Architecture, Travel

England Football Team at a loose end tomorrow?

[Ian Macready]
St Francis church of Ouro Preto, one of Aleijadinho's famous works

Well, they could do worse than hop on a bus from the brutalist bus station in Belo Horizonte, where the team are playing today at the equally brutalist Mineirão stadium , and a few hours later up in the hills of the state of Minas Gerais (minas means mines) you reach the town of Ouro Preto, the town of black gold. Up here it was the centre of an 18th century gold rush, money and talent flooded in and today it remains a beautifully preserved baroque colonial city, largely dependent on tourism but with still a few mines in action. This is a totally different type of Brazil from the excess of Copacabana, with a very laid back and reserved people in a small sleepy hill town. Back in the pre-digital days, over a decade ago, Viewport was there checking out the work of the Brazilian Michelangelo, or as he was known to his neighbours: Aleijadinho, the little cripple. Perhaps that name would not fly today in these PC times, but it has all the elements of a true Brazilian story – part tragedy and part triumph.

Born at some point in the 1730s Antonio Francisco Lisboa was the illegitimate son a of an African slave and Portuguese carpenter turned architect, and he soon followed his father into the family business, first as a labourer and then as the architect himself. Very quickly his skills in carving wood and stone became noticed and he started to work earning a high salary on some of the 32 churches as they were built in this rapidly expanding city – the population at the peak of the mining boom grew to more than 100 000. However tragedy struck as he was stricken with leprosy and although the work continued to roll in, his body started to decay and eventually he was forced to work with the chisel and hammer bound to his fingerless hands. He became a recluse and was carried around town after dark in a palanquin as he still continued to work. Of course at some point the gold ran out and so did the work, and he died penniless in 1814 and is buried in a simple grave in of the churches of his design.

According to some this could all be a big made up porkie pie. In his lifetime there is no contemporaneous evidence for his existence and he first cropped up in a later book. The idea of the tragically deformed mixed race genius was spread by liberal intellectuals because it fitted their symbolic notions of the founding of Brazil. Nevertheless the work has been done by somebody, and is spread throughout the local towns. And nobody in Ouro Preto seems to doubt the story – he is definitely a local hero.

From Ouro Preto the gold was sent over the hills and down to the coast either to Rio or the small town of Paraty, which like Ouro Preto remains perfectly preserved as an 18th century baroque town. From here the gold was sent off to enrich the colonial masters in Portugal.

Anyway that is my top tip for the England squad tomorrow, just in case they don’t want to head straight back to the UK and the disappointed home fans.

The bus station in Belo Horizonte from where the England team could easily hop on a bus into the hills
Some of his elaborate carvings on the facades of the white churches
A prefiguration of Christ's crucifixion
Everywhere you look, beautifully carved cherubs
Just one more
A view of the church from above
Look carefully and you can see St. Francis receiving his stigmata, on the roundel
The dome of a typical church in town
Another sculpture resting on one of the 32 churches
A church facade
The gold from Ouro Preto was sent first to the beautiful town of Paraty on the coast and thence to Portugal
The beautiful port town of Paraty