Man or Myth? : Ouro Preto, Brazil, January, 2007.

Ouro Preto, Brazil’s city named for black gold , could hold its own with Italian hill towns that ripened over centuries. Steep cobblestone streets lead from one church to the next. Paintings of saints look down from the ceilings, giving the impression of watching the congregation.

Yet, Ouro Preto sprang up over some heady decades of a gold rush. Portuguese craftsmen, African slaves and children born from the two groups pretty much whipped up this city’s treasures out of what had been far less settled land.




These workers brought improbably ornate Baroque churches to the New World, and filled with ornate carvings. While their style may be a little heavy on cherubs for my taste, their carvings and paintings are beautiful enough to give Ouro Preto another kind of gold rush.
Tourists fill its streets. Shops sell little wood carvings, paintings and jewelry. Many basements have been turned into restaurants and music clubs. A sign on the main street pointed the way to yoga classes down a little alley.

“So much rain,” the host at our Ouro Preto hotel said in greeting when we checked in. We’d arrived in the earliest hour of the day’s gray light, not much after 6 a.m. on the first of the overnight buses we would take in Brazil. Our $30-something room had a balcony with a view of the town, at first of little use to us. The porch at first gave mostly a view of rain. After we slept for about three hours, I woke to taunting bits of palest gray-blue poking through clouds. I woke David so he could see the clearest sky in days. We had a quick breakfast with good Brazilian coffee on the porch and headed out.
Rain in Rio had kept us from the beach. In Ouro Preto, dreary weather at least kept us cool as we walked up and down, up and down, up and down the cobblestone streets.
January seems a poor time to visit, although perhaps it thins the crowds visiting the churches. Never a bad thing to get some quiet moments alone in churches like the one shown here.

Sculptor With No Hands

Much of the best work from Ouro Preto is attributed to Aleijadinho, or Antonio Francisco Lisboa, the son of a Portuguese craftsman and African slave. The legend, perhaps true, is that Aleijadinho kept working after losing use of his hands to disease. He strapped a chisel to his arms to keep making saints and prophets.

There is debate about whether Aleijadinho existed. Researchers have questioned whether the regime of Brazil’s 20th century dictator Getulio Vargas invented Aleijadinho, or at least expanded on a little known historical figure. Vargas needed a prototypical Brazilian after gaining power in the 193Os, and chose a person of mixed ancestry who overcame a handicap with creativity, according to theories of researcher Dalton Sala as reported in articles on the Internet.
It raises an interesting question. Vargas squelched the free press and punished dissidents during a political reign that ended in the 1950s. He shot himself to death when about to be pushed from power. Still, his regime may have chosen to glorify an artist with handicaps, a man with a history mixed like Brazil’s own, when you think of what was going on in other countries at the time.

To the left is a banner about a show of Aleijadinho’s work in Sao Paulo in 2007. Below are some copies of Aleijadinho statues that we saw later in a museum in Sao Paulo.

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