Born: 8/29/1730 (Brasil, Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto)
Died: 11/18/1814 (Brasil, Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto)
Antônio Francisco Lisboa, Aleijadinho (Vila Rica [today Ouro Preto], Minas Gerais, 1730 - idem, 1814). Sculptor, architect and woodcarver. Considered the most important Brazilian artist of the Colonial period. Natural son of the Portuguese architect and master of works, Manuel Francisco Lisboa and one of his slaves, he received the first notions of drawing, architecture and sculpture from his father. It is likely that he received instruction from the Portuguese draughtsman and medal designer, João Gomes Batista (n.d. - 1788), who after working in Rio de Janeiro, moved to Vila Rica, now Ouro Preto, occupying the post of medal engraver of the Municipal Mint between 1751 and 1784. It is also possible that Aleijadinho was guided by two carvers, Francisco Xavier de Brito (n.d. - 1751), who was responsible for the carving in the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Pilar de Ouro Preto [Church of Our Lady of the Pillar of Ouro Preto], who appointed Aleijadinho's father to complete the work due to illness, and José Coelho de Noronha (n.d. - n.d.), who in 1758 worked on the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Bom Sucesso [Head Church of Our Lady of Bom Successo], in Caeté, Minas Gerais. Two years later, in the same city, Aleijadinho executed a sculpture of Nossa Senhora do Carmo [Our Lady of Carmel] and took charge of executing the side altars. Before reaching the age of 50, he was afflicted by a degenerative disease that deformed and atrophied his body, triggering the progressive loss of movement of his fingers and toes. He began to work with the instruments strapped to his hands by his slaves, who carried him to his places of work. There are many uncertainties about his life. The first biography of the artist was written in 1858, 44 years after his death, by Rodrigo José Ferreira Bretas, based on archived documents and testimonies. Of note within the body of his work are the designs for the churches of São Francisco de Assis [St. Francis of Assisi], in Ouro Preto and São João del Rei, Minas Gerais; the 66 images in cedar wood of the Stations of the Cross and the 12 prophets in soapstone, for the Santuário do Senhor Bom Jesus de Matozinhos [Sanctuary of Lord Good Jesus of Matozinhos], in Congonhas do Campo, Minas Gerais.
Antônio Francisco Lisboa was born into slavery as the illegitimate son of Portuguese carpenter and architect, Manoel Francisco Lisboa and the slave girl, Isabel. Receiving an early artistic training from local craftsmen, he learned architectural drawing and techniques of carpentry and joinery from his father. He may also have learned the craft of woodcarving and sculpting from renowned artisans such as Francisco Xavier de Brito (n.d. - 1751) and José Coelho de Noronha (n.d. - n.d.). It was nevertheless the Portuguese artist, João Gomes Batista (n.d. - 1788), a draughtsman and engraver, who, having worked at the local branch of the state foundry since 1751, was responsible for introducing theoretical and erudite elements into Antônio Francisco's practical training.
His first work, executed while he was still a journeyman in his father's workshop, was the sketch for the fountain of the Governor's Palace in Vila Rica, today Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, executed in 1752. It was not until 1761 that his name again appeared as the author of the female bust for the fountain of Alto da Cruz in Vila Rica (built by his father), the first soapstone sculpture in the region.
The first work associated with Antônio Francisco as a master artist is the sketch for the capela da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco de Assis da Penitência [chapel of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi the Penitent], in Ouro Preto, dating from 1766. While there are no precise records of the subject, scholars have concluded that Aleijadinho was responsible for the architectural design. Even today, the chapel represents one of the most complete sets of work by the Minas-born artist, since he is responsible for the execution of the pulpits (1771-1772), the sketch and part of the execution of the vault of the chancel (1773-1774), for the sculptures of the façade and the font of the sacristy (1777-1779), both in soapstone, as well as the carvings of the high altar (1790-1794). He also drew the sketch of the side-altars, which were not executed until much later, in 1829.
The church with reduced proportions reveals in its whole the influence of the European Rococo, albeit in a lighter and simpler form. As in other architectural works by the artist, both external and internal spaces are characterized by the conjugation of elements of containment with forms of movement that give a dynamism and unity to the composition. The vocabulary of Rococo style appears both in the exterior and the interior decoration through the figures of cherubs, elements of vegetation, asymmetric shapes of shells, bows and interwoven garlands sculpted in wood and soapstone. As Germain Bazin observed, Aleijadinho created a genuinely 'musical' space in the capela de São Francisco [Chapel of St. Francis], achieving unity through a sequence of irregularities that converges to a harmonic centre.1 His heads of angels with strong and robust features characterise the accents and axes of the compositions.
The first accounts of his illness date from 1777, when the artist was carried by two slaves to inspect the execution of the main chapel of the sanctuary of Nossa Senhora das Mercês e Perdões [Our Lady of Mercies and Pardons] in Ouro Preto, which he had designed in 1775. Some refer to his mysterious illness as 'nervous leprosy', others as rheumatism. The fact remains that he left Ouro Preto in 1788, in search of a drier climate, and perhaps in flight from the troubles assailing the city due to the shortage of gold (the output of which had been falling since 1760) and for the ever greater degree of intervention by the Portuguese crown that would result in the political crisis of 1789, triggered by the violent suppression of the Inconfidência Mineira revolt. He began to be called by the nickname 'Aleijadinho' [Little Cripple] in 1790.
Many sculptures recognised as works of the Minas-born artist are not recorded in contemporary documents that might confirm authorship. Among other reasons, this was because he was a mulatto and hence often obliged to accept contracts as a journeyman rather than a master. For this reason, some distinctive characteristics of his works, such as the oval face close to Gothic models,2 the almond-shaped design of the eyes, the moustaches that arise directly from the nostrils, the well-delineated curly hair, the chin divided in two, the geometrised draperies, the robust body structure with salient muscles and veins and lastly, the emotionally powerful albeit contained and spiritualised expressions, are used by scholars as parameters for identifying his artistic legacy.
Antônio Francisco was able to realise some of his master works at a peak of economic and social instability. In 1796, he began his works at the Santuário de Bom Jesus de Matosinho [sanctuary of Bom Jesus dos Matosinhos], in Congonhas do Campo, Minas Gerais, conceiving the 66 figures of the Stations of the Cross. The life-size wooden sculptures were executed by a number of craftsmen under his supervision until 1799. We may note that Aleijadinho only sculpted the principal figures himself (e.g. of Christ and the Apostles). In these, the Gothic stylisation shows itself with full force in the oval forms of the faces, in the hair falling into curves, in the draperies both broken and straight with a tragic effect like 16th Century German sculptures in wood. At the same time, despite the dramatic nature of the subject, there is something sublime about the suffering of Christ in this Via Crucis from Minas Gerais, which maintains a serenity that is hardly ever interrupted by the despair of the situation.
In 1800, the artist was commissioned to make the 12 prophets in soapstone for the churchyard of the sanctuary. In these works, he returns to a rapture inspired by the Baroque. The sculptures are arranged symmetrically, despite the asymmetric construction of their bodies, with their gestures forming a kind of ballet, whose choreography is organised in accordance with a balance of opposites and a play of compensating factors. On account of the eloquence of the group, the Prophets should be seen as an important example of Baroque scenography, and this at the beginning of the 19th Century.
After completing the enormous project in 1805, Antônio Francisco became less and less active. We have some reports of works completed during the last years of his life, such as the altars of São João and Nossa Senhora da Piedade (1807) and Santa Quitéria and Santa Luzia (1808-1809) for the Capela de Nossa Senhora do Carmo [chapel of Nossa Senhora do Carmo], in Ouro Preto, as well as the drawing of the façade of the main church of Tiradentes, Minas Gerais (1810).
Antônio Francisco achieved a relatively high degree of professional success in his time and generated a large number of followers. In 1790, his name was cited in the Register of Notable Events of Mariana as 'superior to everything and singular'.3 His first biography, consulted even today, was written by Rodrigo José Ferreira Bretas in 1858. During the 19th Century, for reasons ranging from the economic and cultural decadence of Minas Gerais to the development of neoclassicism in Brazil, Aleijadinho in particular, and the Baroque in general, declined in artistic prestige. It was in the Modernist context of a search for a national artistic tradition that Aleijadinho and the Minas Gerais Baroque began to be reappraised as the first expression of an art with Brazilian characteristics. On Aleijadinho's architecture, Mário de Andrade (1893 - 1945) commented in 1928: "This kind of church, immortalised in the two examples of São Francisco de Ouro Preto and São João del Rei, does not merely correspond to the taste of the time, reflecting the Portuguese roots of the colony, but already distinguishes itself from the Baroque Portuguese-Colonial solutions by one or other kind of affectation, by a more sensual and charming grace, by a most gentle delicacy, all of which are eminently Brazilian. (...) It is the Brazilian solution of the Colony. It is the half-caste and logically represents independence".4
1BAZIN, Germain. O Aleijadinho e a escultura barroca no Brasil [Aleijadinho and Baroque Scuplture in Brazil] Rio de Janeiro: Record, 1971. pp. 149-51.
2BAZIN, Germain. Op.Cit. p. 293 - believes that the Minas-born artist discovered Gothic graphic art through Florentine engravings of the Quatroccento.
3Apud: BRETAS, Rodrigo José Ferreira. Traços biográficos relativos ao finando Antônio Francisco Lisboa, distinto escultor mineiro, mais conhecido pelo apelido de Aleijadinho [Biographical features of the late Antônio Francisco Lisboa, distinguished sculptor of Minas Gerais, better known by the nickname Aleijadinho]. In: VASCONCELLOS, Sylvio. Vida e Obra de Antônio Francisco Lisboa, o Aleijadinho. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional/MEC, 1979.
4ANDRADE, Mário de. O Aleijadinho. In: Aspectos das artes plásticas no Brasil [Aleijadinho in: Aspects of the Visual Arts in Brazil]. São Paulo: Livraria Martins Editora, 1965.
Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM/RJ)
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (MNBA)
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