O Aleijadinho

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O Aleijadinho

The Brazilian architect and sculptor Antônio Francisco Lisbôa, called O Aleijadinho (1738-1814), an exponent of the rococo style, is acknowledged to be his country's greatest architect and sculptor.

O Aleijadinho (a nickname meaning "the little cripple") was born in Ouro Preto in the state of Minas Gerais. He was the illegitimate son of the architect Manuel Francisco Lisbôa and a Negro slave girl. A lost document, dated 1790, was cited by his first biographer (Rodrigo Brêtas in the newspaper of Ouro Preto, 1858), who quoted from it extensively. The anonymous, contemporary author praised O Aleijadinho fulsomely, calling him "the new Praxiteles, [who] honors architecture and sculpture equally."

O Aleijadinho became physically disabled in his mid-30s and was described as "so sickly that he has to be carried everywhere and has to have his chisels strapped to him to be able to work." Despite the contemporary recognition of his genius, social malice added to his physical agonies. He was not permitted to join the artists' religious fraternity but obliged to join one for mulattoes. Many commissions that he both designed and executed were assigned contractually to others while he was listed as a laborer.

In architecture, classicistic mannerism persisted in Brazil into the 18th century. About 1760, particularly in Minas Gerais, where gold and diamond rushes made the state prosperous, the rococo style began to be employed. Essentially it was a style of elliptical curves and sinuous rhythms enriched with irregular ornament. Ultimately it was derived from the architectural designs of Francesco Borromini through the Portuguese works of Italians: Guarino Guarini in Lisbon in the 17th century and Nicolò Nasoni in Oporto in the 18th century. O Aleijadinho's works are outstanding in the rococo both for inventiveness and harmony.

The undoubted architectural masterpiece of O Aleijadinho is the church of São Francisco de Assis, Third Order, in Ouro Preto (1766-1794). The ground plan is an attenuated rectangle. The central bay of the facade is a flat plane, and the lateral bays, concavely curved, end in round towers. A side view of the exterior offers an interesting rhythm of projections and recessions: the concave lateral bay of the facade, the convex curves of the tower, the flat nave wall, the polygonal forward thrust of the wider sanctuary area, its flat wall, and, finally, a slight, orthogonal saliency of a box-shaped, terminal spatial unit.

O Aleijadinho's designs are characterized by an effective blending of the straight and the curved. The facade of São Francisco, seen in elevation, is an interesting example. The flat, central bay is flanked by lonic columns in the round; the apertures offer a variety of curves, as does the cresting; and straight pilasters mark the junctures of the curved lateral bays and round towers. O Aleijadinho executed the rococo medallion above the portal depicting St. Francis receiving the stigmata, the sculptural ornament above the portal, and all the interior sculpture.

O Aleijadinho's sculpture includes pulpits, portals, balconies, altars, statues, processional images, and caryatids. His sculpture always enhanced, as well as harmonized with, his architecture. The most dramatic example is his soapstone group of 12 prophets (1800-1805) for the church of Bom Jesus de Matozinhos at Congonhas do Campo. The atrium of the church is enclosed by a low wall which is opened in the front by a multiflight, monumental stairway. The figures of the prophets are so disposed atop the atrium wall and staircase railing that the ensemble has been compared to a tremendous ballet. Ascending and descending the winding staircase, one is offered innumerable compositional arrangements. It is as though one could view Auguste Rodin's Burghers of Calais, from diverse angles within the group. The prophets' figures are in no way rococo. They loom above one's vision portentously as though hewn by a Romanesque Michelangelo.

Further Reading

The best sources of information on O Aleijadinho and his works are in Portuguese and French. In English important information is provided in Pál Kelemen, Baroque and Rococo in Latin America (1951). □