both the King’s Theatre and the Royal Opera House.

In 1765, Henry Mossop, manager of the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, invited him the thriving Irish capital where Tenducci planned to stage his own English opera, The Revenge of Athridates. Ever since Handel had performed his Messiah there two decades earlier, Dublin had enjoyed a strong theatre-going, music-loving population.

While engaged at Smock Alley, Tenducci shared a room with Charles Baroe, a Dublin grocer whom he had befriended many years earlier in Sardinia. Baroe was later at pains to point out that they only shared a room because there was ‘but one spare room in the said house’.

During that summer, Tenducci met Counsellor Maunsell’s lively and headstrong young daughter. By the autumn, with her parents’ consent, he was teaching her how to sing in the drawing room of their newly built redbrick townhouse on Molesworth Street. It was a necessarily intimate and private situation and, as she sang and he talked of his Tuscan childhood, so forbidden thoughts began to circulate around the floor-to-ceiling sash windows, the ornamented ceilings, the long gilded mirrors.

By Christmas they were so in love that Tenducci cancelled a scheduled performance in London, for which he was fined a whopping £500. The pair covertly spent January together at a mutual friends house where there was nightly entertainments, music, dancing, and ‘all kinds of mirth’.

But disaster loomed when Counsellor Maunsell introduced Dorothea to the man he would like her to marry. The teenager regarded her proposed fiancée as ‘perfectly disagreeable’. In a state of desperation, she reached a ‘determination’ to marry Tenducci ‘sooner than I otherwise should have done.’

That summer, Counsellor Maunsell was dispatched to Cork to preside over the Summer Assizes. By chance, Tenducci was commissioned to provide evening entertainment in Cork during the same period. This was when Dorothea persuaded the castrato to marry her.

Their marriage was a seedy, secretive ceremony, performed on 19 August 1766, in the northern suburbs of Cork by a senile priest called Patrick Egan, with Tenducci’s landlady standing as witness. As Berry notes, ‘the minority of the bride, the lack of parental consent, and the fact that the ceremony was concluded at night by a priest of dubious credentials’ surely made the marriage illegal under the terms of Harwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753.

Some nights later, Dorothea was staying with her sister Elizabeth White at Greenhall, Co. Tipperary. After dinner, she departed for her bedroom to write a letter. She intended writing to her father, a hasty explanation of what she was about to do.

She was still writing, wiping tears from her eyes, when her new husband arrived at the house leading two horses. She clambered out the back of the house, mounted a horse and the two of them sped away to Cork.

Counsellor Maunsell received his daughter’s letter early the following morning, not long after her bed was found empty. Seething with rage, he talked of having Tenducci pilloried, transported or hanged. For an established Protestant like Maunsell, the fact his daughter had eloped with a Catholic and married him in a Catholic church was a lot to stomach. Add to that Tenducci’s celebrity as a squeaky-voiced castrato and Maunsell had solid grounds to be deeply concerned that his errant daughter would make the House of Maunsell the laughing stock of Georgian Ireland.

Dorothy and Tenducci were very blazé about their elopement. They were spotted dining out just three nights later, which Berry deems ‘a strikingly bold and provocative action resulting either from extreme naïveté, or confidence in the lawfulness of their marriage and the unassailable quality of Tenducci’s fame.’

It was not long before the Counsellor’s scouts tracked the lovebirds down to an apartment in Cork. Having secured a warrant for Tenducci’s arrest from the Mayor, Maunsell ordered one of his nephews to abduct Dorothea as she made her way home in a sedan chair. When one of the chairmen tried to help her, he was slashed across the head with a cutlass. Dorothea was dragged home in disgrace.

An armed gang then headed for Tenducci’s lodgings, smashed the door down, seized the castrato, threatened him with a blunderbuss and marched him into the street ‘without allowing him time to put on his shoes, or his hat’. He was hurled into the dingy confines of Cork gaol where he languished for a week, listening to the ‘lamentable cries and groans of despair’ of other prisoners.

Assisted by a wealthy relative, Dorothea raised the £2,000 bail for her husband’s release and then re-joined him. Her father’s attempts to prosecute Tenducci for abduction and forced marriage came asunder when she repeatedly stated that she had married of her own free will.

The story hit the press as the Dublin Courant thrilled its coffee house readers with the tale of ‘an amiable young Lady [who] has deserted her Parents and Friends and thrown herself away upon an Italian Singer; a most extraordinary Matter of Amazement, and no doubt great Distress to a very respectable Family’. By October, the full details, including names, were front-page news in England.

Unfathomably embarrassed, the Counsellor and his brother took the law into their own hands, burst into Tenducci’s apartment, pistols cocked, flung Tenducci back into gaol and placed Dorothea under house arrest. For three days she was interrogated as they tried ‘to persuade me to swear falsehoods against my husband, with an intent to hang him if possible’.

When she refused to cooperate, she was dispatched to a garret, to be fed on bread and water only, and stripped of her gentlewoman’s wardrobe. She was then taken to a derelict and ‘filthy’ farmhouse in County Clare and placed under the guard of an ‘Old Hag’ and three men. She spent several months here, against her will, during which time, she later recalled, the Old Hag’s son ‘took very great liberties with me’ with ‘conversation so indecent and shocking, as terrified me out of my senses.’

Somehow she managed to keep in touch with Tenducci who was now back in Dublin, trying to earn some money on the stage. Realizing how useful the press could be as a tool against the legal bullying of the Maunsells, Tenducci had his side of the story published in a series of letters, eliciting widespread sympathy. He was particularly vehement in his denial that Dorothea was ever his pupil stating that he would never have abused such a position. She was simply his friend and they had fallen in love.

The Maunsells objected strongly, insisting the Italian had abused his ‘great eminence’ to ‘artfully insinuate himself’ into Dorothea’s affections and then exploited her innocence. But their protests rang increasingly hollow when, in early 1767, Dorothea escaped from County Clare and reunited with her husband near the aptly named Bride Street in Portobello, Dublin.

At length, the Maunsells agreed to drop their charges against Tenducci. For their part, Dorothea and Giusto tried to curry some much needed favour when they were remarried in a Protestant ceremony by special license from the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.

But with all that drama behind them, could the Tenducci’s sustain their marriage? For some, the bigger question was how long would Dorothea handle being married to a castrato?

In the beginning, they remained exceptionally close, moving from Portobello to a house on Dame Street where Tenducci continued to promote his wife’s musical vocation. However, with money tight and Dublin audiences somewhat limited, they bade Ireland farewell after a final appearance in Limerick in the autumn of 1767.

The following year, Tenducci found fame as a performer of Scottish ballads in Edinburgh, then one of the leading centres of the European Enlightenment. Dorothea frequently appeared alongside him and became a highly regarded soprano. They then moved to London where he continued to wow the crowds, racking up Mozart and Bach as friends – they both wrote compositions for him – and performing for the Royal family.

Meanwhile, in 1768, Dorothea published her sensational 68-page ‘kiss-and-tell’ account of their love affair, entitled ‘A True and Genuine Narrative’ which, as Berry says, ‘was the prototype for teenage romantic fiction written by girls, for girls, perhaps the first ever example of its kind.’

When Dorothea became pregnant, London began to murmur. Tenducci insisted the child was his, claiming to the great Casanova himself that ‘a third testicular gland … had been left him [which] was enough to prove his virility.’

But Tenducci was also embroiled in debt and in 1771 he fled for his native Italy with his wife and their small daughter. As his vocal chords thickened with age, so Tenducci’s voice improved and the 36-year-old was now one of the leading singers of his generation. He was hired as ‘First Singer’ at the Teatro Argentina in Rome, one of the greatest opera houses in Europe.

The Tenducci marriage was falling apart. Castratos – illegal in themselves – were expressly forbidden to marry by Italian law, obliging Giusto to feign that Dorothea was his student and sending her to live with his mother in Florence. As he spent more and more time in Rome, she became understandably bored and uncertain.

In November 1771, Dorothea ran away with an English barrister called William Long Kingsman who may well have been the real father of the Tenducci’s only child. They went to Rome where an Anglican priest wed them in private. A delighted Counsellor Maunsell, now MP for Kilmallock, posted his full consent from Dublin. To validate the marriage, the Maunsells then launched into an extremely convoluted, expensive and often dirty legal case in which the status of Tenducci’s testicles was described in considerable depth. At length, the courts agreed and the Tenduccis marriage was annulled.

To override any legal doubts about this the couple were married again in Hanover Square, London, when they returned to England in the summer of 1773, meaning Dorothea had notched up four marriages.

The Kingsmans returned to London in 1773 and thereafter no more is heard of Dorothea. Her husband was briefly MP for Granard, County Longford, but was later incarcerated for debt in Fleet Street where he died in 1793. Their only son Henry died in Jamaica in his early 30s after spending time in the same debtor’s prison his father had been in. The Kingsmans’ daughters Dorothea Frances, Luisa Katherine and Emily were born in Hampshire and vanished into the archives. None of them left any known descendants.

Dorothea’s father fared somewhat better, rising to become Counsel to the Revenue, an office worth £800 a year, by the time of his death in 1783.

As for the ever versatile and increasingly plump Tenducci, he continued to win over new fans, performing alongside Bach for Marie Antoinette and reuniting with Mozart. He even returned to Dublin where he gave an acclaimed performance in Dublin Castle. Always plagued by financial bankruptcy, he had to sell every work of art and every instrument he owned in 1788. Two years later he died from a sudden ‘apoplectic fit’ in Genoa, aged 54. The church of San Salvatore where he was buried was razed to the ground by Napoleon’s invading army a decade later so that no trace of his grave remains.


Further Reading


Helen Berry, ‘The Castrato and His Wife’ (Oxford University Press, 2011), here.

A version of this story was published in the Irish Daily Mail in October 2011.

See also Maunsell of Oakley Park, Celbridge, County Kildare.