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The chiseled legacy of Aleijadinho.

TRAGEDY AND BEAUTY have often co-existed in the most famous works of art. But seldom has the tragedy been as evident and the beauty as sublime as in the life and art of Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as O Aleijadinho (The Little Cripple). His body of work and school of thought mark one of the most significant examples of what may be called authentic American art.

From the time of the conquest, the cultural norms of the Europeans combined with the effects of climate, environment and indigenous traditions to produce an art of distinct character in the New World. Of the three principle centers of artistic development in the Americas--Peru, Mexico and Brazil--it was Brazil that displayed the greatest stylistic independence from Europe, particularly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Brazilian art reached its apogee. This originality was perhaps the result of a uniquely Brazilian factor--the presence of the African culture, destined to play an important role in the development of the Brazilian baroque.

During the three centuries of Portuguese colonization, architecture and sculpture, more than any other art form, flourished in Brazil. The minor artisans (goldsmiths, metallurgists, and woodworkers), who were concentrated in Bahia, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro and Santos, maintained a close link to the traditional Portuguese forms due to the heavy European influence in these areas. However, in the mining towns of the province of Minas Gerais, it was principally the native Brazilians who contributed to the development of the arts, leaving an indelible mark.

The adventurers and settlers of Sao Paulo, who plowed the rivers of Minas Gerais in search of gold, precipitated the advent of a new and unusual prosperity in the region. This prosperity was concentrated in the less densely populated Vila Rica (rich town), later given the grandiose name of the Imperial City of Ouro Preto (Black Gold) by Pedro I. The legendary figures of the adventurer Antonio Dias de Oliveira and the missionary Father Joao de Faria represent the two obsessions with which Ouro Preto was forever associated: gold and faith. Adventurers, goldsmiths, artists, officials, Portuguese noblemen and African slaves all mingled on the streets of Ouro Preto during colorful and prolonged processions such as the "Eucharistic Triumph," famous throughout the country. The churches which served as a backdrop for these processions were the purest examples of Brazilian baroque.

In 1730, at the height of Ouro Preto's growth, Antonio Francisco Lisboa was born to a respected Portuguese architect and a black slave named Izabel. The name of the suburb in which he was born proved to be both prophetic and ironic: Bom Sucesso (Good Luck). Perhaps it was the combination of local beauty and mysticism, a taste for the classical and the baroque inherited from the paternal side, and his mother's sense of rhythm and plasticity that produced one of the most impressive sculptors and architects of colonial American art.

The story behind this inexhaustible and brilliant artist is one of misfortune and horror, and yet of great human dignity and strength. Although he was the son of a woman slave, his father's position liberated him at birth. As a mulatto, he faced certain restrictions, but on the whole his childhood was unburdened. He was a vigorous and wildly enthusiastic adult, indulging in an active artistic and social life. Then, suddenly, at age 47, he was struck with a strange illness which no doctor was able to diagnose but which, by all accounts, must have been leprosy. This frightening disease completely transformed his life. Little by little, he became physically deformed. First he lost all of his toes, forcing him to walk on his knees. The consumption continued with the atrophy of his hands, which grew crooked and drawn. Legend has it that the pain of the gradual disintegration of his hands was so acute that he severed his fingers with a chisel. The nickname O Aleijadinho was given to this tortured artist not to disparage but rather to console.

His first biographer, professor Jose Ferreira Bretas, cites a description of the artist by Joana Lopes, the mulatto daughter-in-law who nursed him during his illness: "His inflammed cheeks made the inner flesh visible; he lost nearly all his teeth; his mouth became twisted and badly deformed; his jaw and lower lip swooped downward in a way that made the expression on the unhappy man's face seen ferociously sinister. It is no wonder that all who met his gaze unexpectedly jumped back in fear."

The tragedy turned Aleijadinho into a horrifying and bitter man who found solace only by throwing himself feverishly into his art. He worked incessantly, almost miraculously. As his own body sank into deeper degradation, his chiseled figures became all the more pathetic and haunting. Agostinho, Januario and Mauricio, his three disciples and slaves, would strap a hammer and chisel to his paralyzed, fingerless hands so he could keep working, which he did with redoubled vigor. During the most critical stages of the disease, they would carry him to his sculpting grounds at night, (the artist refused to be seen in the daylight) so that none could witness the abominable state he had reached. He lived this miserable existence for 37 years--a reclusive, solitary man who left home only to go to church. Some of his most graceful and beautiful works were created four years prior to his death. An unrecognizable shell of himself at the age of 84, Aleijadinho finally ended his suffering in 1814, leaving behind a priceless cultural inheritance.

Mario de Andrade describes the work of Aleijadinho as follows: "His art evokes the Italian primitives, outlines the Renaissance, spirals in Gothic, is French at times, almost always German, and Spanish for its mystical realism." His works as a sculptor, painter, and architect fill the towns of Minas Gerais--Sabara, Sao Joao Del Rei, Tirandetes, Caete, Nova Lima, Santa Luzia, Congonhas do Campo and others. The woodcarvings of Aleijadinho, "for whom wood held no secrets," possess an incomparable vigor and drama. Some of his most striking images can be found in the church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo in Sabara, the facade of which was also his creation. Other works, such as his church of Sao Francisco in Sao Joao del Rei, which contains the remarkable statute of Sao Joao Evangelista; Nossa Senhora do Bom Sucesso in Caete; and his masterpiece, the sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Matosinhos in Congonhas do Campo attest to Aleijadinho's inventiveness, architectural skill, balance and virtuosity.

But it is in Ouro Preto where the impact of his genius is most deeply felt. Here he worked and taught his disciples, his history inseparably linked to that of the city. The churches of Sao Francisco de Assis and Nossa Senhora do Carmo, the carvings, altarpieces and retables of Nossa Senhora do Pilar, Sao Francisco de Paula, Sao Miguel and Almas, Nossa Senhora do Rosario, and the works in the Museo da Inconfidencia are only a few of the magnificent monuments Aleijadinho bequeathed to his birthplace.

Today, Ouro Preto has become a national monument where the grace and splendor of the eighteenth century are frozen in time. No longer can the hooves of horses be heard clicking along the streets, nor can the plodding of the slaves be heard as they pull the carriage of a colonial lady. And yet, on a luminous night in the sierra, somewhere in one of Sao Francisco de Assis' towers, at the feet of Nossa Senhora do Pilar, or in a hidden corner of the Governor's Palace, roams the tormented and crippled spirit of Aleijadinho.

Carlos Tripodi, writer and freelance translator, edits the Spanish edition of Americas Magazine.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; life and art of Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as O Aleijadinho
Author:Tripodi, Carlos
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:column
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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