If a list were made of the most startling and colorful figures in the history of Latin America’s cultural evolution, certainly a name to be included at the top would be that of Brazil’s intriguing, enigmatic Aleijadinho—“The Little Cripple.” A product of his nation’s eighteenth-century Golden Age—the age of the great gold and diamond discoveries in Minas Gerais—Aleijadinho was a pure genius whose sculptures in wood and soapstone rank him as Brazil’s most important contribution to the world’s masters of art. These sculptures have been a major factor in the promotion of Ouro Prêto’s modern-day status as Brazil’s city of national monuments.
Born a mulatto in 1730 at Vila Rica do Ouro Prêta as Antônio Francisco Lisboa, Aleijadinho was a strange mixture of artist and saint. He contracted leprosy, a crippling disease which lent him his sobriquet and eventually caused his death in 1814. Pathetically reduced to working with his artist’s tools tied to the withered stumps of his forearms, he preferred to isolate himself lest the ravages of his disease be observed. In this manner he patiently produced masterpieces which eventually achieved world renown.
Aleijandinho’s story and evaluations of his work have received treatment from various biographers, critics, and historians, usually with bewildering and contrasting errors of fact and judgment. To resolve the contradictions surrounding one of his nation’s most famed figures is the goal of the noted Brazilian art historian and critic, Fernando Jorge, in this brief but compact study. After ten years’ research he has produced a clear, penetrating, and attractive narrative. With documented proofs he carefully sets forth the most plausible facts regarding the artist’s birth, his socio-political environment, his crippling disease, the characteristics of his art, the location of his most famed works, and his sad death in misery and solitude. By comparisons with European luminaries of the Baroque and Rococo periods, the author convincingly portrays “The Little Cripple” as a true genius who never left his native land of Ouro Prêto, who received but a minimum of education and formal acquaintance with contemporary art techniques, yet who produced works of a power and style perhaps unmatched in the New World.
To the Latin Americanist, and particularly to those specializing in Brazilian history and culture, Fernando Jorge’s study, now in its fourth edition, is a highly welcome and valuable new source reference. Written in careful, lucid, and relatively easy Portuguese, it reflects a refreshing trend in contemporary Brazilian historical research. Not the least of its considerable merits are an appendix of useful and interesting research notes, a comprehensive bibliography, and a well-prepared index.