OURO PRETO, Brazil, March 7, 2015 — Florence, Italy had Michelangelo. Ouro Preto, Brazil, had o Aleijadinho.
Both were geniuses. Although o Aleijadinho— pronounced oo a-lay-zha-djee’-nyo—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 uncertain. 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.
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 fame 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. The disease soon cost him his fingers and feet.
Despite his physical impairments, Antonio continued to sculpt using a hammer and chisel that were strapped to his hands by his assistants.
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 (a litter resting on men’s shoulders). To the citizens of Ouro Preto, no longer was he Antonio Lisboa. Now he was known as o 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.
Situated on a series of tall hills, Ouro Preto features 13 spectacular Baroque churches that dominate the city. Ultimately, all of the roads lead 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.
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.
Because of its mining potential and gold, Ouro Preto was once the capital of the state of Minas 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 o Aleijadinho, who perhaps saved his crowning 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 Bom Jesus of Matosinhos at Congohas, the Little Cripple created a series of small sculpted scenes to honor the Twelve Prophets.
Each scene is housed in its own miniature building, six on each side of the courtyard that leads to the entrance of the church.
Even for a healthy artist, each work would be an amazing accomplishment by. By this time in o 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.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award- winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod