When Fred Gaisberg set the Vatican on fire

Fred Gaisberg and his brother Will had been sebt to Milan in early 1902 to try to entice the superstar opera singer Enrico Caruso. When he was playing hard to get the brothers headed to Rome with the hope of recording the Pope. That proved impossible but they did get to record the last castrato singer in the Sistine Chapel Choir, one Alessandro Moreschi. In the featured picture you can see a photo taken by Fred at the Vatican. Moreschi is in the middle of the picture, flanked by the agent William Michelis (left) and Will Gaisberg.

The recording of Moreschi was a success & you can listen to the story of how the recording came about as well as some of the music they captured in our podcast, The Last Castrato. They were allowed to bring their crates of heavy recording equipment and vats of acid used in the recording process into an ornate room of the Vatican Palace, the walls of which were covered in great and valuable paintings of the old masters.

The sessions did not got completely to plan. As Fred remembers in his memoirs:

“During the last session an accident happened that might have proven serious. Suddenly a short circuit from the battery ignited the cotton wool used in packing. A flame shot up and over and above the hysterical cries of the panic-stricken choristers one heard the laments of the male sopranos. They rushed for the door, where I saw them jam. My brother and I and the two brothers Michelis used our overcoats to beat down the flames, and we worked despeartely. Will Michelis thoughtfully pulled the cases of completed and packed masters out of the way. We all received burns…but the records were saved no very great damage was done to the salon or masterpieces.

The pompieri (Fire Department) appeared with hose and axe in hand, and seemed gieved that we had mastered the flames without their aid…Reuter’s cabled the incident all over the world, featuring two Americans involved in the destruction of the Vatican by fire.”


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