The drive to Ouro Preto, 100km southeast of Belo Horizonte, begins unpromisingly with endless industrial complexes and favelas spread over the hills, but in its later stretches becomes spectacular as it winds around hill country 1000m above sea level and passes several valleys where patches of forest survive; imagine the entire landscape covered with it and you have an idea of what greeted the gold-seekers in the 1690s. On arrival, the first thing that strikes you is how small the town is, considering that until 1897 it was the capital of Minas. That said, you can see at a glance why the capital had to be shifted to Belo Horizonte: the steep hills the town is built around, straddling a network of creeks, severely limit space for expansion. Today, the hills and vertiginous streets of Ouro Preto’s historic centre are vital ingredients in what is architecturally one of the loveliest towns in Brazil.
Although little is known of his life, we do know roughly what the renowned sculptor Aleijadinho looked like. In the Museu do Aleijadinho in Ouro Preto, a crude but vivid portrait shows an intense, aquiline man who is clearly what Brazilians call pardo – of mixed race. His hands are under his jacket, which seems a trivial detail unless you know what makes his achievements truly astonishing: the great sculptor of the barroco mineiro was presumably a leper, and produced much of his best work after he had lost the use of his hands.
Antônio Francisco Lisboa was born in Ouro Preto in 1738, the son of a Portuguese craftsman; his mother was probably a slave. For the first half of his exceptionally long life he was perfectly healthy, a womanizer and bon viveur despite his exclusively religious output. His prodigious talent – equally on display in wood or stone, human figures or abstract decoration – allowed him to set up a workshop with apprentices while still young, and he was much in demand. Although always based in Ouro Preto, he spent long periods in all the major historic towns (except Diamantina) working on commissions, but never travelled beyond the state. Self-taught, he was an obsessive reader of the Bible and medical textbooks (the only two obvious influences in his work), one supplying its imagery, the other underlying the anatomical detail of his human figures.
In the late 1770s, Aleijadinho’s life changed utterly. He began to suffer from a progressively debilitating disease, thought to have been leprosy. As it got worse he became a recluse, only venturing outdoors in the dark, and increasingly obsessed with his work. His physical disabilities were terrible: he lost his fingers, toes and the use of his lower legs. Sometimes the pain was so bad his apprentices had to stop him hacking away at the offending part of his body with a chisel.
Yet despite all this Aleijadinho actually increased his output, working with hammer and chisel strapped to his wrists by his apprentices, who moved him about on a wooden trolley. Under these conditions he sculpted his masterpiece, the 12 massive figures of the prophets and the 64 life-size Passion figures for the Basílica do Senhor Bom Jesus de Matosinhos in Congonhas, between 1796 and 1805. The figures were his swansong; failing eyesight finally forced him to stop work and he ended his life as a hermit in a hovel on the outskirts of Ouro Preto. The death he longed for finally came on November 18, 1814; he is buried in a simple grave in the church he attended all his life, Nossa Senhora da Conceição in Ouro Preto.
Aleijadinho’s prolific output would have been remarkable under any circumstances. Given his condition it was nothing short of miraculous – a triumph of the creative spirit. The bulk of his work is to be found in Ouro Preto, but there are significant items in Sabará, São João del Rei, Mariana and Congonhas. His unique achievement was to stay within the Baroque tradition, yet bring to its ornate conventions a raw physicality and unmatched technical skill.
Ouro Preto is most famous in Brazil as the birthplace of the Inconfidência Mineira (the Mineira Betrayal), the first attempt to free Brazil from the Portuguese. Inspired by the French Revolution, and heartily sick of the heavy taxes levied by a bankrupt Portugal, a group of twelve prominent town citizens led by Joaquim José da Silva Xavier began in 1789 to discuss organizing a rebellion. Xavier was a dentist, known to everyone as Tiradentes, “teeth-puller”. Another of the conspirators was Tomas Gonzaga, whose hopeless love poems to the beautiful Marília Dirceu, promised by her family to another, made the couple into the Brazilian equivalent of Romeo and Juliet: “When you appear at dawn, all rumpled/like a badly wrapped parcel, no ribbons or flowers/how Nature shines, how much lovelier you seem.”
The conspiracy proved a fiasco and all were betrayed and arrested before any uprising was organized. The leaders were condemned to hang, but the Portuguese, realizing they could ill afford to offend the inhabitants of a state whose taxes kept them afloat, arranged a royal reprieve, commuting the sentence to exile in Angola and Mozambique. Unfortunately the messenger arrived two days too late to save Tiradentes, marked as the first to die. He was hanged where the column now stands in the square that bears his name, his head stuck on a post and his limbs despatched to the other mining towns to serve as a warning.