Friday, March 6, 2015

Ouro Preto and the Michelangelo of Brazil

Brazil's city of hills and churches, Ouro Preto with is breathtaking Baroque architecture (wikipedia)
OURO PRETO, BRAZIL Florence, Italy had Michelangelo. And Ouro Preto, Brazil had a sculptor and architect by the name of Aleijadinho. Both were geniuses. Although Aleijadinho is largely unknown to most of the world, he was, in his own way, even more accomplished than his Italian counterpart.

Antonio Francisco Lisboa was born in Ouro Preto sometime during the 1730s. That actual date is not certain. Antonio’s mother was an African slave. His father was an immigrant carpenter from Brazil who was so skilled at his craft that he became the most highly regarded architect in the region.

Aleijadinho Pavilion in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
As an apprentice to his father, young Antonio began working as a day laborer on the Church of Our Lady of Carmel in Ouro Preto. Before long, he had achieved notoriety in his own right by designing the Chapel of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi. Not only did he create the building, Lisboa also sculpted the exterior carvings, including a bas-relief of St. Francis receiving the stigmata.

In 1777, when he was in his 40s, Antonio’s career was gradually altered by a debilitating disease from which he never recovered. Most experts believe it was leprosy, but others suggest it could have been scleroderma. Either way, Lisboa’s body deteriorated to the extent that he became disfigured and disabled. Before long the disease even cost him his fingers.

Despite his physical impairments, Antonio continued to sculpt using a hammer and chisel that were strapped to his hands by his assistants.
Sculpture of the Last Supper by "The Little Cripple" of Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Eventually the artist became increasingly despondent and reclusive. So horrified was he by his disfigurement that he worked only at night. If he did go out in public, he was carried in a covered palanquin. To the citizens of Our Preto, no longer was he Antonio Lisboa. Now he was known as Aleijadinho, “the Little Cripple.”

Aleijadinho’s home village was a thriving, prosperous community during the Golden Age of Brazil in the late 17th and much of the 18th centuries. The name Ouro Preto means “black gold” in Portuguese, and the city was created by an influx of thousands of fortune seeking soldiers who flocked to the region. Soon after came artisans and architects who created outstanding Baroque churches as well as exquisite fountains and bridges.
All roads lead to Tiradentes Square in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Situated on a series of tall hills, Ouro Preto features 13 spectacular Baroque churches that dominate the cyclorama of the city. Ultimately, all of the roads diverge into Tiradentes Square -- the cultural focal point of the city from which everything radiates. The square is surrounded by imposing public and private buildings that rise from cobblestone streets to gaze at the panoramic vistas.

Classic Baroque church in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Here, wrought iron balconies overlook steep ancient streets extending beneath the pastel colors of Baroque architecture and art. Rapidly moving clouds sweep across the hills painting a continuous array of rainbow images.

One hill can be bathed in brilliant sunshine, while another darkens under carbon-like thunderheads and still others shimmer among a kaleidoscope of darkness and light. It is impossible to turn in any direction without witnessing the stunning beauty of Ouro Preto’s baker’s dozen of churches.

Interior of a church in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Because of its mining potential and gold, Ouro Preto was once the capital of the state of Mina Gerais. Located roughly 300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, even today the city retains much of its 18th century character with horse and mule drawn wooden carts and peasant women walking the streets with bundles of laundry balanced on their heads.

This was the world of Aleijadinho who perhaps saved his crowing achievement until the end of his life though he was then at the height of his suffering. Commissioned by a wealthy businessman who built the Sanctuary of Born Jesus of Matosinhos at Congohas, the Little Cripple created a series of small sculpted scenes to honor the Twelve Prophets.
Ouro Preto is a city of hills and 13 hilltop churches  (wikipedia)
Each scene is housed in its own miniature building, six on each side of the courtyard that leads to the entrance of the church.

One of the masterpieces of Aleijadinho  (wikipedia)
Even for a healthy artist, each work would be an amazing accomplishment by itself. By this time in Aleijadinho’s life however, he had neither his hands nor his feet. Pads were strapped to his knees, enabling him to climb the ladder that reached his creations.

Ouro Preto is an undiscovered secret for many travelers, but the story of Brazil’s Little Cripple, his determination to create and the magnitude of his achievements are worth their weight in gold.